Australian gender battle over flag bearer role stands in contrast to Canadian unity

The choice of a country's flag bearer for the opening ceremonies of an Olympic Games is always a difficult one, but that's taking on new dimensions in Australia, where it's become a gender controversy. Beach volleyball player Natalie Cook told Australian reporters in London that she may boycott the opening ceremonies based on chef de mission Nick Green's flag bearer choice, saying "If there's a male that carries the flag I will sit in protest." Green later said her comments were made "in jest" and Cook later said she doesn't actually intend to sit out, but there certainly seems to be some resentment from her, and that may boil over if a man is chosen Thursday. Arguments can be made both for and against Cook's position, but her public outspokenness on an issue like this (and the recent run of gender, race and sexual orientation controversies caused by other Australian athletes' public comments) stands in sharp contrast to how most Canadian Olympic team members seem to be focused on the Games themselves.

Cook's comments about male flag bearers aren't entirely without basis. She's competed in four Summer Olympics since 1996 and a man has carried Australia's flag in each opening ceremonies; it's easy to see why that would be frustrating. She's far from the only one to note this, too, and it's not just women complaining; Australian men's field hockey coach Ric Charlesworth, an Olympic legend who played in four Games, carried the flag in 1988 and has coached the men's team to two Olympic golds, has said he thinks a woman should get the nod. This isn't just a recent string, either, as only three women (Jenny Donnet in 1992, Raelene Boyle in 1976 and Denise Boyd in 1980) have ever carried the flag for Australia at the Summer Games. When you throw in the recent controversy over the Australian women's basketball team being forced to take cheaper flights than the men, perhaps there's a case to be made that Australia doesn't value its female Olympians highly enough.

However, it's notable that Australia has chosen female flag bearers at the last two Winter Olympics. There are also plenty of worthy Australian male candidates, including six-time Olympians Stuart O'Grady (cycling), Russell Mark (shooting) and Michael Diamond (shooting), as well as triple gold medalist Drew Ginn (rowing). It's additionally worth mentioning that Cook's comments being backed by all female Australian Olympians of the past and present. In particular, legendary swimmer Dawn Fraser (who won eight Olympic medals, including four golds) called Cook out for her comments, saying the decision should be made strictly on merits and the athletes should be focused on their preparations, not politicking to try and earn the flag bearer role. "We have got the right people choosing who will be the flag bearer and regardless if it's a male or female it would be the right choice," Fraser said. "We shouldn't be having this debate - the athletes will be listening to what's being said and they have got more important things to worry about."

It's that approach that seems to describe most of the Canadian preparations for the Olympics. There were plenty of strong candidates to carry the flag, both male and female, but following the selection of triathlete Simon Whitfield, there's been very little controversy despite Whitfield being the third straight man to be the flag bearer for Canada at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games (following judo's Nicholas Gill in 2004 and kayaker Adam van Koeverden in 2008). Of course, it helps that two women (track athlete Charmaine Crooks and kayaker Caroline Brunet) had that honour in 1996 and 2000, and that the Canadian flag bearers at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies were all female. That 2010 flag bearer, Clara Hughes, will be one of the most prominent Canadian athletes at this year's Games.

In general, the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian media and the Canadian public all seem to recognize the value of both male and female athletes. That's played a role in why there haven't been substantive gender controversies on the Canadian side heading into these Olympics. It's debatable whether there's a real problem in Australia and Cook is right to challenge it or whether the past selections of male flag bearers have just been circumstantial and she should be focusing on her own event, but what's clear is that there isn't a similar controversy with the Canadian team at the moment. For Canadian fans, that's probably a good thing.