Gasol to carry flag at Games

Basketball star replaces injured Nadal after spurned yachtsmen say no

Spain's Pau Gasol looks on during their pre-Olympic friendly basketball match Spain vs Australia on July 18.
Spain's Pau Gasol looks on during their pre-Olympic friendly basketball match Spain vs Australia on July 18.JORGE GUERRERO (AFP)

The Spanish Olympic Committee (COE) chose the LA Lakers player in a meeting on Friday after original choice Rafael Nadal announced his withdrawal from the Games with a knee injury on Thursday, and its backup options of yachtsmen Iker Martínez and Xabi Fernández ruled themselves out.

Gasol was a silver medalist in Beijing in 2008 after Spain was defeated by the United States in a memorable final. He has also won six medals at other championships with the national team: three golds at the 2006 world championships in Japan, the 2009 European Championships in Poland and the 2011 Euros in Lithuania; two silvers at the 2003 and 2007 Euros; and a bronze at the 2001 Euros.

Yachtsmen Martínez and Fernández were the logical choices to replace Nadal, but on Friday decline the offer, saying they wanted to concentrate on their preparation.

“A Games is a Games and it wouldn’t be good to accept this responsibility if we thought it could harm us in sporting terms,” explained Martínez from Weymouth, the site of the sailing events at the London Games where they are currently busy training.

According to COE regulations, the most-decorated active Olympian should lead the team out

The COE chose Nadal to carry the flag over the sailing duo last month even though they had won more Olympic medals than the tennis star — a gold and a silver in the 49er Class, compared to Nadal’s one gold in Beijing in 2008.

According to new COE regulations approved in March, the most-decorated active Olympian should lead the team out, provided they hadn’t already done so. The new measures ruled out canoeist David Cal, who carried the flag in Beijing, and put the focus on the two yachtsmen. But in the end it was the higher-profile Nadal whom the COE board voted for with 26 votes out of 26.

The decision riled the two yachtsmen, who didn’t even receive a call from the COE to inform them of the vote outcome. As sources in the Martínez and Fernández camp said at the time: “If there is a rule, why is there a vote?”

Another name on the table to replace Nadal was canoeist Saúl Craviotto, a gold medalist four years ago in the K-2 500m. According to the rules, the honor should fall to him, but the COE had already invalidated the regulations by picking Nadal over Martínez and Fernández.

Martínez and Fernández were in London on Thursday when they returned from a bicycle exercise session to find tens of missed calls and messages on their cellphones. In the afternoon they spoke with Spanish Sailing Federation President Gerard Pombo, who had previously talked with the COE President Alejandro Blanco. That evening, COE Vice-President Theresa Zabell — winner of two Olympic sailing golds in 1992 and 1996 — rang both men to offer them the chance to carry the flag. The conversation lasted some time, but after mulling it over for a few hours, they both decided to decline.

The pair have to spend opening day checking their boat, while a back injury to Fernández has prevented them from sailing for several days, altering their strict preparation plan.

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