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For most athletes, winning an Olympic medal would be the landmark thrill of a lifetime.

But there's just an emotional charge just as powerful awaiting one of Canada's 200 athletes Friday night, as one of them gets chosen to be the country's flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Speed skater Clara Hughes, the only Canadian to have won medals at both Summer and Winter Games, is the leading candidate but other worthy candidates include:

Canada's first gold medal winner at the 2006 Games, four-time freestyle moguls World Cup champion Jennifer Heil.

The most accomplished women's hockey player in history, Hayley Wickenheiser.

Men's hockey captain and B.C. native Scott Niedermayer.

Visually impaired cross-country skier Brian McKeever.

The most decorated Canadian World Cup speed skater, Jeremy Wotherspoon.

Bobsleigh pilot Pierre Lueders, the most successful World Cup Canadian driver.

Wins are one thing, says Brian Orser, the last Canadian to have the honour of leading the Canadians into an Olympics at home at Calgary in 1988. But the experience of marching at the head of Canada's athletic army may surpass what an athlete has done before.

"It was a total surprise. I found out the night before. ... It was one of those things I didn't even think about or consider or hope for," said Orser, who will be at these Olympics as a much-in-demand figure skating coach of South Korean women's favourite Kim Yu-Na.

"They had us behind McMahon Stadium and the tunnel was kind of small. So there was really no idea what was going on inside. I just remember coming through, being the first one of our team and then opening up into this whole Olympic world of support and love and peace. It was all those things. Our team was so big, just to see them, the fans erupted with support. And it kept going on because our team kept coming through."

The Canadian Olympic Committee is doing its best to keep secret the nominations submitted by the various sports federations as well as the identity of the flag-bearer. "The only information I can give is that the flag-bearer must be a member of the team - an athlete- competing at the Games. So a personality like Rick Hansen or a COC official or famous past team member wouldn't be eligible," said Caroline Assalian, the COC's executive director of Olympic Preparation and Games.

Hughes is politically perfect. She's fluently bilingual, comes from Manitoba but makes Quebec her home, made a charitable gift of her winnings to kids in war-torn countries after the last Games, donated her time to the humanitarian group Right to Play and brought home a gold medal from the 2006 Turin Games.

If Hughes were eligible for sainthood, it would be tough to find a more suitable candidate.

"It would be amazing," said Hughes, who was nominated by Speed Skating Canada. She has an apartment near the Richmond Oval where speed skating will be contested.

"If it's not me, it's going to be an amazing athlete because I think there are a lot of athletes to choose from who can fill that role properly, and proudly, and bring that team into the stadium. But I'm not going to lie. If it was me, I'd be over the moon."

The COC used to name the flag-bearer on the eve of the Games, but changed to an earlier date because athletes were often caught off guard by the flag-bearing duty and some even blamed poor performances on the distractions of a long wait in the cold followed by a barrage of interviews and public appearances.

The flag-bearer will carry the Maple Leaf into B.C. Place for the opening ceremonies Feb. 12. The symbolic leader is expected to be a potential medal-winner, as the COC targets first place in the Olympic medal count with about 30 medals. The team will have some 32 former medal winners and nine world champions from 2009.

Canada finished third in total medals at the last games with a historic best of 24 medals - seven gold, 10 silver and seven bronze. Germany led the world with 29 and the United States, still glowing after the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, had 25.

Hockey player Danielle Goyette carried the flag for Canada in 2006. Of the 19 Canadians named Winter Olympic flag-bearers since 1924, five failed to win a medal. Ten have gone on to win gold.

"It's a great memory. I marched in both Olympics that I competed in. Canada was special because we were all the hometown favourites and we got to go in last to the stadium. So that's kind of cool," Orser said.

"It worked out perfectly for me and my schedule. It made sense. It was an honour that they selected me and it was in Canada. I understand also when you have some athletes will be flattered, but it just doesn't fit into your plan. It is a time that you have to be selfish and think about your performance."

Athletes who are scheduled to compete on the first day of medal competition in Vancouver and nearby Whistler - in alpine skiing's men's downhill, women's freestyle moguls on Cypress Mountain, men's luge and short-track speed skating - are unlikely selections because of the impending competition.

In 2006, Hughes was among the Canadian athletes who asked not to be considered because she wanted to concentrate on her performance.

In 1998, moguls star Jean-Luc Brassard realized too late that it was unwise to accept the honour the day before competing. A gold medalist four years before, he placed fourth at Nagano.

In 1988, Orser was hailed as Canada's bona fide gold-medal prospect at Calgary. He took silver against American Brian Boitano in the famous Battle of the Brians.

Kurt Browning carried the flag into Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, but Canada's multiple world champion failed to get a medal.

The selection of the flag-bearer begins with nomination of athletes by Canadian sports federations. A COC committee of two athletes, a coach, the Games chef de mission and the two assistant chefs review the nominees before voting, which is done by athletes.


2006 Danielle Goyette, hockey - gold

2002 Catriona Le May Doan, speed skating - gold

1998 Jean-Luc Brassard, free-style moguls - fourth

1994 Kurt Browning, figure skating - fifth

1992 Sylvie Daigle, short track - relay gold

1988 Brian Orser, figure skating - silver

1984 Gaétan Boucher, speed skating - two gold, one bronze

1980 Ken Read, alpine skiing - did not finish

1976 Dave Irwin, alpine skiing - eighth downhill

1972 Karen Magnussen, figure skating - silver

1968 Nancy Greene, alpine skiing - gold giant slalom; silver slalom

James Christie