For a country that has not always been defined by patriotism, the choice of a flag-bearer is one that most Canadians view as a sacred trust.

It’s a decision not taken lightly. The person selected has to be just right.

There are many qualified athletes out there but none fits the bill better than a cyclist turned speedskater named Clara Hughes.

It’s awfully hard to argue against her.

Hughes transcends statistics and accomplishments on the field of play.

Based on the fact that she is a five-time Olympian and the winner of five medals, as well as being the only Canadian to have ascended the podium at both the Winter and Summer Games, Hughes soars above most of the rest.

Her credentials as an athlete are beyond question.

As a human being who reflects Canada, Clara Hughes is more than distinguished.

She is a native of Winnipeg, who lives in Quebec and is fluent in both of the country’s official languages. That has to count for something. Less tangible, but equally striking, is this 37-year-old woman’s commitment to the Olympic movement and all it entails as well as the responsibility it demands.

As an ambassador of the humanitarian organization Right to Play, Hughes has devoted her time and money to ensure that the world’s most disadvantaged children are positively affected by sport.

In short, she represents the most elusive of all things — hope.

When asked recently to assess the meaning of being Canadian, Hughes responded by forwarding an essay she had written on the occasion of the nation’s birthday.

“Racing through many of the areas where, historically speaking, Canada fought for freedom held a lot of weight,” she wrote of her cycling training in Europe.

“As a young person, it made me see that my country was indeed a special place.”

Clara Hughes understands that being Canadian is a privilege and a way of living that conjures up strength. She discovered this on the start line of her first Olympic cycling race in Atlanta in 1996.

“It was an energy that I had never felt before,” she admitted.

“The mythology of the Olympics combined with that Maple Leaf on my back gave me a feeling of limitless possibilities. On that day I had all of Canada inside of me.”

Clara Hughes is what Canada needs in a flag-bearer.

She’s someone for whom a country’s expectations are never a burden but rather a way to be empowered.

– Scott Russell is the Host of CBC Sports Weekend seen Saturday afternoons. He has covered professional and amateur sports including nine Olympic games and numerous world championships.

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