Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry, now a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, competed in the Olympic Games in 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016, winning two golds, four silvers and a bronze. She was also the flag-bearer for her nation in 2012 and 2016. Here she explains why she never missed a single opening or closing ceremony.
I’ve competed in five Olympic Games and I’ve been to every opening ceremony because I just refused to ever miss it. At my first Games in 2000, I was only 16 so I was so young but I wasn’t swimming on the first day which helped. That Opening Ceremony in Sydney was absolutely incredible and I remember the flame - that was fantastic. I remember seeing so many different people and bumping into Serena and Venus Williams - I was just trying to take it all in because it was such an unbelievable experience.
I made a point of going to every opening ceremony because, for me, it’s a really special thing. I know that some teams don’t like their athletes going to the opening ceremony if they’re competing within the first few days because there can be a lot of standing around and it can be quite tiring but for me, it was a really big part of the Olympic experience. I was very fortunate that my coach understood that I wanted to be at the opening ceremony and how much it meant to me, and she was there with me too which was great. So we both got the chance to parade and then whenever there was an opportunity to sit down, she would yell at me to sit down and rest.
The excitement at the opening ceremony is just fantastic. In most sports, you’re competing against people who you know and so in the few days before the opening ceremony, it can feel like you’re just at a swim meet. But then once it comes round and you walk into that stadium, you’re with your teammates, you look around and see the scale of everything and then you see then flame - that’s when you think ‘right, this is it’. Mentally that was really important for me because it helped me get in the right mindset and I was so lucky that my coach understood that, regardless of whether or not I was swimming the following day, it was important for me to go to the opening ceremony because it really got me going.
I was nominated as flag-bearer in 2012 and that was just amazing - it was quite surreal actually. I remember turning round and seeing the team behind me and that was very special. It’s funny because Zimbabwe is always the last country to walk apart from the host country so we’re still walking when the host country is announced. When the host country enters, it’s always so loud in the stadium so at London 2012, we were still walking when Team GB came into the stadium and the crowd went crazy. Even though we all knew that the cheering wasn’t for us, it felt like it was so that was really cool.
I was nominated to carry the flag again four years later in Rio which was fantastic. It was slightly different in 2016 compared to 2012 because in Rio, I was able to stay with the team the entire time right up until we walked out whereas in London, the flag-bearers had to go a little bit earlier. So it was really nice to be with the team the whole time and you get to experience everything with them - and you really feed off your teammates energy. We had quite a few athletes who were there for the first time so they were obviously really excited and it was really cool to look back and see everyone’s faces.
The closing ceremony is a completely different feeling in comparison to the opening ceremony. At the opening, you can feel the anxiousness of the athletes as they walk, but then at the closing, everyone is much more relaxed. Regardless of whether you’ve achieved your goals or if you’re disappointed about how you’ve done, I think that everyone is just relieved that we’re at this point. By the time the closing ceremony comes around, the nervousness is gone and so it’s a much more chilled-out atmosphere.
I think the closing ceremony is exactly what it says it is - it’s closing the door on this one thing and you’re either moving onto something else or it’s closing the door on four years of really hard training and then after a break, you’re back into it for the next four years.
In Rio, the Closing Ceremony was a little bit emotional for me because it felt like it was the end of an era. It was a real mixture of emotions but it was very special. It was also really cool because my parents and my husband were in Rio and my husband was there with me at the Closing Ceremony so it was lovely. In Rio, I walked in with the team but then later, I was able to go and sit with the IOC members which I think was quite symbolic. It felt like I was handing the baton onto others in the team and I was moving on into a new, administrative role, so being able to do that has made the transition into retirement much easier for me.