Being the Kiwi flagbearer will be perfect job for Willis

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 28/07/2012

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OPINION: Nick Willis is an inspired choice as New Zealand's Olympic Games flagbearer and captain.

You would have to go a long way back to find a team leader as steeped in Olympic history as Willis.

We're not sure what young Nick studied at Hutt Valley High School, but he must have done a heap of history homework. Sports history.

The Beijing 1500m silver medallist is a true track and field student. Willis is only 29 but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of his sport delving back decades. He can recite the race results and tactics for his famous forebears, Peter Snell and John Walker.

It was no surprise that Willis invoked both men's names in his acceptance speech in London yesterday.

Willis is the kind of athletics devotee who could probably tell you Jack Lovelock's splits from his 1936 Olympic 1500m victory in Berlin.

He has a genuine reverence for those who have worn the black singlet before him - and that's a fundamental plank of New Zealand's 2012 campaign, right down to the retro uniform look reprising the style of the small, seven-member team that went to London's last Olympics, the austerity games of 1948.

As far back as his first Olympics in Athens eight years ago, he seemed to sense the symbolism of having the Games return to its spiritual home.

Willis' role was not confirmed until the official Olympics-eve dinner. But you could tell he was the chosen one by his regal entrance to the New Zealand team compound at the athletes' village earlier in the day.

There was an extra piquancy to the haka that greets newly arrived teams when Willis drifted in.

Onlookers could sense there was a leader in the mix of arriving athletes.

The Olympic team captain's job is now much bigger than carrying our ensign at the opening ceremony.

The captain has to be a team player, the type of athlete who exults in others' successes, who can console colleagues in distress and defeat.

No-one wants a captain who disappears on a shopping spree or partying binge as soon as their own event is over.

Gold medallists Sarah Ulmer (track cycling) and Hamish Carter (triathlon) weren't the team captains at Athens in 2004, but one of them should have been. They bobbed up everywhere to support Kiwis.

Olympic medallists must be single-minded to succeed but Willis appeals as a person with a genuine interest in the big picture. He seems remarkably well-informed on events in New Zealand sport considering he has lived most of the last decade in Michigan, in the United States when not on the world track and field circuit.

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In that regard, he's similar to Oly-Whites football skipper Ryan Nelsen, who would have made a good flagbearer. He's a familiar face to British audiences after seven seasons in the English premier league. But Nelsen might not be around much longer after the Oly-Whites' tournament is over due to pre-season training commitments with Queen's Park Rangers.

Besides, the New Zealand Olympic Committee tends to plump for Olympic champions.

You have to go back 32 years to find the last New Zealand flagbearer who wasn't a medallist - Brian Newth at Moscow in 1980 when just four Kiwi athletes competed due to a mass boycott by Western nations in protest at the Russians' invasion of Afghanistan.

Prior to Newth, wrestler David Aspin performed the honour twice, in 1972 at Munich and 1976 in Montreal.

A track and field star is ideally placed to carry the Kiwi flag because the blue-riband track and field meeting traditionally takes place in the second week of the Olympic festival.

Mahe Drysdale, the 2008 flagbearer in Beijing, where he took sick and collapsed after finishing third in the single sculls, ruled himself out because he is competing tomorrow morning.

It would have been a bit rough to expect Mark Todd to stand on his 56-year-old pins for four hours then turn out 12 hours later, impeccably groomed, for the dressage stage of the three-day eventing.

Currie has said Todd, a double Olympic champion and flagbearer at Barcelona in 1992, was eligible to be captain because he met all the criteria.

However, Todd has never denied details in an English tabloid sting that he had snorted cocaine - a banned substance under international sports doping protocols - before the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

That's ancient history, however, and both Todd and Willis are bidding to win gold medals.

Todd can now devote all his energy to wining a third title - 28 years after his first - knowing the New Zealand team leadership is in good hands.

- The Press

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