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Hughes named Canada's Olympic flag-bearer

Speedskater Clara Hughes was named Canada's flag-bearer for the opening ceremony at the Vancouver Winter Games on Friday.

4-time Olympian won medals in speedskating, cycling

Clara Hughes, multiple Olympic medallist, champion cyclist and star speedskater, will lead Team Canada into BC Place Stadium carrying her country's flag at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The announcement was made Friday at city hall in Richmond, B.C.

"This is without a doubt the greatest honour of my sporting life," said an emotional Hughes.

"For 20 years I've had the privilege of representing Canada around the globe … first on the bike and then on my blades. The experiences have shaped me into who I am today.

Past flag-bearers

2006 Turin — Danielle Goyette, women's hockey (gold)

2002 Salt Lake City — Catriona Le May Doan, speedskating (gold)

1998 Nagano — Jean-Luc Brassard, freestyle skiing (4th)

1994 Lillehammer — Kurt Browning, figure skating (5th)

1992 Albertville — Sylvie Daigle, speedskating (gold)

1988 Calgary — Brian Orser, figure skating (silver)

1984 Sarajevo — Gaetan Boucher, speedskating (gold)

1980 Lake Placid — Ken Read, skiing (DNF)

1976 Innsbruck — Dave Irwin, skiing (8th)

1972 Sapporo — Karen Magnussen, figure skating (silver)

1968 Grenoble — Nancy Greene, skiing (gold)

1964 Innsbruck — Ralph Olin, speedskating (15th)

1960 Squaw Valley — Bob Paul, figure skating (gold)

1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo — Norris Bowden, figure skating (silver)

1952 Oslo — Gordon Audley, speedskating (bronze)

1948 St. Moritz — Hubert Brooks, men's hockey (gold)

1932 Lake Placid — Harold Joseph (Hack) Simpson, men's hockey (gold)

1928 St. Moritz — John Porter, men's hockey (gold)

1924 Chamonix — Ernie Collett, men's hockey (gold)

"I want people to be inspired that I've always strived for excellence and I've always gone beyond what anybody ever thought I could do, what I thought I myself could do. And I've allowed myself to be inspired, kept my eyes open and my senses open to inspiration around me."

News of Hughes's selection was made public before the official announcement.

Ingrid Paul, a coach with the Canadian long-track team, tweeted in Dutch, "Clara will carry the flag for Canada into the stadium. Good choice."

Many agree it is an honour she deserves.

"[She is] the best choice," said CBC Sports' Scott Russell. "She soars above most of the rest."

While carrying Canada's flag isn't a task embraced by every athlete, most consider the role as one of the most esteemed. And in a year when Canada is hosting the Winter Games, it has become an even more extraordinary position.

"The person selected has to be just right," Russell said.

Canadian sport offers many talented, inspirational athletes who were also well-suited for the task, including:

  • Speedskating's Cindy Klassen, who won a record-breaking five medals at the 2006 Olympics.
  • Mellisa Hollingsworth, skeleton's current overall World Cup champion, who's favoured to win gold.
  • Charles Hamelin, who could reach the 2010 podium four times in speedskating.
  • Brian McKeever, a blind cross-country skier who will be the first Paralympian to compete in an Olympic and Paralympic Games in the same year.

But there are many reasons Hughes stands out from even this exclusive company.

Seasoned athlete

For one, the Winnipeg native is one of only four athletes in the world who has won medals at both the Summer and Winter Games. She reached the podium five times in three Olympics — and that includes a speedskating gold at the 2006 Turin Games.

She competed as a cyclist in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. Then, as a speedskater, she raced in Salt Lake 2002 and Turin 2006.

"I think she is the cream of the crop," said Beckie Scott, the former Olympic cross-country champion who shares many of the same qualities as Hughes.

"Not just when it comes to what she's accomplished as an athlete, but as a human being. She's a gem. She's someone who is truly remarkable in all arenas."

Vancouver will be Hughes's fifth Olympics. And at age 37, she's still a medal threat in the 5,000-metre race.

