When American basketball star Sue Bird was rising up taking part in hoops in Long Island, New York, she had no WNBA professionals to look as much as. (The league began in 1997, when Bird was 16). All she had was the Olympics; when the 1996 U.S. ladies’s group received a gold medal in Atlanta, that appeared just like the lone doable pinnacle of her sport.
In Tokyo, Bird can be making her fifth Olympic look: she is chasing a fifth gold medal, and successful it could make her and American teammate Diana Taurasi the primary basketball gamers to ever win 5 basketball golds. “Every time I’m named to an Olympic team, because I’m chill and not screaming from the rooftops that I’ve made the team, people assume I’m not excited,” Bird advised TIME in a June interview. She is. “It’s like that 15-year-gold who watched [former U.S. point guard] Jen Azzi and thought, Oh, we look alike, maybe that could be me one day. That’s the one, who on the inside, is getting named to the team. And she’s in disbelief every time.”
On Wednesday morning within the U.S., the Today Show introduced that Bird and USA baseball participant Eddy Alvarez—who has mixed an Olympic short-track pace skating profession with a baseball one—will carry the American flag on the Opening Ceremony on Friday, July 23. (Most nations may have a pair of flag bearers this 12 months).
During a cellphone interview in Tokyo with TIME a couple of hours after she came upon she was chosen, Bird mentioned Taurasi, her former school teammate on the University of Connecticut, shared the information in entrance of the complete group at a apply. She was floored. “It’s impossible to put in perspective,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ve fully wrapped my head around it.” She knowledgeable finaceé, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, in regards to the information. Rapinoe advised Bird she was extremely proud. “Sadly they’re losing 1-0 right now,” she mentioned—Sweden would go on to shock the U.S. ladies’s soccer group, 3-0, within the Olympic opener.
Michael Phelps was flag bearer for the U.S. on the Rio Opening Ceremony; the final ladies’s basketball participant to tackle hat function throughout a Summer Olympics opening ceremony was Dawn Staley, in Athens in 2004; she’s now the Team USA coach. One of Bird’s fondest Olympic reminiscences is trailing behind Staley, close to the entrance, at these Games. She requested her coach for flag-bearing recommendation. “Dawn said it’s not as heavy as it looks,” says Bird. “I think I’ll be all right.”
No baseball participant has ever carried the U.S. flag within the Opening Ceremony; the game returned to the Games on the request of Japan, a rustic with storied baseball historical past, after being absent in 2012 and 2016.
Since the Rio Olympics, the connection between sports activities and the American flag has grown, effectively, difficult. A number of weeks after these Games, Colin Kaepernick started sitting, after which kneeling, throughout the National Anthem to protest police violence, igniting a divisive dialogue through which most Americans took clear sides: folks seen that act, and subsequent sports activities demonstrations, as both immensely disrespectful or courageous expressions of free speech.
The newest controversy between the flag and Olympic sports activities got here on the U.S. Track and Field trials in June, when American hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the flag, on the medals podium, throughout the taking part in of the National Anthem. She confronted intense criticism, significantly from conservatives, and refused to again down. “I really feel like to ensure that me to respect a music that sings about liberty and justice for us all, I’ve to really see that and expertise it,” Berry advised TIME in July. (Berry received’t be on the Opening Ceremonies; observe and subject begins on July 30, and due to the pandemic, Berry and different observe and subject Olympians arrive subsequent week.)
In selecting Bird, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee could not less than be giving a tacit nod to the appropriateness of political activism in sports activities. Last summer time Bird and her fellow WNBA gamers rallied round Georgia Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, after an incumbent Republican Senator and Atlanta Dream group co-owner, Kelly Loeffler, criticized the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter motion. Bird got here up with the concept gamers put on “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to boost the Democrat’s profile. Warnock beat Loeffler in a January runoff election, a win that carried huge penalties, because it finally flipped the Senate to the Democrats. Loeffler bought her stake within the WNBA group.
“To be selected to lead the delegation, and lead athletes into the Games, that speaks to a career, a body of work,” Bird tells TIME. “The other side of it is, yeah, there are plenty of things I’ve spoken about. There’s things that I know our team stands for, there are things that a lot of U.S. athletes stand for, and want changed. And we’re also going to represent that, holding that flag.”
Bird publicly revealed she was homosexual in 2017; she additionally senses how essential her choice can be to the LGTBQ neighborhood. “The fact that you have an openly gay athletes representing the country, that’s where we are,” says Bird. “Talking about these issues, where it’s racial, LGTBQ issues, putting these things at the forefront. Because that’s what we’re working for, is a better America.”
At her first Olympics in Athens in 2004, Bird was a little-used reserve who spent ample time partying an evening membership on a docked cruise ship the place the group was staying; now, she’s the veteran chief and level guard, the WNBA’s all-time assists chief already with 4 gold medals, and 4 WNBA championships, to her identify.
Alvarez’s physique of labor—a mixture of pace skating and baseball is simply plain wild. Wild sufficient to make him worthy of opening ceremonies recognition. The son of Cuban immigrants, Alvarez grew up in Miami; he began curler skating at age 5 and turned to the ice a couple of years later. He was quickly often called “Eddy the Jet.” In highschool he stop skating for 3 years to focus on baseball. At Salt Lake Community College, he performed baseball and educated for brief observe on the pace skating facility there. But after knee surgical procedure he determined to attempt to make the 2014 Olympic group roster. He received silver within the 5000-m relay in Sochi.
But he was removed from finished with baseball: after toiling within the minors for six seasons, Alvarez made his main league debut final 12 months with the Miami Marlins. He’s been again within the minors this season, however an Olympic medal would make him solely the third American, following Eddie Egan (boxing and bobsled) and Lauryn Williams (observe and subject and bobsled), to medal in each the Winter and Summer Olympics.
COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm these Games: not less than 70 folks accredited for the Olympics have examined optimistic, together with two South African soccer gamers, a Czech seashore volleyball participant and an alternate on the American gymnastics group. The pandemic can wipe out a possible once-in-a-lifetime Olympic alternative instantly: a optimistic take a look at prevented American Katie Lou Samuelson, who’s totally vaccinated, from competing within the first-ever Olympic 3-on-Three basketball competitors. On Instagram, she wrote that she was “devastated.” Who wouldn’t be?
So a lot has already gone improper at these Olympics. But Bird and Alvarez waving the flag on the Opening ceremonies: It’ll be good to see one thing so proper.
Read extra in regards to the Tokyo Olympics:
- Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.Okay. to Not Be O.Okay.’
- Motherhood Could Have Cost Olympian Allyson Felix. She Wouldn’t Let It
- Meet 6 Heroes Who Helped Battle COVID-19 Before Competing within the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics
- 48 Athletes to Watch on the Tokyo Olympics
- The Olympic Refugee Team Was Created to Offer Hope. Some Athletes Are Running Away From It