A few minutes ago, Christine Sinclair carried the Canadian flag into Olympic Stadium in London on behalf of all Canadian athletes at this Olympiad. Even before our women's soccer team won the bronze medal on August 9, Canadians were calling for her to carry the Maple Leaf. Twitter petitions abounded and nearly everyone you spoke to thought she would be the ideal choice.
It's not hard to see why.
In this Olympics, Sinclair was the leading scorer with six goals, including her unbelievable hat trick in the semi-final against the United States. She led Canada's women's soccer team to its first medal in a traditional team sport since 1936. She was inspiring - on the field and off - with her passion and determination.
Of course, there were other worthy contenders. Rosie McLennan - the only Canadian to win a gold medal these Olympics - was certainly near the top of the list, as was Emilie Heymans, who became the first female diver and first Canadian to medal in four consecutive Olympics in London. But I think there's a reason why the selection of Sinclair has resonated with Canadians in such a special way.
For the past several years, soccer has become the most popular sport among Canadian boys and girls. According to the Canadian Soccer Association, nearly 850,000 children were registered to play soccer in 2008 (the last year for which numbers are available), almost 300,000 more than played on hockey teams. The participation among boys and girls is almost equal. Nearly every kid I know has played soccer for at least one season.
Most Olympic sports require access to special resources to even begin training. Not every kid is able to take gymnastics, or diving lessons. God help those parents whose kids want to grow up to be a luge competitor (although I'm okay because I can see one of Canada's two luge tracks from my house. Not everyone is as fortunate, but they might live in nicer houses :-))
We were fortunate to see Sinclair play in the inaugural FIFA U-19
Women's World Cup in Edmonton ten years ago. She won the Golden Boot as
the leading scorer and Golden Ball as tournament MVP, leading Canada to a
second-place finish. Arguably, that tournament led to an increased rate of participation in soccer among young girls. The result from London will no doubt do the same. Of course, the likelihood of most soccer-playing kids making it to the
Olympics is pretty slim, but rare is the community - rural or urban - where they don't even have the chance to try.
When they showed Christine Sinclair beaming as she held our flag, I don't think I was alone in seeing every girl - or boy - who has ever kicked a ball on the local pitch reflected in her face.