Clara Hughes: Changing the Conversation About Sport and Health

Fifteen for Section 15 #4

What makes a great athlete? For me, it is someone who is accomplished but who has also shaped or changed the cultural conversation in some way. In his book Celebrity: Fame in Contemporary Culture, David Marshall likens the place of the “celebrity” in contemporary culture to Roland Barthes’ conception of the “sign”. Marshall argues, “like the sign, the celebrity represents something other than itself” (56). Celebrities, or for the purposes of this post, let’s say celebrated athletes, are those in who have some kind of cultural currency.

Clara Hughes is one of only four athletes to win multiple medals in both the summer and winter Olympics. Hughes won two bronze medals for cycling in the 1996 Olympic games, then switched to speed skating, winning a bronze medal in the 2002 5000 metre race, a gold and a bronze in speed skating in 2006 and another bronze in 2010. In what was (apparently) her final Olympic race, cycling in the 2012 London games, Hughes placed fifth, close, but 32 seconds away from a medal.

In 2011 Hughes made an unprecedented move in her personal life, becoming spokesperson for the “Let’s Talk,” a Canadian mental health awareness campaign. Hughes has appeared in ads for “Let’s Talk” and spoken to the media in-depth about her experiences with depression. In 2014, she is doing a cross-Canada bike tour to raise money for the campaign and to raise awareness of mental health issues. Hughes also does outreach with other organizations, including Right to Play, and has had other sponsorships.

Depression, and mental health in general, are perceived (by some) as weaknesses and can be a taboo topic for discussion. Talking about depression, as the campaign’s title suggests, is a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues. Joining “Let’s Talk” is much more impactful than typical athlete outreach or sponsorships. It is a pun-y thing to say, but Hughes really changed the conversation about her career, and also about mental health. She is proof that physical strength doesn’t preclude mental challenges. And at the same time she offers a face, maybe a coping model, maybe hope, to Canadians experiencing mental health issues.

And Hughes makes me think of David Marshall’s book because she has done something that other celebrities don’t often or can’t do: radically transform how we know her in a short period of time. This ups Hughes’ cultural currency because she has made her legacy about more than her titles and records. And yes, this is a campaign sponsored by a media corporation, so Hughes benefits even as she gives back. Still, it seems to me that Clara Hughes could have traded on her accomplishments or her beauty in the search for sponsorship, but instead she has chosen a more complicated path.

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