Why There’s Already Controversy Over The U.S. Olympic Flagbearer

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The burning question of who is carrying the U.S. flag at the opening ceremony always draws intense speculation until the last minute because the United States doesn't announce its choice until 48 hours before the event. Now it's finally been announced that Erin Hamlin — who is the first U.S. Olympic athlete to ever have been decorated for the singles luge event — will have the honor of bearing the flag while leading all 244 U.S. athletes during the opening parade in PyeongChang.

This will be Hamlin's fourth time competing in the Olympics. She didn't place in her first two games, though outside of the Winter Games, she became the first female from the U.S. to win a luge world championship in 2009. At the 2014 Sochi games, she won a bronze medal for the singles event, making her the first U.S. athlete to win a medal in the category since luge joined the Olympics in 1964. And last year was also a great year for Hamlin: She won several medals and became the world champion of sprint discipline.

"It was a pretty big shock," said Hamlin on Wednesday of being asked to hold the flag. "But it is an honor and a privilege to be recognized by all of Team USA."

While the flagbearer role may seem minor, the job holds great symbolic importance. It's typically filled by athletes who are especially accomplished and are believed to represent the values of the Olympics, which include unity, solidarity, and mutual understanding.

Not everyone is happy with Hamlin as a choice. Shani Davis, a speed skater, criticized the decision in a tweet on Thursday.

"I am an American and when I won the 1000m in 2010 I became the first American to 2-peat in that event," he wrote. "Team USA dishonorably tossed a coin to decide its 2018 flag bearer. No problem. I can wait until 2022. #BlackHistoryMonth2018."

Hamlin and Davis were the top two nominees out of eight. A Wednesday vote among the winter sport federations representatives ended in a deadlock, with half the people supporting Hamlin and the other half supporting Davis for the role. According to protocol, a coin toss ultimately made the decision.

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"The flagbearer for a national delegation is, in some ways, akin to team captain, but it is also much more than that," reads the description of the flagbearing job on the official Olympics website.

By carrying their national flag during the Parade of Nations, the flagbearer becomes an enduring symbol of their national values and indeed of Olympic ideals, not to mention an inspiration for future generations.

Flagbearers hold their countries' flags for the athlete's parade during the opening ceremony in the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. The procession is typically the third event of the ceremony, once the hosting country's head of state enters and its national anthem is performed. After the parade comes the release of pigeons, which has been slightly modified ever since some birds were accidentally torched during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul (the last and only other time that South Korea hosted the games).

The United States' last flagbearer was Michael Phelps, who took on the role for the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio. At the time, Phelps was the most-decorated Olympic athlete ever, having won 18 gold medals and four others. He went on to obtain five more gold medals and one silver in Rio before retiring from competitive swimming.

At the last winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi in 2014, the United States' flagbearer was Nordic combined athlete Todd Lodwick. With his participation in Sochi, Lodwick became the only American to have competed in six Winter Olympics games.

Hamlin told reporters that her parents will be at the opening ceremony and are "really pumped." She said that she and her brothers have "grown up watching the Olympics and we're always like, 'Who's going to be carrying the flag?' And to actually be that person is insane."