In a world fuelled by a 24-hour news cycle and a “Twitterverse,” the lives of celebrities all over the globe are more transparent than ever before. The constant craving for juicy gossip or the latest breaking story has put them under the brightest proverbial spotlight in the history of mankind.
The same applies to athletes, coaches and executives that make up the sporting world. Some cannot handle the immense pressure of what has now become a universal success-oriented business. You win, you stay. Lose and you are kicked to the curb, quickly forgotten and replaced.
Some crumble under the weight of their critics. By no fault of her own, Canadian tennis player Rebecca Marino chose to step away from the sport she loves after her bout with depression was intensified by the wave of derogatory comments sent her way through social media.
Some revere the spotlight, but use it only for their own benefit. Greed, selfishness and arrogance will never be mistaken as glowing compliments, but there have been countless athletes through the years who have literally personified those words.
And then there are those who use the spotlight as a platform for change and for good reason. Names like Roberto Clemente, Walter Payton and Walter Kennedy come to mind on a grander scale, all three having had awards named after them in Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, respectively, for their off the field contributions to their communities and charitable causes.
But then there are those, who do not get the attention, nor the credit, that they truly deserve.
When we speak of Canadian legends, our thoughts always turn to the ice: Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Rocket Richard. We might venture into other sports, and the names of Anthony Calvillo and Steve Nash might rise to the surface. However, we must never make the mistake of looking past one of the greatest athletes to ever don the red and white at the Olympic Games, Clara Hughes.
Hughes, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is often overlooked in the conversation of great Canadian athletes, despite boasting the most Olympic medals by a single Canadian athlete (tied with Cindy Klassen with six) — not to mention being the only Olympic athlete to ever win multiple medals at both the Summer and Winter Games.
Athletes in sports not named hockey, football, baseball or basketball are often ignored by the general public and sports media, except during the Olympic Games, when the athletes who dedicate their lives to their craft are finally allowed to introduce themselves to a whole new audience. It is unfortunate that that audience ultimately ends up slithering back to rooting for pampered multi-millionaires. As a huge professional sports fan myself, I am in no way demeaning this act; it’s simply a fact. No one is lining up for speed skating events or cycling marathons when Hockey Night in Canada is on.
Despite this, Hughes has managed to break the mould of what we’ll call the “groundhog athlete,” the ones that appear every once in awhile, specifically every two or four years when the Olympics roll around. Hughes has given a voice to various causes, including Right to Play and has been instrumental in charitable work done to combat mental illness and the stigma associated with it. On Feb. 12, Bell had its now annual “Bell Let’s Talk” day, where the company donated five cents for each text, long distance calls, tweets or Facebook share. A total of over $96 million in small donations were made, culminating in a total donation of $4,813,313.30 to the cause.
Hughes deserves a lot of credit for the day’s huge success, not only for using her platform to spread the word about a great (and growing) cause, but also for having the courage to come out and share her own battle with depression with the public, to give a face to a disease that was often misconstrued and dismissed as “just being sad.”
In a year where we saw athletes use their notoriety for the wrong reasons (see Tim Thomas), it was refreshing to see a familiar face grab the spotlight and use it for good. If this country could only recognize how lucky it is to be able to call one of the greatest Olympians ever one of their own, perhaps we would be seeing Hughes’ radiant smile a lot more often than we have in the past.
And we’d all be better for it, too.