Thursday, February 25, 2010

Clara Hughes: Red, white, and bronze (or gold)

I don't know what it is about sports that can get people caught up in the fervor and excitement of cheering for a team or an individual. Cheering for teams is like cheering for laundry, said Jerry Seinfeld. So how come a large event like the Olympics can come around and all of a sudden people care about sports they only hear of once every four years? Biathlon, speed-skating, bobsleigh... these are not sports with followings that compare in size to the fan base for soccer, football, baseball, and the other heavy hitters. Players in big leagues are professionals instead of amateurs like a lot of other Olympians. So where does the interest come from? National pride? A fascinating individual? An underdog story?

There are about four days left in the 2010 Olympics, and there have been some great moments so far, but my favourite moment will be tough to beat--even if the Canadian men's hockey team wins gold. (Mind you, losing would be the biggest disappointment.) And yet, it's not a golden moment as far as the medals were concerned. I'm talking about the last race by Clara Hughes. It was an incredible race, good enough for bronze when all was said and done. I didn't even see the race! I was stuck in traffic, so I listened to it on the radio. The volume was cranked, and I heard everyone screaming and cheering at the oval in Vancouver, and I heard the announcer shout to the point where throat lozenges were on standby.

Again, there was no gold involved. This was purely a case of caring because of the individual. Even a quick look at her Wikipedia entry will tell you that Hughes is the only person ever to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter games, winning two in cycling and four in speedskating. And then there's her story of being a problem child who became a problem teen; out of school and into drugs. Then in the winter of '88 she caught speedskating while channel-surfing on TV and decided she wanted to be an Olympian. Six medals later, her Olympic career is over at age 37.

I'll remember watching Hughes take two bronze medals for cycling in Atlanta when I was only 12, watching my first Games in '96. I'll remember her winning gold in Turin four years ago. I'll remember being so thrilled when she was picked at the flag-bearer for the Canadian team this year. And I think I'll have to remember wiping my leaky eyes in the middle of traffic after her last race, surrounded by other cars honking their horns.

To close, I can't really write anything better than these words from Hughes's journal, her final post before leaving for Vancouver a few weeks ago:

Thank you, everyone, for your support. Thank you for being excited about the Olympics and thank you for caring. When I am carrying the Canadian Flag into BC Place on the 12th of February, I am representing each and every Canadian. When I am racing, I am no longer just myself. I am something bigger, faster, stronger and far more beautiful: I am Canada. I just can’t wait to do this one more time. I will not lose sight of this gift of opportunity.

This is it!

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