Flagbearers to send messages of equality and justice at opening ceremony

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Many Olympic nations are expected to demonstrate their support for gender equality and racial justice on Friday night with their selections of athletes to carry flags at the opening ceremony.

The International Olympic Committee changed it rules and asked each nation to select two flagbearers in an effort to increase gender equality at the Tokyo Games.

Gold-medal rower Mohamed Sbihi will be the first Muslim to carry the British flag at the Games, alongside sailor Hannah Mills.

"It is such an honour to be invited to be the flagbearer for Team GB," Sbihi said. "It is an iconic moment within the Olympic movement – people remember those images."

Aussies Cate Campbell and Patty Mills are both attending their fourth Olympics. Mills, a basketballer who plays for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA, will be the first indigenous Australian selected to carry the flag for the Opening Ceremony.

"It's identity, it's being able to showcase who you are throughout the world," Mills said. "It's one of those things that makes you proud of who you are. We have definitely come a long way for Australian sport and it's special."

Team USA will be represented by 40-year-old basketballer Sue Bird and Cuban-American baseballer Eddy Alvarez. Alvarez, who also won a silver medal for speedskating in the 2014 Winter Olympics, has expressed support for those in Cuba who have joined recent protests over the country's economic crisis.

"We feel for the people of Cuba right now. We're so proud of them because they are going out there to protest with stones, forks and broomsticks," he said.

For the Netherlands, it will be 36-year-old Dutch sprinter and Black athlete Churandy Martina, from Curaçao, and skateboarder Keet Oldenbeuving, 16. They are the oldest and youngest members of the Dutch Olympic team.

In Belgium's case, the two will also represent the country’s linguistic divide – heptathlete Nafi Thiam, a French speaker, and hockey player Felix Denayer, a Dutch speaker.

"What an honor!" posted Black sprinter Mujinga Kambundji with an emoji of the Swiss flag on Instagram after she was selected alongside Max Heinzer.

"When I started athletics as a child, going to the Olympics never sounded really realistic. Today, I’m preparing for my third Olympic Games, and this honor makes the experience even more special."

(Writing by Leela de Kretser; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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