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Flag raising marks unofficial start of Olympics for Canadians

Russian soldiers raise the Canadian flag during a welcome ceremony for the Canadian Olympic team ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

Vadim Ghirda/AP

As the sun set over Russia's Black Sea, it shined on the Canadian flag just as it was hitting the top of the flagpole with the national anthem playing in the background.

It marked an unofficial start at the Sochi Olympics for Canada. It didn't take long for chef de mission Steve Podborski to stop thinking about red and white and start dreaming about gold.

"When the Canadian flag went up, the sun is glaring on it, it blows out and you can see the Maple Leaf and I'm thinking, 'I'm sure we're going to hear more of that,"' he said. "It was really, really great."

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Before the flag went up, about a hundred Canadian athletes marched into the city's international plaza beyond volunteers waving mini flags. They watched the Choir of Siberia sing and dance and a Russian honour guard march beside the stage.

It was an expression of Russian pop culture two days before the official opening ceremony in Sochi.

"The Russians really bring a sense of majesty and something big to a ceremony like this," Podborski said. "It was really charming."

Podborski accepted a Sochi 2014 Matryoshka doll on behalf of Canada's delegation, and each athlete at the ceremony received a pair of rainbow-coloured gloves. Some took pictures with the three Olympic mascots: the Polar Bear, the Hare and the Leopard.

But Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut emphasized that the focus of the event was the picturesque moment when the flag was raised.

"The sun just appeared when we presented Canada, the flag going up," Aubut said. "I think there's some luck around here, good spirit, at least."

The athletes were in good spirits just to be together for the first time all week. Among those living in the Coastal Village, the only ones missing were the men's hockey players, who are set to arrive Monday.

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"It is a start and a milestone," Podborski said. "They come in in drips and drabs at night, in the morning. They see each other and some people are totally jet lagged and other people have been here for three months. It's the first time all together and, yeah, it's really a big first step."

Pairs figure skater Paige Lawrence called the event one of the highlights of her brief stay in Sochi so far.

"It was really cool to experience it with so many different team Canada members," Lawrence said. "This is the first time that we've had a Canadian moment."

Women's hockey player Jayna Hefford enjoyed the "energy and buzz" the ceremony created as all the athletes congregated together to watch and take photos.

"It's one of our favourite moments watching our flag go up on the pole like that," Hefford said. "It's a special time for us."

This was particularly special for Podborski, a bronze medallist in downhill skiing in 1980 who had never been to one of these ceremonies because he was always in the mountains. Naturally those in Krasnaya Polyana, the Mountain Cluster, didn't make the long trip down.

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But that didn't take away from the camaraderie of this team-building event.

"What they've often said is they really want to have a sense of team and we've built that by bringing them together several times outside the Olympic Games," Podborski said. "One of the alpine skiers who has been to two Olympic Games, he said the first time (he) felt like (he) was on the team was at the team preparation seminar, not when he's at the Games themselves. I think we've really made it a better thing."

Figure skater Kevin Reynolds hopes the camaraderie has an added advantage once the Games get under way.

"I think it will help us all this week, having these chances to bond beforehand," Reynolds said. "I'm looking forward to supporting the team members throughout the week and hopefully they'll support me, as well."

— With files from sports reporter Lori Ewing.

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