One of the greatest honors an American Olympian can receive will be awarded in Sochi this week—and it won't involve a gold medal.
U.S. team captains from each sport will huddle and give lengthy consideration to whom they believe is most qualified to lead their delegation into Friday's opening ceremony as the American flag bearer.
The selection won't be easy. Should the prestigious distinction go to Shaun White, whose two Olympic gold medals in snowboarding have made him the face of the Winter Olympics' leap into extreme sports? How about Bode Miller, who will become America's first five-time Olympian in alpine skiing?
Other impossible-to-ignore candidates include Shani Davis, the first African-American man to claim gold at the Winter Olympics. There's also Lindsey Van, the high-flying pioneer who led the way for women's ski jumping to be included for the first time at these games.
But my choice would be an individual who has never stood atop the awards podium at an Olympics, and who's hardly a marquee name: pairs figure skater Simon Shnapir.
Why? Because seeing the Moscow-born Shnapir holding the Stars and Stripes aloft as the U.S. team enters Fisht Olympic Stadium would provide a powerful reminder of the Russian roots that many Americans have.
Given the 26-year-old's Russian heritage, perhaps it’s no coincidence that he and partner Marissa Castelli have become two-time U.S. champions in the skating event that Russians have dominated like no other. From 1964 through 2006, either a Russian or Soviet pair has won figure skating gold at every Winter Olympics.
In Sochi, Shnapir will be able to speak directly with any Russians who are curious about his story. He is fluent in the language of his native country, and when he and Castelli earned their spot on the Olympic team, Shnapir celebrated by saying, “We’re on to Sochi!” in Russian, per TeamUSA.org.
This will be Shnapir’s first competition in his homeland, where a medal is almost certainly out of reach. He and Castelli placed 13th at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, and a top-10 finish in Sochi would represent a moral victory.
Still, numerous relatives of Shnapir—both those who immigrated to the U.S. and several who remained in Moscow—will be on hand to watch him skate in Sochi.
Among them will be Shnapir’s mother, Inna, who recently explained to The Associated Press the simple reason why the family left for the suburbs of Boston about 15 years ago.
“We wanted to raise our children in a free country," she said.
Shnapir’s family is Jewish, and persecution of people with that religious faith is the reason thousands left Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union. When they left, America was always willing to take them in.
Choosing Shnapir as flag bearer would serve notice that the U.S. team hasn’t forgotten to pack its ideals for this trip. Making that statement early on is important at an Olympics that some suspect could be subjected to waves of Russian propaganda.
That concern is based on the fact Russian President Vladimir Putin has made Sochi his pet project, pumping an estimated $50 billion-plus into what will be the most expensive Olympics in history.
Putin has gone all-in on making the Sochi Winter Olympics a signature event that's meant to showcase a new and more powerful Russia to the world, and he’s banking on the home team justifying that spending by dominating the gold medal count.
Russia won 80 golds the last time it hosted the Olympics, as the USSR in 1980 in Moscow, though it’s worth noting that the Soviets reportedly bullied their way to undeserved medals in track and field that year, per New York Times writer James Dunaway.
In 2008, Dunaway chronicled five events where he observed Soviet officials breaking or at least bending the rules in the 1980 Games, paving the way to victory for their athletes. Among the tactics was calling phantom fouls on triple jumpers, then sweeping landing pits clean before incorrect marks could be challenged.
Nationalism always has been and always will be a part of the Olympics. Choosing a flag bearer for symbolic reasons also has occurred before.
In 1936, at the Berlin Olympics that are recognized as being the most nationalistic in the history of the Games, the U.S. chose a German-born flag bearer, gymnast Al Jochim. His legacy includes the decision to ignore instructions given to all flag bearers, to dip their nation’s flag in respect when it passed in front of Adolf Hitler’s box.
Jochim's resolve helped put in place the tradition that the U.S. flag never bows to another nation's leader at the Olympics.
Shnapir, born in Russia, is the perfect choice to continue that tradition, and keep the American flag held high and proud.
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