"Sport can change attitudes, change experiences, and challenge the world"


On December 3rd, the 2019 International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Laureus Sport for Good Chief Executive Adam Fraser spoke at the United Nations about the power of sport in promoting inclusion. An extract from his speech is below.

In 1975, a young Chinese man named Xia Boyu made his first attempt to climb Mount Everest. It ended in failure – and not just in failure but in serious injury. Having given his sleeping bag to a fellow climber during a storm, Boyu lost both his feet to frostbite. Two decades later, in 1996, his lower legs were amputated after he contracted lymphoma, blood cancer.


Neither of those supposedly life-changing experiences deterred Boyu. He tried to climb Everest again in 2014. He tried again in 2015, and again in 2016. And on May 14, 2018, at the age of 69 years old, he became only the second double amputee to summit Everest.


His achievement was recognised at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco in February 2019 as one of the crowning achievements in sport over the previous 12 months. Every person in the room was blown away by the achievement and the passion with which Boyu spoke about accomplishing his lifelong goal. But our hope is that it reached far more than the people in that room. We hope that those people following his story in the media back in China, for example – and even those of you in the room now who may not have heard it before – also adjust your expectations of what is possible.


In many ways as the Chief Executive of Laureus Sport for Good I should be here to focus on our grantmaking and our work on the ground, where we are using the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage in 40 countries around the world, and we will come to that. But really what I want to talk about today is challenging perception. 


At the very first Laureus World Sports Awards, in 2000, Nelson Mandela, our founding patron, challenged us with the famous words: “Sport has the power to change the world.” They have become a defining statement for our field. But the words he went on to say were equally powerful: “It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” I believe those words, and I believe we need to keep challenging that discrimination even 20 years on.


That is why we keep advocating at the Laureus World Sports Awards, drawing attention to inspirational stories like that of Xia Boyu. It is why days like today are important, and I thank you all for being here and commend the United Nations for raising awareness of sport’s role. It is why we at Laureus Sport for Good work with our programme partners all around the world to help them move forward in this area. Laureus makes grants to almost 200 organisations around the world each year using sport to change their communities and end violence, discrimination and disadvantage. We spend millions of dollars every year on programmes to drive change in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 


But it’s not just about the money we give to those programmes. It’s also about helping them grow, and learn, and change their own perceptions on what is possible. In 2018, we brought more than 100 of them together, alongside some of the world’s leading athletes, for a Summit in Paris focused on inclusion. Partnering with Special Olympics and others, we worked to train them all in being more inclusive in their programme design. Because, if you will excuse a slight twist on the concept of today, reaching young people with disabilities isn’t just about those young people. If you look at venn diagrams of exclusion – socioeconomic, race, gender, access to education and so on – the young people who are often the most excluded in any community are those with disabilities. If you reach those young people, you have a good chance of reaching everyone. We believe all our programmes should be accessible to all people. That is why, for example, our work with Special Olympics in west Africa, educating young people with intellectual disabilities about malaria and HIV, increased access to a wider group than just those specific beneficiaries.


Don’t get me wrong. Many of our programmes specialise in working with young people with disabilities. Deafkidz International’s Signing Safe Futures programme uses martial arts, boxing and dance to engage deaf girls and young women across Jamaica to address the challenge of gender-based violence. Right To Play Thailand work with children living along the Thai-Myanmar border who face social and economic hardships, reinforced when the child has an intellectual or physical disability. Our work with the National Paralympic Committee in Colombia has focused on the social interaction of people with disabilities in mainstream society, where stigma often prevents them from accessing education, particularly in rural areas. This is a story seen time and again around the world.


In 2010, almost a decade ago, Tanni Grey-Thompson, our Board member and one of the most successful Paralympians in history, visited the IMAGE programme in India with the cricket legend Kapil Dev. She saw a programme changing lives through its interactions with young people, but said to me last week that the most important thing wasn’t just the impact on the kids themselves – it was the changing attitudes in the community around them. Kapil Dev just being there changed how the community thought about these young people with disabilities living amongst them. It changed perceptions.


Sport has been doing that for a long time. Ludwig Guttman, a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany, founded a sports programme at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK in the 1940s. He believed sport was a method of therapy, increasing physical strength and self-respect. He held the first Games in 1948 for 16 people. By 1952 that number had grown to 130 and it has continued to grow as the Paralympic Games has become a sporting mega event, filling stadiums, attracting sponsors, signing broadcast deals and doing everything that the Olympics does and more.


It is a powerful story of changing perceptions, but it happened because of exclusion. No-one knew where to put disability sport. It wasn’t taken seriously. This was not just a problem in sport, but in society – this was a time in England when children with disabilities did not have access to mainstream education. I mentioned before that we are working to tackle this issue in some countries even today. Sport reflects society, but sport can lead society.


The Paralympic Games continue to change attitudes, but they cannot change the world themselves in ten days every four years. Our programmes continue to change attitudes, but they cannot be in every community in the world. Xia Boyu changed attitudes, but he cannot climb every mountain. My challenge to this room on this important day is actually not just: what can you do to use sport to help young people with disabilities? It is: how can we use sport to change attitudes, change experiences, and challenge the world to be fully inclusive of people with all forms of different abilities? Nelson Mandela told us sport has the power to change the world. This is one way we can show he was right.