“My goal here was to hear the anthem. When the flag went up I was so proud to be Canadian and see that flag raised to the top of the world. I heard the anthem and it just cracked me.” – Simon Whitfield after Sydney 2000 triathlon gold

Designed by George Stanley, adopted by the government of Lester Pearson after much debate, and for the last half century it became a source of pride and tears to Canadians and their Olympians, the maple leaf turned 50 years old on Sunday.

Whitfield’s experience is a common one for Canadian athletes who have had the pleasure of seeing the Canadian flag raised during an Olympic medal ceremony. Very few will ever experience knowing that their many years of personal sacrifice, doubt, hard work and eventual success are responsible for the maple leaf rising on a global stage. The Canadian symbol is elevated with each showing of Olympic excellence.

Simon Whitfield with the flag at Sydney 2000.

Simon Whitfield with the flag at Sydney 2000.

Athletes are undoubtedly the stars of the Olympic Games, but the flag has also courted its share of intrigue over the years.

Early days of the maple leaf

The first time a Canadian Olympian carried the current flag into an Olympic Games was at Grenoble 1968. Winter and Summer Games were held in the same year until 1994 so, by virtue of being earlier on the calendar, alpine skier Nancy Greene was privileged to be the first athlete to carry Canada’s new national symbol to the world into an Olympic Opening Ceremony. Greene went on to win gold and silver in Grenoble following the new flag’s Olympic debut.

Abby Hoffman carries the Canadian flag into Olympic Stadium at Montreal 1976.

Abby Hoffman carries the Canadian flag into Olympic Stadium at Montreal 1976.

Eight years later Canada hosted an Olympic Games for the first time. Montreal 1976 presented a chance for Canadians to come together behind their relatively young symbol of unity. Middle distance runner Abby Hoffman carried Canada’s flag into Olympic Stadium, Queen Elizabeth II declared the Games open, and weightlifter Pierre St-Jean took the Olympic oath while holding the national flag (this was the custom at the time).

A starring role

Canadian athletes begin to unfurl the giant flag at Sydney 2000 Closing Ceremony. The 18m x 9m flag rivals several Ceremony floats.

Canadian athletes begin to unfurl the giant flag at Sydney 2000 Closing Ceremony. The 18m x 9m flag rivals several Ceremony floats.

In the Closing Ceremony at Atlanta 1996, Nagano 1998 and Sydney 2000, Canadian Olympians would unfurl a massive 18m x 9m flag during the informal portion when athletes can let loose and enjoy themselves in what is usually a massive dance party. Sheltered under a giant maple leaf, Canadians made their presence felt at each of these Ceremonies. Interestingly, the flag was handmade by parents of schoolchildren in Castle Hill, Australia as part of a project when their country bid for Sydney 2000.

Back-to-back flags

Adam van Koeverden carries the flag into Beijing 2008 after carrying it out of Athens 2004.

Adam van Koeverden carries the flag into Beijing 2008 after carrying it out of Athens 2004.

Two Olympians have carried the maple leaf out of the Games and in to their next Olympics. Catriona Le May Doan was the Closing Ceremony flag bearer at Nagano 1998, then chosen to carry it into the opener of Salt Lake City 2002. On the Summer Games side, Adam van Koeverden closed out Athens 2004 and opened Beijing 2008 carrying Canada’s flag.

Before the maple leaf

At Berlin 1936 this Red Ensign with the arms inside a disc was carried at the Parade of Athletes. However, the regular Red Ensign without the disc was raised for display along the flags of other nations at Olympic Stadium.

At Berlin 1936 this Red Ensign with the arms inside a disc was carried at the Parade of Athletes. However, the regular Red Ensign without the disc was raised for display along the flags of other nations at Olympic Stadium.

From 1908 to 1964, Canadian athletes marched at the Olympic Games under the Red Ensign in its various, evolving forms over the years. There was one anomaly in Berlin 1936, where the flag carried by track star (and later Canadian Olympic Committee president) James Worral had a disc enclosing the arms on the flag.

Canada’s first flag bearer was pole vaulter Ed Archibald at London 1908, which introduced the now staple Parade of Athletes to the Olympic Games.

Return home

Clara Hughes carries the maple leaf into Vancouver 2010.

Clara Hughes carries the maple leaf into Vancouver 2010.

Canada hosted the Olympic Games two more times after Montreal 1976. The Opening Ceremony flag bearer for Calgary 1988 was figure skater Brian Orser, while speed skater Clara Hughes led the country out at an emotionally charged Vancouver 2010.

Double take

Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse carry the flag together at Closing Ceremony of Sochi 2014.

Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse carry the flag together at Closing Ceremony of Sochi 2014.

At Atlanta 1996 the traditional single flag bearer for Closing Ceremony was replaced by the duo of Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle. The legendary rowers had just won their third Olympic gold medal in Atlanta.

Figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier were another pair rewarded for their gold medal performance at Salt Lake City 2002.

And the ‘team’ concept returned recently at the Closing Ceremony of Sochi 2014 where Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse were given the honour of carrying Canada’s symbol after repeating as women’s Olympic bobsleigh champions.

Compiled with research from Paula Nichols