Canadian Olympic flag bearer curse: Simon Whitfield provides a convenient jumping-off point

Can't we have one Olympics that doesn't end with Canadians digging up a curse?

When Simon Whitfield crashed on Tuesday in the Olympic men's triathlon — I don't know about you but thanks to him I'll probably go around all day saying "stupid speed bump" in a Homer Simpson voice — an age-old belief was exhumed.

Canadian Olympic lore holds that the athlete selected to carry the Maple Leaf at the Opening Ceremony is doomed to disappoint in her/his event. It's an easy way out. It became evident from early on in the tri that the 37-year-old Whitfield had no shot at the podium in a field where British twins Alistair (gold) and Jonathan Brownlee (bronze) were in the lead pack basically from wire to wire.

One of the more enduring lines in the film version of Friday Night Lights is when Billy Bob Thornton whispers, "Ain't no curses" to his quarterback just before the coin flip that decides whether the team will make the playoffs. That seems to be a good rule of thumb. So where did the curse get started and is there any validity to it?

The notion got traction in the 1990s. First Kurt Browning, a multi-time world figure skating champion, failed to medal in Lillehammer in 1994. Four years later, freestyle skier Jean-Luc Brassard failed to defend his Olympic moguls title. On the summer side, in Athens in 2004, Nicolas Gill carried the Maple Leaf and promptly was eliminated from judo in his first match. Judo can be an on-any-given-day affair, though; the Gill-coached Antoine Valois-Fortier just won a bronze at London 2012 after coming in ranked 17th worldwide in his weight class.

People probably remember the flag bearers who failed since those are the athletes who come in with the higher Q rating and more media build-up. All told, though, it's hard to see how it holds water.

Speed skater and current CTV studio host Catriona Le May Doan went on to win a gold medal in 2002. Clara Hughes, who carried the flag in Vancouver 2010, won a somewhat unexpected speed skating bronze medal at the advanced age of 37.

On the summer side, kayaker Adam van Koeverden shook off the supposed curse to win two silvers in Beijing in 2008.

Curses in sports are just convenient outs, mostly. The Chicago Cubs' decades-long pennant drought isn't due to a curse. It owes more to a business structure that relies more on Wrigley Field being the world's largest outdoor singles bar than on actually winning. There have been good reasons each time the NFL's Minnesota Vikings have failed to reach the Super Bowl in the past 35 years, despite being an above-average franchise.

If there was a flag bearer curse, it surely would have thrown off other Canadian flag bearers. Swimmer Alex Baumann (1984), speed skater Gaetan Boucher ('84) and synchro's Carolyn Waldo (1988) were each double gold medallists.

There have been others who had a disappointing Olympics. Ken Read of Crazy Canucks fame fell in his alpine skiing event in 1980. But that's a hazard of skiing and well, it did good service to the team's legend.

There's always a specific logical explanation. The transition from swimming to cycling in triathlon is fraught with calamity. Trying to get the wetsuit off, put on shoes and get away on the bike, even to an Olympian, is like what rushing to get out the door in the morning is for the rest of us. Haste leads to tripping and falling.

At least Whitfield found some gallows humour in it.

"I hit the speed bump just as I went to put my shoe on, I think," Whitfield said. "I'm not quite sure what happened. I hit the speed bump on a funny angle and ended up crowd surfing, which is good for concerts and not so good for sport events.

"My bike went out from underneath me. I have some pretty serious gashes: My big toe is stitched up, both knees have seen better days, my shins have seen better days. I've got a good goose egg on my head." (National Post)

Believing in sports curses is in the same vein. 'Tis simpler to go along with the notion of a jinx than to confront the sometimes harsh truth. Or deal with the disappoint head-on like Whitfield did today. But believing it exists and will be broken, who knows, might spur people to be optimistic.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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