But it's not only her accomplishments on the ice or the cycling track that make Hughes an exemplary choice. Her devotion to making the world a better place also sets her apart.

Hughes holds the International Olympic Committee's Sport and Community Award. She has also twice received the Spirit of Sport honour from the Canadian Sports Awards.

"For me, and I think most of the team members would say, Clara as a human being represents what we're trying to do as a Canadian team," said Chris Rudge, the Canadian Olympic Committee's executive director.

"And that is be very good at what we do, set very clear goals and objectives and want to win, yet not lose sight of the things that are as important as a human being as well. I don't know of any athlete that embodies that in this country more than Clara does."

She's also an Officer of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Manitoba, and has received an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Manitoba.

"[She's] a senior athlete who goes beyond sport. She's won medals at both Summer and Winter Olympics, and she's bilingual…," said Russell.

"[She's] the most logical selection," added CBC Sports' Tom Harrington. "She's a gold medallist in Turin, a bilingual westerner, a companion of the Order of Canada, a Right to Play ambassador," he reasoned.

For the athlete herself, it's that last reference that is the most profound.

Hughes is an athlete representative for Right To Play, a non-profit, international Canadian organization that works in developing countries helping children, their families and communities through sport.

"I've learned what it truly means to be Canadian and in turn I've been inspired to make a difference in the world, however small it's been," she said.

While she has travelled to Ethiopia and Ghana to see the group's efforts in action, she also works at home to raise funds for the cause.

"Whenever she comes to town, she calls and asks, 'Is there anything I can do?'" says Robert Witchel, the organization's national director.

Endless giving

Clara Hughes will add the honour of flag-bearer to her illustrious resumé when the Canadian team enters BC Place in Vancouver on Feb. 12. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))
One of her most striking contributions came following the 2006 Games. Hughes donated $10,000 — her entire personal savings — to the cause.

Her gesture inspired Canadians across the country to give as well. As a result, over half a million dollars more was raised. But while Hughes is now inspiring others, it was the cause itself that drove her across the finish line when she won Olympic gold in 2006.

As she explained in her journal, on race day in Torino, Italy, she was feeling unmotivated. A silver medal from the team pursuit was already tucked away in a drawer, but something was missing.

Turning on the TV, she was drawn to a CBC documentary about Right To Play's involvement with children in war-torn Uganda. It was the inspiration she needed.

"I thought, 'If these children can find joy in their struggle, then certainly, so can I,'" she wrote. She wrote the word "joy" on her hand, and used it to inspire her in the 5,000 event.

After winning gold, Hughes decided to devote not only her money, but her time and energy, to Right To Play.

"Our actions are what will be remembered long after the glimmer of these medals fades," she wrote.

Curse or privilege

Hughes won two bronze medals as a cyclist at the 1996 Olympic Games. ((Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images) )
But as a flag-bearer, the actions that will be especially remembered are the ones Hughes makes after the opening ceremony.

Some are still wary of the flag-bearer's "curse" — the idea that athletes selected for the job fall flat in competition.

It stems from some flag-bearers of the past, who, facing lofty expectations, crumbled at the very moment they were supposed to deliver.

Other athletes slated to race shortly after the opening ceremony say the responsibility is too distracting. In fact, in 2006, Hughes asked not to be nominated for that very reason.

But this year, fortunately, there will be a window of time following the Feb. 12 opening ceremony for her to focus.

On Feb. 14, she'll compete in the 3,000. The 5,000 event — considered her forte — is set for Feb. 24. And though that window before her first race is not a big one, carrying her nation's flag at home is a moment too meaningful for her to deny.

"She's someone for whom a country's expectations are never a burden but rather a way to be empowered," Russell said.

So, on Feb. 12, just as Hughes has represented Canada in countless countries around the globe, she will carry her country's flag, as the eyes of her own nation and millions of people worldwide look on.

"After following this Canadian Olympic team … seeing who they are behind the results, seeing their generosity, compassion and humanity, I am so honoured to lead this Canadian Olympic team," Hughes said.

Surely, another action to be remembered.

With files from The Canadian Press