A proud walk and a race home for Nick Willis

TONY SMITH IN LONDON
Last updated 13:02 28/07/2012
Opening Ceremony
Reuters Zoom
Fireworks go off around London as the Opening Ceremony comes to an end.
Nick Willis
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
CURSE OF THE FLAG? Only eight New Zealand opening ceremony flagbearers have gone on to win a medal at the same Olympic Games. Nick Willis (pictured) is the most recent.

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New Zealand Olympic team flagbearer Nick Willis never lets a training opportunity go by.

As soon as today's London Olympic Games opening ceremony was over, the Beijing 1500m silver medallist doffed his dress shoes, slipped on his trainers and jogged back to the athlete's village, 1.5km from the Olympic stadium in Stratford.

The festivities didn't finish till almost 1am and, like all good athletes, Willis values his rest so he wasn't hanging around.

"I'm holding Nick's walking shoes,'' New Zealand chef de mission Dave Currie said as he strolled back to the village at a more genteel clip than his team captain. "He wanted to stretch his legs on the way home.''

Currie said Willis did "a fantastic job'', carrying the Kiwi flag into the stadium where a capacity crowd of 80,000 welcomed every team.

The New Zealand team did not leave the village until 9.50pm with the crowd kept spellbound by an all-encompassing entertainment show masterminded by top British film director Danny Boyle.

Currie said the Kiwi contingent stopped halfway to the stadium to make a special presentation to Willis. A korowai, a traditional Maori cloak, was draped around the 29-year-old three-time Olympian's shoulders.

Decathlete Brent Newdick said the Kiwi ceremony before the big official ceremony was a special moment for the team "and for Nick''.

"He put the cloak on and we did the haka for him,'' Newdick said. "He got the cloak on and he returned the haka back to us.''

Newdick, who is at his first Olympics, said the opening ceremony was "a great experience''.  Only 39 of the 184-strong New Zealand team took part in the march-past because most are competing in the first few days of the Games.

But Newdick wouldn't have missed it for quids.  He and other members of the track and field team travelled from their training base in Cardiff and will return there soon to finalise their preparation.

A visibly proud Willis was in celebrity company with several of the world's leading sportspeople carrying their countries' flags.

Beijing sprint sensation Usain Bolt did the honours for Jamaica,  the triple gold medallist getting a rousing reception from the crowd.  Bolt was clearly enjoying himself, dancing and jiving with an elan usually reserved for his world record breaking feats on the track.

The Russian contingent was led by grand slam tennis champion Maria Sharapova, NBA basketballer Pau Gasol spearheaded Spain and triple track cycling gold medallist Sir Christopher Hoy was at Great Britain's helm.

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The hosts were the last of the 204 teams to enter the stadium amid a mass shower of confetti, to the tune of David Bowie's Heroes. The men and women who carry the hopes of a nation got a standing ovation from the stand and a smile from Queen Elizabeth II.

Lord Sebastian Coe, a three-time Olympic middle-distance champion on the track and chairman of the London Olympic organising committee said he "had never been so proud to be British and to be part of the Olympic movement as I am on this day, in this moment.''

But International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge drew the most sustained cheer when thanked "the thousands of volunteers for being so generous with their time, their energy and welcoming smiles''.

He ensured he would get the keys of London when he declared Britain was "the birthplace of modern sport''.

Boxing great Muhammad Ali, who lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, made a cameo appearance in the official party.

A fusillade of fireworks erupted as the Queen declared the Games open and all that remained was for British rowing legend Sir Steve Redgrave to lead the flame into the stadium and pass the baton to a bevy of young bearers so the cauldron could be lit.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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