Sport's voice is being heard around the world, says Sebastian Coe

Founder Member of the Laureus World Sports Academy Sebastian Coe alongside Academy Members Steve Redgrave and Michael Johnson at a Laureus programme visit in London
Renowned Olympic athlete, head of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, founder member of the Laureus World Sports Academy, now President of World Athletics. Sebastian Coe has been a global figure at the heart of sport for more than four decades.
As the names of the Laureus World Sports Awards Nominees are announced this week, Coe looks back here on the turmoil of 2020 and reflects on how sport stepped up in the face of Covid and racial disquiet to make a real difference. 
He recalls how the immensity of the developing pandemic became clear to him last March, within the space of 24 hours. 
“We had our council meeting in Monaco and the 28 members were coming from around the world, outposts like the Norfolk Islands and cities like Manaus in Brazil.
Then half of them had to turn round because borders and airports started closing. Covid upended everything.  It posed a huge pressure and burden on the eco system that is sport.”
The Tokyo Olympics were quickly postponed, most sport was closed down or played without spectators, but sport refused to go away. High level competition was replaced with individuals and teams, elite and grassroots, finding a new purpose for their passion and commitment.
The London Marathon was a classic example. It was postponed in April, but rearranged as an elite athlete only event in October, when amazingly 45,000 people found a way to compete, including Sebastian Coe.
He said: “They created something called the 2.6 challenge, where you had to do 26 something or others, over five or six days. I did 26 sets of 26 press-ups. I walked around with a bag of sugar for a day after that!. Then I did 26 shuttle runs. Everybody took part and it was a way of raising money because the Marathon has been a God send to so many charities.”
Coe has positive words too for all the sportsmen and women who used their status in many different ways to contribute. He cites Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford who launched a campaign to relieve child food poverty in the UK by providing free meals during the school summer holidays.
“Marcus Rashford's determination to do something and use his profile, and the fact that the Premier League is watched by more people than almost any other sport, was absolutely the right thing to do. Marcus came from a really challenged background. He knew what it was like and wondered whether there was enough food to go around,” said Coe. 
“We want sportsmen and women to show that they are part of the world they live in. And I think the more they can do to reflect current challenges and do something about it, the better.”
Sebastian Coe visits a Laureus Sport for Good programme in Argentina in 2013 
As if Covid wasn’t a big enough issue, 2020 also developed into a year of massive social unrest and protest after several high profile incidents, beginning with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Coe says: “When I talk to young athletes, I always say ‘you know your path through the sport is your performance; it will get you to the table; it will get you noticed. But you then have a responsibility to articulate the sport, explain the sport and show people that you are a part of the world they live in. Sport doesn't sit apart’.
“I'm very proud to be a part of track and field. You know you can look back to Jesse Owens and the statement he made in the Berlin stadium in 1936, where he absolutely destroyed the risible Arian views of Adolf Hitler in a very high profile way. 
“I can look back to some of the challenges, not remotely equated to that, which I confronted around standing up against apartheid, where I caused some chat, some problems. Then I went to Moscow [1980 Olympic Games] against the wishes of the Government. You know athletes have always stood tall. 
“I think back to the Olympic Games of 1968. I was very privileged as President of World Athletics to give my President’s Award last December to John Carlos and Tommie Smith, whose bravery in that Olympic stadium that day [giving the black power salute] set the tone for where sport and politics and social change and social inclusion all come together. The way they were treated after that was shameful. 
“You can't divorce what we witnessed John Carlos and Tommie Smith do, from what was going on in their society at the time. And they were very clear about it. This wasn't just about black power. They were actually demonstrating on behalf of all the socially oppressed people that they had witnessed, black and white, in their own communities.
“We look back, particularly last year around the awful episode that we saw in the United States. But that's not just to vilify the United States. We have acts of racism across the globe. 
“I am not going to encourage athletes to demonstrate, but, as a Federation President, I am not going to tell them they should be cosmetic over their beliefs. If they feel that strongly about things they should be allowed to show it. I think Lewis Hamilton has done that. If you go back, Colin Kaepernick in the US did a few years ago [when he knelt during the national anthem].
“Racial equality, recognition about inclusivity and diversity is the DNA of Laureus. You couldn't have your first Patron and one of the most inspirational leaders the world has ever seen, in Nelson Mandela, being associated with Laureus without absolutely accepting that as a simple nostrum. It’s what's made Laureus different. I think it's what has given Laureus  longevity.
Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson visit a Laureus Sport for Good programme in Melbourne in 2006
“I know from my own time out in the field in the programmes that we've undertaken that social change hasn't always been comfortable in some of the countries that we've gone into. But you only have to look at the characters that were the founding fathers and mothers of Laureus, the Michael Johnsons, the Daley Thompsons, Edwin Moses, the Nadia Comanecis, to know they would absolutely die in a ditch to maintain that philosophy.
“I actually think sport has a greater propensity for zero tolerance on this than a great deal of other sectors. We are very hard on ourselves in sport. Sport doesn’t just echo or mirror trends, often it sets those trends and I think it will continue to do that.
“Given the events of the last few years, sport is the most powerful social worker in all our communities. I've seen that in my lifetime in the most profound way, but governments have still to recognise this.”
Coe’s reflections on the role of sport and the potential for athletes to use their profile to make a positive impact come as Laureus looks to emphasise the organisation’s focus on offering a platform for athletes and recognising not just sporting performance, but also the impact sport and athletes have on society.
Coe added: “This of all times is the opportunity for Laureus to step that up one more notch. And by recognising the work that sport does, in order to affect social change, to take the thought leadership role in that social change, alongside faith-based communities and political leaders. With commercial organisations, culture and the arts, sport is the great driver and has to have a seat at the table when those discussions are taking place. 
“We have a responsibility to listen to what the athletes are saying and I think that sport has been a very, very powerful movement in the last year. That’s why Laureus, stepping up its game in that specific area, is something that is so important and I’m really pleased it’s happening.”

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