Published Friday 27 July 2012

Nick Willis continued a grand tradition when he was today named as the 2012 New Zealand Olympic team captain and flag-bearer.
New Zealand has produced three gold medal-winning middle-distance athletes – Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell and John Walker.
All three also filled the role of flag-bearer, Lovelock in 1936, Snell in 1964 and Walker in 1984.
In terms of the Olympics, Willis is only one notch behind the golden trio. He emerged from the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a silver medal. He won bronze on the day and was promoted one place after the drug test results had come in.
London is Willis’ third Olympics. He hinted at future greatness with a brave semi-final effort at Athens in 2004, pushing himself to the limit and beyond to get through the first round that year.
When his Commonwealth Games gold and bronze medals and his world championship finals are taken into consideration, Willis has built a most impressive portfolio of results. What’s more, he’s done it in the modern age, when there are so many superb African athletes lurking in every major meeting.
The role of flag-bearer has evolved over the years.
A century ago, when New Zealand competed under the Australasian banner, athlete Henry Murray and swimmer Malcolm Champion were nominated for the job. Perhaps the Australians felt the New Zealanders were better at carrying the flag around the stadium.
Later, senior figures such as Arthur Porritt (twice), Lovelock and Harold Nelson were given the task.
For a while it seemed no particular honour. Les Mills was asked to carry the flag in 1960, when he was in the very early stages of what turned out to be a fine shot put and discus career. Wrestler Dave Aspin, never an Olympic medal contender but always a popular team-mate, carried the flag in 1972 and 1976.
Since then, though, the really big names have been entrusted with the honour – Walker, Ian Ferguson, Mark Todd, Barbara Kendall, Blyth Tait, Beatrice Faumuina, Mahe Drysdale and now Willis.
These days the team captain is expected to do more than simply carry the flag. Drysdale was outstanding in 2008 because he was a senior figure and had such stature that he brought the team together well.
One complicating factor has been the problem of marching in the opening ceremony. This year only about one-fifth of the New Zealand athletes will march. Many more would like to, but they have to compete the next day or the one after and do not want to be involved in a strength-sapping event that will keep them up until perhaps 2am and ruin their carefully-managed routines.
Other athletes – those competing later in the games – do not arrive early enough to be flag-bearing contenders. Sarah Ulmer, stunningly popular among her team-mates, was such an athlete in 2004 and Valerie Adams, the defending Olympic shot put champion, is in the same category this year.
Nevertheless, there still seems to be enough contenders to make the honour highly valued.
Happily New Zealand Olympic team boss Dave Currie had several strong candidates when contemplating his captain this year. He could hardly have done better than settle on Willis.