Peelo flying high as Irish flagbearer

Fri, Aug 8, 2008, 01:00

TO UNDERSTAND just how important the Opening Ceremony is to these Beijing Olympics, you only have to consider the basic facts: four years of preparation; a live TV audience of four billion; 91,000 (at least) in the stadium; 204 countries on the march and all the presidents' men on view.

It may well be one of the most important events in 37 centuries of Chinese history. Something going wrong is not an option.

And for the country that invented the bell, gunpowder, rope, ink, and of course fireworks, it's guaranteed to be loud, colourful and unforgettable.

Fittingly, perhaps, there's a cloud of secrecy over the thing as well, particularly the identity of who gets to light the Olympic flame. Let's just hope whoever it is can handle the pressure.

If Ciara Peelo is feeling the pressure of having to carry the Irish flag, she's hardly showing it. Peelo met us outside the Bird's Nest yesterday evening, as giddy as a schoolgirl and smiling like she'd just won the Lotto - which must be a similar enough feeling to being told you're carrying the Irish flag in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics.

"It was such an amazing feeling, such an honour," she says. "You always look back at the Olympics, and the people that carry the flag, so to be put into that category is unbelievable. But I'd absolutely no idea I'd ever be asked. It's not the sort of thing you think will happen to you."

Talk about being thrust into the spotlight. The 29-year-old from Malahide has never even been on Irish television before, given her event, women's sailing, is not exactly high-profile. So we ask her how it will feel to be walking out in front of four billion. "Thanks for the reminder. That's a lot of people, and it's pretty scary. But I just think it will be brilliant. I haven't even been inside the stadium yet. This is the closest I've been. It's just looks so cool. It's just lifted the whole excitement level of being here. But I also have enough time to come back down again, and prepare, and focus again, for my event. It will be very important to do that."

Her event, the laser radial category, starts next Thursday, at the sailing venue in Qingdoa, and she'll take the 90-minute flight back there early tomorrow, assuming she's not arrested for any planned protest.

"No, there'll be nothing like that," she assures us.

Her parents and two brothers are in Beijing - but don't have tickets to the show. Word is they could have sold out the ceremony a million times over.

It may be a little confusing to the rest of the world, as each country will parade in order of the Chinese alphabet. Ireland comes in at number 159 of the 204, sandwiched between Peru and Estonia. China, as host nation, will march in last, with their NBA basketball star Yao Ming carrying their flag, just like he did in Athens four years ago (this, presumably, rules him out of lighting the flame). Most of the Irish team, however, will skip the ceremony, for practical reasons. The entire track and field team are still at their training camp in Japan, and with at least 10 other team members in action tomorrow morning, standing around long after 8:08 in the evening may prove unlucky.

It will be impossible to escape the political undertones of the ceremony, and the Americans have already made that with one gesture as the captains of each of their competing sports have voted to give their flag-bearing responsibility to 1,500-metre runner Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese refugee who was abducted from his church as a six-year-old and targeted for a brutish life as a child soldier.

Lomong is a member of the Team Darfur athletes coalition, and if anyone knows what's at stake in that part of the world right now, it's the soft-spoken 23-year-old, who made the American team by finishing third in the 1,500 metres in the notoriously competitive US Olympic Trials.

"This is the most exciting day ever in my life," says Lomong.

Lomong grew up in poverty in southern Sudan and was torn from his family by militiamen intent on forcing him into the country's north-south civil war. He and three other boys escaped their clutches and walked for three days, unknowingly crossing the border into Kenya - where all four were arrested, and spent 10 years in a refugee camp.

In 2001, he was chosen to live with a foster family in upstate New York, and later ended up on scholarship at Northern Arizona University. Like Peelo, he's now been given one of the ultimate honours in sport.