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Nathan Hirayama at the Canada Sevens rugby tournament in Vancouver and Miranda Ayim at the FIBA Women's Olympic Pre Qualifying Tournaments Americas 2019, in Edmonton.

The Canadian Press

Almost 18 months into Canada’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Olympic Committee on Monday sought to make a statement about the value of communal effort in the face of adversity, naming a pair of athletes from two different team sports as flag bearers for the Tokyo Summer Games opening ceremony.

Three-time Olympic basketball player Miranda Ayim and Nathan Hirayama, a co-captain of the men’s rugby sevens team who is making his first Olympic appearance, will carry the Canadian flag on Friday.

“These games will be a celebration not only of the accomplishments of our athletes, but of the collective resilience and focus it has taken all of us to navigate the challenges of the pandemic,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who made the announcement in a pre-recorded video message posted online.

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“Selecting our flag bearer wasn’t about looking for our brightest star power, it was about reflecting the brilliance and the character of the whole team,” said Marnie McBean, Canada’s chef de mission for the Tokyo Games, during a video press conference after the announcement.

“With the unprecedented hurdles presented by the pandemic, as well as the associated training and qualification challenges, team sports represent unity and overcoming challenges together. It was a natural choice to choose leaders of teams to be our Team Canada leaders.”

McBean noted that it was not yet clear whether Ayim and Hirayama will share a flag, as she and her rowing teammate Kathleen Heddle did during the closing ceremony for the 1996 Summer Games, or instead carry two separate flags due to COVID-19-related restrictions. “I don’t know how that’s going to work,” said McBean, in another indication of how the pandemic has scrambled decision-making for these Games. “There’s a meeting on the protocol for that tomorrow.”

This marks only the second time two flag bearers will lead Team Canada in the opening ceremony, after Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Team Canada’s pool of available flag bearers was limited by protocols that preclude athletes from arriving in Tokyo more than five days before their first competition. Canada is sending 370 athletes, but most will not be present for either the opening or closing ceremonies, as protocols also require them to leave within 48 hours of concluding their competitions.

Delegations in the parade of nations will be limited to athletes, rather than including support staff, who typically also take part.

McBean spoke from Tokyo, where some of the Canadian athletes, including members of the softball and rowing teams, have already moved into the Olympic Village. Ayim was in Kariya City, more than four hours’ drive from Tokyo, where the Canadian women’s basketball team has been training and acclimating to the withering Japanese weather. Hirayama was in Langford, B.C.

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Men’s rugby action begins on Sunday. The Canadian women’s basketball team plays Serbia in the preliminary round next Monday.

The selection of Ayim and Hirayama marks the first time a Canadian delegation for a Summer Games will be led by team athletes, rather than the more common practice of selecting likely medalists from individual competitions. Hockey star Danielle Goyette carried the flag during the 2006 Winter Games in Turin; her team went on to win the gold medal that year.

“We definitely recognize that team sports are usually not selected for this role,” Ayim said. “I think it’s a perfect opportunity and it’s a beautiful image of what we’ve gone through this past year and a half. Team sport is a whole different beast. There are so many things going on: for sure, the high-performance component, but as well the working together as a team, dealing with all sorts of different undercurrents and contexts and personalities, and I think that’s what we all recognize on a day-to-day basis, whether you’re at home or in the business world or wherever you are, we all deal with that. So I think that reflects the general population of Canada, and I think it’s a really beautiful image.”

The women’s basketball team has made strides over the past decade, reaching the quarter-finals in the last two Summer Games. Currently ranked fourth by FIBA, the team is hoping to score a medal in Tokyo.

The men’s rugby sevens squad failed to qualify for the Games in 2016, the first time rugby was an official Olympic sport. The Canadian team is ranked eighth in the world going into these Games.

Hirayama’s father, Garry, was a member of Canada’s first men’s rugby sevens squad, playing for the national team between 1977 and 1982, making them the country’s first father and son duo in the sport.

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The selection of Ayim and Hirayama also marks the first time that a BIPOC athlete has been named to carry the Canadian flag in the opening ceremony since Charmaine Crooks was given the honour in 1996.

“I think as soon as you become a professional athlete and you represent Canada on a stage, you know immediately that you’ve become a role model to young and old alike, so that’s constantly something that is on my mind,” Ayim said. “I do recognize also that representation matters, so if someone is looking up to me and feels like their dreams are more attainable because of myself or Nate or any of my teammates out there, I think that is just a net win.”

Hirayama added: “It’s something that’s not taken lightly. We have a responsibility as role models.”

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