US flag-bearer seldom obvious choice

By Steve Keating, Reuters

Posted at Jul 24 2012 04:30 PM | Updated as of Jul 25 2012 12:30 AM

LONDON - A four-time Olympian who has won 14 gold medals and has said he is retiring at the end of the London Games, Michael Phelps would seem the ideal athlete to lead the United States into the opening ceremony on Friday.

But the honour of leading the U.S. team into a Summer Games has seldom gone to the obvious choice.

Since opening ceremonies became part of the Olympics in 1906 and U.S. team manager Matthew Halpin was named flag-bearer, few, if any, of those chosen for the job could be described as being household names.

Four-years ago at the Beijing Games the honour fell on refugee Lopez Lomong, one of the "Lost Boys" from war-ravaged Sudan who found a home in the United States, an unknown 1,500 metre runner who has never appeared in an Olympic final.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, it was Dawn Staley, a triple gold medallist on the women's basketball team charged with carrying the flag while kayaker Cliff Meidl, who nearly lost both his legs in a construction accident then battled back to become a two-time Olympian, handled duties in Sydney.

This year the U.S. flag-bearer will come from a pool of 530 athletes.

The captains from 26 teams each put forward a nominee followed by a secret vote where inspirational stories and long service have often carried as much weight as performance and results.

"That's what makes it special, they are not only representing their country but they are also representing their team mates," said United States Olympic Committee (USOC) spokesperson Patrick Sandusky.

"This is somebody the athletes themselves have selected, they have gotten together in a room and decided who they want to carry the flag.

"It's not something from a bureaucratic standpoint or trading a favour, it's the athletes themselves deciding who they think is the right person."

By any standard, Phelps may be deserving of the honour but will not even be swimming's nominee.

Competing in the 400m individual medley on the first day of the Games, Phelps has removed himself from consideration and will watch the opening ceremonies from the comfort of couch as he prepares to chase more Olympic glory.

"There is no chance he will do that (carry the flag) because he swims the next day," Phelps long-time coach Bob Bowman told Reuters. "Unfortunately he is not going to have that experience."

No swimmer has led the U.S. into an Olympic stadium since Gary Hall Sr. at the 1976 Games but even without Phelps there are no shortage of deserving candidates, some globally famous others unknown outside of their respective sports.

Los Angeles Lakers all-star guard Kobe Bryant, one of the world's best known athletes, will be given serious consideration as will five-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, who is trying to add to her haul of two Olympic gold medals after winning the doubles at the 2000 and 2008 Games.

At the other end of the spectrum are candidates such as equestrian Karen O'Connor, the oldest athlete in the team who is competing in her fifth Games and world champion judoka Kayla Harrison, who was sexually abused by a former-coach and has become a flagbearer for abuse victims and will try to become America's first gold medalist in the sport.