Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Former Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

Gold-standard philanthropy

Athletes give their best not only in the upcoming Games

22 July 2021

The upcoming Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo will be setting new records – not only for being the first ever delayed games of the pandemic. The Olympic games will see the largest ever delegation of members representing Team GB abroad (376 athletes which was only topped by the 541 athletes starting in the 2012 London Olympics).

That’s not the only landmark - skateboarding will be included in these games for the first time and skateboarder Sky Brown will become Team GB’s youngest-ever summer Olympian and, for the first time in its 125-year history, Team GB will also be taking more women than men to a summer Olympic Games.

Many athletes will become famous for their performance and cement themselves forever in our collective memory and history books. But many of them are also noticeable for their activities beyond their sport.

The Olympics and philanthropy have a long shared history and both can, etymologically at least, trace their roots back to Ancient Greece. In Ancient Greek, the word philanthropy translates in the wider sense to ‘love of humankind’, and the Greek philosopher Plutarch used the concept of philanthrôpía to describe superior human beings.

The relationship with charity is a symbiotic one. The amateur roots of the Olympics have left the athletes and organisational bodies without the massive financial heft seen in the world of football, for example.

Instead, individual and institutional charitable giving has filled the gaps to provide training, facilities and support to the Team GB athletes. Most famously the National Lottery has helped fund UK Sport on a massive scale, with 86% of British athletes at London 2012 benefitting from lottery funding.

In the case of the Lottery, a level of giving towards sport is a contractual obligation but sources of funding come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Individual grassroots sports clubs can apply for trust funding from organisations like Boost or Cash 4 Clubs but many of them rely on local fundraising and small donors.

With the pandemic having cut off many traditional fundraising activities for these clubs, as well as shutting down clubhouses and on-site cafes, we’ve seen local sports societies face funding pressures and the ominous prospect of shutting down. Since 2008 Team GB has been performing at historic levels of competitiveness and grassroots sports clubs have been a fundamental driver of this success.

For this reason, the work that athletes do to “give back” has taken on an increased importance. There is a long history of athletes becoming central figures that fundraise, found their own foundations and charities or raise awareness for good causes and the charitable work of others through their platforms. Giving back, not only to the sport that they love, is central to many athletes mission.

Prominent examples of organised philanthropic work include the athletics legend Dame Kelly Holmes, the first British female athlete to win both the 800m and 1500m and won twelve major championship medals from the Olympics, Worlds, Commonwealth Games and Europeans. Her Trust is working together with athletes to improve the health and wellbeing of young people across the UK through a range of programmes, and it has also supported over 400 athletes to lead successful lives beyond sport. Similarly, the Sir Steve Redgrave Fund aims to “use the power of sport to action positive change in the lives of disadvantaged children, young people and their communities”.

It is not just past Olympic heroes who are engaged in philanthropic work. The principle charity partner of the Tokyo Olympics is the Red Cross and Team GB athletes Katarina Johnson-Thompson (women’s heptathlon), Andrew Pozzi (men’s 110m hurdles) and Adam Gemili men’s 200m and 4x100m) recently visited Fukushima to see the work of the Red Cross in the area.

Closer to home, the British Olympic Foundation (BOF) is the charitable arm of the British Olympic Association. It promotes the ideals and values of the Olympic movement and encourages participation and awareness of Olympic sport, in particular for young people. Together with the British Paralympic Association it delivers Get Set - the Olympic and Paralympic youth engagement programme.

Many of this year’s athletes are engaging with charitable work on a personal level. Team GB’s youngest medal hope, skateboarder Sky Brown, released a skateboard to support Skateistan with proceeds from its sales. The charity is in an award-winning non-profit organization empowering children and youth through skateboarding and education, building skate schools across the globe in multiple locations (e.g. in Cambodia, Phnom Penh). The oldest competing athlete Olympian Carl Hester MBE (riding En Vogue) has raised money for Bowel Cancer UK in the past, taking part in their ‘Decembeard’ campaign (the Tokyo Games will be his sixth appearance at the games).

Ellie Simmonds OBE (para swimming) is a WaterAid ambassador campaigning for better access to water and decent sanitation to improve the lives of communities and tackle poverty. Shauna Coxsey MBE (climbing) is a trustee of Climbers Against Cancer which fundraises to support cancer research facilities throughout the world with the support of the global climbing community. Mo Sbihi MBE (rowing) has supported causes like food poverty, raising funds to support street children in Morocco. Steph Houghton MBE (women’s football) backs multiple charities including the James Milner Foundation, Future Dreams and the NSPCC, and together with her husband set up the Darby-Rimmer MND Foundation which is raising money to fight motor-neurone disease.

The Tokyo Olympics will see a raft of inspiring athletes compete for medals and promote their sport. But many will also leave us inspired through their charitable work outside of the stadiums and pitches. This is something we have in common with them. The impact of the pandemic still lingers on for many, but those of us who are in a position to do so can be a donor and support a good cause by giving time, money or in-kind. And these Olympics will be better ones if we shine a light on the way athletes and all of us can give back.