Marcel Hug was named World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability by Laureus on Sunday, and he is enjoying the feeling. “For me it’s the most important award we can win in sport,” he says, “so I’m very happy and proud to have it.”
The Laureus World Sport Awards are international prizes selected each year by a tiny electorate of 71 people. Each of them are former winners – the best of the sporting best – and any success therefore shows the level of respect with which athletes are held by their peers.
That Hug should be the winner of this year’s award – his fourth nomination and second success – should come as no surprise. The “Silver Bullet”, as the Swiss wheelchair racer is known due to his distinctive metallic helmet, dominated the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. He won four gold medals in the T54 classification, at 800m, 1500m and 5,000m as well as the marathon, and set world and Paralympic records in the process.
“I think it is the top of my career,” Hug says, reflecting on what he describes as a “crazy” year. “Of course it was challenging to come to Tokyo, because we had not a lot of competitions. I really didn’t know where I was standing compared with my competitors. So to win that first gold in the 5,000m came as huge relief, and for the next races I was full of confidence.”
It was in the heats of the 5,000m that Hug finished nearly a minute clear of ParalympicGB’s David Weir, a performance that signalled the beginning of the very end of their fierce rivalry, one that stretches back to London 2012. Hug may have eventually slayed the “Weirwolf”, but he says the two remain cordial. He got a text from the Scot to congratulate him on his award, plus the two world records in the 5,000m Hug has already recorded this year.
“The rivalry with David is really important to me and it means a lot,” Hug says. “We have been competing together for so many years and being great rivals means we pushed each other to our limits and made ourselves stronger. I think he was also a very important person for the London Paralympics. London 2012 was a very important games for para-sport, and to have David as a multiple winner there gave us an extra boost.”
Hug is gracious in reflecting Weir’s status as an icon in para-sport, and says it had never occurred to him to reflect on his own legacy until he completed his events at Tokyo last year. “After that, everything was different. After the Paralympics I was reflecting on my future, but I was also thinking ‘what is my legacy in this sport’? Now I think for the years that I am still in racing, I hope that I have more of an impact. I really hope so.”
Hug says he has no idea of what he will do once he retires, but at the age of 35 that consideration is becoming real. He has adjusted his sporting ambitions, switching from plans that were built around four-year Paralympic cycles to those that last only 12 months. “It took me a long time to realise what happened in that crazy season last year,” he says, “Now I want to use [the time] to feel how motivated I am and how I want to continue. From now on, I take it year by year.”
Alongside his record of success, Hug will also leave a legacy through the way he has pushed development of technology in para-sport. It was his racing chair, designed by a consortium of engineering teams including the Formula One company Sauber and debuting in Tokyo, that Weir described as “a Ferrari of a chair”. It sparked debate over the possibility of a technological divide in a sporting world that was professionalising at rapid speed.
Hug says he understands such concerns, but believes they are far outweighed by the benefits. “I totally understand there are lots of discussions about materials, and particularly my wheelchair, and there are people saying it is not fair,” Hug says.
“My point of view is that we are also a professional sport, that we should try to develop and that this includes the materials. I hope my chair helps to bring our sport a little bit forward, to also motivate other brands of racing wheelchairs to develop their chairs. I absolutely hope it is seen in the same way as in a non-disabled sport, like cycling or motorsports.”
He may not have worked out for himself his legacy in para-sport, but an increased professionalism might well be part of it. The dedication he has shown to his sport has not only led to great success but it has pushed the boundaries, just as Weir’s did too.
“I really hope that we can continue our way to become more professional, make more tour events, get more athletes coming in to our sport,” Hug says, looking forward. “But I think we are in a good way. There is more interest in para-sport now than when I started many years ago. I think we should continue in that way.”