Moe Sbihi (L) and Hannah Mills (R) will carry the flag for Great Britain at Friday's Opening Ceremony for Tokyo 2020

Sailor Hannah Mills joked that she would “not be starting a fight” with rower Moe Sbihi over who gets to carry the British flag first at Friday’s Olympic Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, after it emerged they are going to have to share one between them.

At “just under 5ft2in”, Mills is giving away 18 inches in height to her fellow defending champion, the 6ft8in Sbihi, who will become the first Muslim to carry the Union flag at an Olympic Opening Ceremony.

In a break with tradition, the International Olympic Committee allowed federations to nominate one female and one male athlete for the honour this year.  However, it was wrongly assumed they would be given a flag each to hold.

“I don’t think I’ll be starting a fight over it as I’m not sure how well that would go for me!” said Mills, who is hoping to become the most successful female sailor in Olympic history this summer with a second gold medal to add to the 470 silver she won in London and the 470 gold she won in Rio.

“I’ve not thought about the logistics to be honest," she added. "I’ve only just heard that myself [about one flag]. So that will be interesting. I’m sure we’ll come up with a clever way that will ensure we both get a really special moment and get to be involved as much as possible. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why Moe is involved. He’s got the guns!”

Sbihi, 33 will become the fourth rower to be afforded the flagbearing duties after Jack Beresford in 1936, Sir Matthew Pinsent in 2000 and Sir Steve Redgrave, who did it twice, in 1992 and 1996. 

With athletes terrified of catching Covid-19 or being identified as close contacts, as well as the staggered entry into Tokyo and the Olympic Village, only around 30 of the 376-strong GB team are expected to attend the opening ceremony. However, Sbihi said he was still “speechless” when he was told.

“Actually I thought I was going to be told off, everyone was so serious when they gave me the news,” he admitted. "I keep saying it’s a real honour but I don’t know any other way to say it. It is a huge honour just to be selected as as the flagbearer and to know I’m the first person of Muslim faith it was a very proud moment. We want more numbers, more representation so hopefully this will be part of the process of getting young kids involved in all different types of sport, especially rowing. I’ve always maintained I’m just an average kid that got lucky to get selected to be a rower and here I am 18 years later with the honour of being a flag bearer to top it off.”

Matthew Pinsent was chosen as Great Britain's flagbearer for the 2000 Olympics in Syndey


Sbihi will become the fourth rower to be afforded the flag-bearing duties, after Jack Beresford in 1936, Matthew Pinsent in 2000 and Steve Redgrave, who did it twice, in 1992 and 1996.

“It is some challenge to walk in Sir Steve and Sir Matt’s footsteps,” he said. “But there’s a plethora of rowers that could have walked ahead of me. Scheduling circumstances meant that they probably didn’t get chosen, but they fully deserve this just as much as me. So, this is not just for this squad, it’s for the previous squads that have been so successful for Team GB over the last 20 years.”

When Pinsent carried the flag in Sydney he kept his arm outstretched throughout his circuit of the stadium. Sbihi admitted he had not thought of a similar stunt, but said he would take advice from the one previous flag bearer still in the Team GB squad: Sir Andy Murray, who carried the flag in Rio. 

“I’ll probably bump into Andy round the Village, so I’m going to ask him for some tips. And however I do it, I’ll just briefly run it by my crew.”

Mills, also 33, said that she was not sure she could pull off the “one-armed hold-out”. 

“I don’t know if that’s my bag the one-armed holdout,” joked the sailor, who added that being recognised for her environmental work – she launched the Big Plastic Pledge two years ago – was as important to her as her sporting achievements. 

“But it’s just insane. It’s just amazing to see how many people [the announcement] has reached, who have been in my life a long time ago and maybe not so much now. Just to see how proud and excited and buzzing they are. It’s a real privilege.”