Local Heroes and Paralympic Superstars take centre stage ahead of Laureus Awards

On the eve of the Laureus World Sports Awards, Olympic legends and Instagram sensations can’t compete with a homegrown hero at a Laureus Sport for Good programme visit
With 24 hours to go before the curtain raises on the greatest show in sport, the 2023 Laureus World Sports Awards produced a prelude that included stories of triumph over adversity, a returning local hero and a host of reminders that – just as Nelson Mandela said at the first Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000 – ‘sport has the power to change the world’. 

The biggest names in the sporting world will attend Monday’s ceremony, and they made their way to the French capital today. Nominees, previous winners, Laureus Academy Members and Laureus Ambassadors – even this most glamorous of cities gets an upgrade in star power when the Laureus World Sports Awards come to town.    

However, the most prestigious Awards in sport are not all about elite achievement, and the traditional curtain-raiser is a visit by Laureus athletes to one of the programmes supported by Laureus Sport for Good – the beating heart of the Laureus movement. 

Paris Basket 18 is based in the 18th arrondisement of Paris and it has a dual focus: the ‘leisure’ programme is about participation and educational and psychological support for girls growing up in low-income households, often in challenging circumstances. Parallel to that runs a talent development programme that combines those principles with more specialist coaching and tournaments. 

As a result, this ambitious and rapidly growing programme has hundreds of success stories – and several home-grown heroes. 

So, as the girls of Paris Basket 18 arrived for a session with five Laureus athletes, they watched, awe-struck, at the 16-year-old being fed a seemingly endless stream of passes around the basket. Sarah Cissé moved around her target, jumping for some shots, spinning for others. The result was almost always the same: the swish of the net. Cissé became a European under-16 champion with France in 2022 and started out in Paris Basket 18. 

“It’s hard to make her understand that the younger ones are looking at her like a role model,” says Agnès Sylvestre, the director of this programme. “We have to make them realise they are exceptional.”

Soon Cissé’s practice was over, the girls’ warm-up was complete and the Laureus party entered the gym. Each was greeted with excited applause: Nawal El Moutawakel, the 1984 Olympic champion over 400m hurdles and a Laureus World Sports Academy Member; as is Hugo Porta, an IRB hall of famer and one of rugby’s greatest fly-halves; Lisa Zimouche, a Laureus Ambassador and freestyle footballer; and Justine Dupont, the French big wave surfer nominated for the Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year Award at tomorrow’s ceremony. 

And then, Olivia Époupa was introduced. She doesn’t have two million Instagram followers like Zimouche, or an Olympic gold medal like El Moutawakel, but when she walked through the door, the girls of Paris Basket 18 leapt to their feet and screamed the walls down. 
Like Cissé, Époupa is from this place – this neighbourhood, and this gym – but the example she has shown these girls is more complete. She has had a successful professional career that has taken her to Turkey, Australia and Hungary and a collection of silver medals as part of the France team that lost the last four Eurobasket finals. 

“I can feel it!” she said of the reception she received from the current class of Paris Basket 18. “I was like them when I came here, and I am grateful. I try my best to help my community, to share my experiences and show them that anything is possible. 

“With this programme, with Laureus, what they do is very powerful. To give this opportunity to these young people? To discover their independence through sports? This is my dream.”

When the session hit full speed, Époupa was an animated auxiliary coach (injury prevented her from joining in the game). For the other four Laureus athletes, it was a chance to try a different sport and they enjoyed it as much as the girls they were working hard to keep up with. Dupont made a couple of impressive jump shots; El Moutawakel led her team in a motivational chant between games of ‘On n’est pas fatigué’ (We are not tired!); Zimouche performed soccer-style tricks with the basketball that enthralled her young audience. But it was Époupa for whom the queues formed of girls holding their phones out for a photo. 

 “I’m happy to see a girl from this neighbourhood coming back as a hero to these girls, to speak to them and to impress them. It’s all about inspiration and also respect,” said El Moutawakel. 

“Olivia comes here every year and talks to them, and that’s important,” said Sylvestre, the organising force behind Paris Basket 18.  “Other athletes could come, but if they are not from here it’s not the same. The girls could see them, but they would think, ‘But they’re not from here, so I can’t succeed’. It’s important to show them people like Olivia.” 

The over 300 programmes supported by Laureus Sport for Good do not have the development of elite talent as their core goal – that is to improve the lives of young people who face disadvantage, discrimination and inequality. However, when those young people can see someone who has been where they are now, and who then moved on to become a professional sportsperson, it illuminates a path that would otherwise remain unseen. 
The same theme of representation and inspiration extended to the day’s second event: a press conference featuring Laureus Academy Member Tanni Grey-Thompson, Craig Spence, the Chief Brand and Communications Officer of the International Paralympic Committee and three of the Nominees for this year’s Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award: Declan Farmer, Cameron Leslie and Jesper Saltvik Pedersen. 

“Sporting royalty,” was how Spence described the company he was keeping – and the day after she attended the coronation of His Majesty King Charles, Tanni Grey-Thompson explained to the world’s media the example that Laureus set by placing Paralympic athletes at the heart of the Awards from the inaugural ceremony in 2000. 

“We didn’t have to fight for inclusion – Laureus has led the way,” she said. “That spreads a strong message around the world.” 

Each of the members of the panel spoke about the phenomenal improvements in athletic performance at each successive Paralympic Games. Farmer is a three-time gold medallist with Team USA in ice sled hockey and in 2022 set a points record for most goals and most assists in an Olympic tournament. Farmer broke into the national team aged 14 and has seen the talent pool deepen since then. “We have so many young players coming through now, great players at 16 and 17 and it’s great to see,” he said. “But if I was trying to break into the team at that age today, I wouldn’t stand a chance!” 

Leslie, who won World Championship gold in the S4 100m freestyle and also co-captained the New Zealand team to the quarter-finals of the Rugby Wheelchair World Championship, had a similar story. “I’ve been representing New Zealand at swimming for 20 years,” he said. “At the start, there were three people on the national team. Now we have 10 to 12 athletes pushing for the final places and not all of them can get in.” 

As participation increases, and athletic achievement skyrockets, more and more young people will see themselves represented, and the cycle continues. “More attention helps. More television coverage helps,” said Saltvik Pedersen, the Para Alpine Skier who won four golds and one silver medal at the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing. “In my opinion, we are making the impossible possible.” 

Then, the stage was cleared, as night descended on Paris. Tomorrow, the red carpet will be rolled out. Tracksuits will be out. Evening wear will be in. And – with the greatest athletes in the world in attendance – we’ll have some Laureus Statuettes to hand out.

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