One week after Novak Djokovic revealed he would carry Serbia's flag into Olympic Stadium on July 27, Reuters reports Maria Sharapova will do the same for her native Russia. The news came from the country's tennis chief, Shamil Tarpishchev.*
It was considered to be a break of tradition. Normally, the Russian flagbearers have been gold-medal winning men who, you know, live in Russia. Sharapova is a woman, will be competing in her first Olympics and hasn't resided in her homeland since 1994 when she moved to Florida to enroll in Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy. Though she's active in providing money to hospitals in areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster, Sharapova is not a frequent visitor to Russia.
The decision has led to sarcastic skepticism for some circles. Tennis magazine's Matt Cronin notes that Sharapova has touted her Fed Cup activity and wearing a Russian Orthodox cross on court as signs of her connection to the country. "Meanwhile, Svetlana Kuznetsova's been named honorary mayor of Manhattan Beach, CA, because she wears flip-flops and once swam in ocean there," he tweeted as a follow-up.
Sharapova's Russian connection is understandable. She has roots there. It's home. Here's what she had to say about it after winning the French Open:
"For a few years, people would say 'she's Russian but she's living in the United States.' I was [thinking] I'm so proud to be a Russian, I'm so proud to represent my country. I never thought for a second that it would be otherwise, no matter how many people told me that 'you're not [Russian], you just have a passport'.
I couldn't care less. I love where I'm from. I don't live there because of the circumstances but all my family is there. The culture and the feeling, it's what's inside, not what's outside that determines that."
I get and respect that. What I don't understand is Russia's feelings toward Sharapova. Not that they should shun her or renounce her citizenship or decline the opportunity to be represented by the world's most famous female athlete. She's a Russian and it doesn't matter how long she's lived in Bradenton or Turkey or wherever she lays her head. But surely there are more deserving athletes than an expat who's been gone for nearly three-quarters of her life. Carrying the flag is usually an honor, not a popularity contest.
* Update: Russia's sports minister says Sharapova is merely a candidate to carry the flag. He denies Tarpishch's contention that Sharapova has already been named the flagbearer.
Update x2: Sharapova announced Wednesday that she will indeed serve as Russia's Olympic flagbearer. Take that, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko.