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How sport can save the world

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Matt Slater | 19:45 UK time, Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Towards the end of Ian Thorpe's swimming career, the Australian took a trip that would change him forever.

He visited parts of the world suffering from the most demeaning poverty, places where the inhabitants had almost no opportunities for escape or improvement and where diseases eradicated in the developed world still took a terrible toll.

It was a trip that shocked Thorpe because it was a journey to the heart of his own country and those inhabitants were fellow Australians. In fact, they were the original Australians.

I heard the 26-year-old tell this story at a conference last week called Beyond Sport, an apt title because sport has played a vital role in Thorpe's journey from Olympic hero to campaigner for aboriginal rights. But his story is about more than sport, or more than we usually assume sport can achieve.

Prodigiously talented, hard working and expertly coached, Thorpe was the Aussie dream personified.

At 14, he became the youngest male to swim for his country. At 15, he won his first two world championship golds. At 16, he set four individual long-course world records. At 17, the Sydneysider became a triple Olympic champion in his hometown.

The following year was even better. He won six golds at the 2001 Worlds, setting new records in his three individual races - the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle - to lead Australia to its first medal-topping performance at a global swimming meet since 1956.

At this point it seemed certain "Thorpedo" and his size 17 feet would go on to emulate Mark Spitz's haul of seven golds at the 1972 Olympics. Already the finest middle-distance freestyler in history, he only needed to find one more event.

But it wasn't to be, and despite a last hurrah at the 2004 Olympics, where he famously resisted the rising challenge from a young American called Phelps to claim his fourth and fifth Olympic golds, illness, injury and a waning of the desire to put in those long hours in the pool led him to make an emotional farewell to swimming in 2006.

So what next?

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Swimming great Ian Thorpe tells BBC Sport's Matt Slater about his work with aboriginal communities in Australia
"I knew what I didn't want to do but wasn't sure quite what I wanted to do, I'm still not sure now," Thorpe told me.

"But I've made a start and I've thrown myself into it. I get a lot of balance from the things I do around the world."

Balance is an intriguing word to use and it struck me that Thorpe has been looking for equilibrium from the first moment he came to the world's attention - he set up a charity to help disadvantaged children when he was only 17 himself.

That charity, Fountain for Youth, is now focused on health and education projects in indigenous communities in Australia's remote Northern Territory.

"There is a tremendous need there," he explained. "There is a huge difference between the life expectancy of aboriginal people and that of non-indigenous Australians (almost 20 years, according to Oxfam).

"There are people in Australia who suffer from illnesses at the same rate as people in the developing world. Australia is a rich country so I don't find that acceptable. We have the means to fix these problems but it's not happening.

"We're talking about a story that should be on the front page of newspapers but it isn't. We're talking about incredible poverty, pain and despair."

He went on to explain how desperate the "health emergency" is in some of these communities and just how isolated they are from the rest of the population.

I must admit I had little idea just how awful the situation remained for many of Australia's aborigines. I thought apologies had been made, policies implemented and scars were starting to heal.

I was wrong. But, believes Thorpe, I was no more wrong than millions of Australians who don't know any aborigines, don't want to know any aborigines and think more than enough money has already been spent on their problems.

It is a perception Thorpe has dedicated himself to changing and if it means making a few waves, so be it. Sport has given him a platform and he's not about to waste it.

Another sportsman with something to say - and the conviction to back those words with deeds - is NBA great Dikembe Mutombo. The 7ft 2in star from the Democratic Republic of Congo was also at the conference and like Thorpe he had an incredible tale to tell.

Mutombo will not be a familiar name to many of you but he has been part of the furniture for US basketball fans for two decades. Having arrived at Washington DC's Georgetown University to study medicine (but speaking almost no English), it wasn't long before he was persuaded to give basketball a try.

Up until this point his sporting passions had been football and karate but within a few years he had graduated from college basketball to the NBA's All-Star team in his first season in the league with the Denver Nuggets.

Eighteen years, five more teams and a total of 3,289 blocked shots later, a 42-year-old Mutombo finally retired from the sport, famous, popular and wealthy.

But that is only half of the story because in his spare time he built a $30m hospital in Kinshasa. OK, he didn't dig the foundations and cement the bricks but he did drive the project through from beginning to end and shell out $15m from his own pocket.

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NBA star Dikembe Mutombo explains why he built a hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo

"I worked hard to become a success but I never forgot the place that made me. I knew I had to go back home and help my people," said Mutombo, who shared the conference stage with Tony Blair, Prince Faisal of Jordan and Unicef ambassador Lord Puttnam.

"Lots of people asked me why I had come back and others wondered if I was going to be one of those guys who only do the 'talky talky'. I said I'm not just 'talky talky', I'm here to make a difference."

The end result for his war-torn land was the first modern, well-equipped hospital for nearly 50 years.

In another parallel with Thorpe, Mutombo is not afraid to throw a few elbows pour encourager les autres.

"I've been in verbal fights about (philanthropy), even with my team-mates at the Houston Rockets (his most recent team)," Mutombo admitted.

"I've challenged Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier - young men making good money - to give something back. Tracy went to Darfur to see how he could bring food there. I persuaded Yao Ming to start a foundation to help young people in China. I passed the torch to others."

And he's not done there. For his next miracle he will attempt to persuade the developed world to do more for sport in Africa than just mine for talented Africans. He believes the West has an "obligation" to do more than that.

"Sport stops violence," he said. "And it can be like a classroom for teaching youngsters, especially for things like HIV prevention. That disease has killed 25 million in Africa and left 50 million orphans.

"If we can get kids together playing basketball or soccer we can then tell them what they need to know to survive. We can change living conditions and give hope and we can do it now."

I know Thorpe and Mutombo aren't the only sports stars who give more than just a little bit back but they are among a select few who are not afraid to step where others fear to tread.

They also instinctively understand sport's unrivalled ability to improve lives and promote change. They have gone beyond sport in every sense.

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  • Comment number 1.

    good one, tim...i'd be interested to know if mutumbo's teammate mcgrady was persuaded to do anything philanthropic- maybe even something local in his hometown of davenport, florida or something joint w/ cousin vince carter. doubt it. but i'm hoping...

  • Comment number 2.

    Brilliant interview with Thorpe. What an extraordinary talent he has. His presentation at the summit was for me a piece de resistance both in the content and way it was delivered. Worth watching on the beyondsports website but also justifies a press release in its own right. In talking about the abject poverty he met on his travels whilst he just swam and the child in him that questioned why is the world the way it is, for me Thorpe stole the show. Furthermore, (unlike some, my guess) he wrote his own speech. I was privileged to spend some time with him afterwards. What a champion, politically savvy, approachable and authentic.

    Will you also share the thoughts of Lord Puttnam who gave another barnstorming performance? Some were surprised how good he was but perhaps were to young for Chariots of Fire or the Killing Fields (which incidentally through pirate copies helped thwart a civil War in the Ukraine) He does know more than most about social change and the developing world and like Thorpe and Mutombo he cares.

  • Comment number 3.

    Brilliant blog and a couple of wonderful interviews.

    Probably since the Christmas day kick-about between the trenches in WWI (maybe before, for all I know), people have known that sport can unite people as much as thrill them, knocking down boundaries as it goes.

    It is just a shame that in the modern age, with countless £billions in all sports, that a fair percentage of this wealth doesn't go to the poorest people who have most to gain.
    Instead it sticks with the elite few.

    If a big PL club decided to forego its £millions from a summer tour to a rich nation and instead actually did something of use (maybe paying for and helping to build decent facilities) in a truly poor area, they would gain both respect from the general pubic and legions of admirers in whatever region it was.
    Both of which could only do their future finances good, call me cynical, but maybe clubs would consider doing it for this reason alone, it might also make some of their more pampered stars realise just how lucky they really are and may loosen a few more purse strings in the process.

  • Comment number 4.

    Excellent Article Tim, am very glad you bought this up.
    Thorpe is a legend and great to hear that Thorpe is involved lots of charities and also supporting aboriginal rights and health.

    Politics set aside sports can be a big healer and big name sportspeople can make lots of difference in the society.

    Kudos to Thorpe and Mutumbo

  • Comment number 5.


    Great article and interview with Thorpey. I'm going to work in the paediatric department in Alice Springs in January so I'll see first hand what he is talking about. Maybe you can speak to him and ask him if he wants to come and visit!

  • Comment number 6.

    The incredible Ian Thorpe certainly shows his commitment to issues in his native Australia and his work there is to be lauded. As he said, he was still a very young man when he decided to look around and see where else his interest lay beyond swimming. You can change the world through sports as Lance Armstrong is, or with music as Joan Baez has, through politics as I am trying to, and countless unnamed people do every day in the best way they can. Nevertheless, I think it would be wonderful were Mr. Thorpe to return to the pool for London 2012. Let's cross our fingers...

  • Comment number 7.

    Hello all, apologies for the delay in replying to your comments but I've been on the road for a couple of days...well, on a train, in a hotel, at a swimming pool etc but it's meant I haven't been in front of a computer.

    usedtobeprofi - Tim? Who he? I'm not missing a cheeky little putdown, am I? No matter! As far as I know Dik has leaned on all the Rockets to 'go back home and give something back', wherever that may be. Not sure how if McGrady et al have taken him up on that in terms of charitable work in the US but they have done some great work in Africa. Click on the link to Darfur above and you'll see what McG has been up to.

    RichardHCross - You're absolutely right. Thorpey's speech was superb. Intelligent, well-delivered and from the heart. He was also a really nice guy before and after the interview I did with him. Incredibly modest too. I had to remind him that he still held a world swimming record....he'd forgotten. He was also very magnanimous about the current crop of swimmers and didn't seem to have any regrets or ill feeling about his career. I think it's a shame that his reputation will always be slightly tarnished by those unsubstantiated drug rumours - rumours motivated by jealousy, in my opinion. As for Puttnam, you're spot on there too. I mentioned how impressive he was on my twitter page at the time. I really didn't know what to expect from him and kind of wondered what he was doing up there but his knowledge and love of sport was obvious to all. I thought he outshone Tony Blair in terms of his vision for what sport is capable of.

    freddawlanen - I hear you, pal, and you're right, it would be nice if these mega-rich clubs thought a little bit more about the places they visit than how many shirts they might sell there. I see very little evidence of any attempt to leave a more positive legacy behind with these pre-season tours. That said, there are examples of PL players (and clubs) doing some great work, and it is often under-reported....which makes it even more impressive. Craig Bellamy and Rio Ferdinand are a couple of guys who have bucked their spoilt footballer reputations by raising a lot of money for causes in Africa.

    rideas - Yep, they're both v decent human beings. We need more like them.

    BennyBlanco - Good for you. I'm no expert on Australian geography but I think you are going to be in right ballpark for the kind of communities Thorpe was talking about. He told me that some of these places in NT are a five-hour plane trip from Sydney, then a three-hour drive to the nearest town and then another hour out into the wilds. Very, very cut off. You should email his Fountain for Youth charity and see if you can arrange a visit. I'm sure he'd be happy to help.

    jeffswims - Yes, Thorpe gave it up very young but I think he was just exhausted with it all. He'd been a big name in the sport for a decade and that's not bad at all for what is (with a few exceptions) still a young 'uns' game. The sheer amount of pool time they need to put in just makes normal adult life very difficult. And it was clear from a very young age that Thorpe wanted to do and say a lot more than a career in swimming would allow. I can't see him returning to the pool, to be honest. I don't think he has that Lance Armstrong killer instinct/desire for glory....he's just too level-headed and nice!

    Thanks for reading. I'll be blogging on swimming again next week as I've just spent the last couple of days with the Aussie swim team in Manchester. Another tale of sportsmen and women being decent people!

  • Comment number 8.

    Yes, SPORT DOES SHOW POSITIVE SIDE OF LIFE, better than many other Activities in LIFE. To reach World level..Hard work and Determination is
    ESSENTIAL, not forgetting the appropriate Environments, such as Good trainer, people's appreciation, and Funds plus....Above all, the Entertain value, the YOUTH ENERGY IS PROPERLY UTILIZED, preventing all NEGATIVE SOCIAL VALUES, such as terrorsim, drugs, gangs and easy Prey to
    Temptations and GREED FOR MATERIAL...

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Matt,
    Lord Puttnam was easily better than Blair, but then he referred to his own jottings.- Blair was enthusiastic but talked about Beckham being more widely known in Japan than he was. Hasn't he heard of the power of branding?

    Harder to track down than the moving image, but perhaps you should catch up with Lord Puttnam for an interview. At some of his most recent lectures he has been talking about how film and TV shape attitudes and behaviour and in so doing refine or undermine wider values of society. Be interesting to ascertain in more detail his views on sport, the progression of the Olympic movement, and (given his background in advertising) links between sport, international politics and business- beyond sports so to speak.

  • Comment number 10.

    This is very good news for Manchester - but they are one of very few cities that can boast aquatics facilities that would tempt teams. the others are Sheffield, Leeds and , err,!
    Now before people complain about this aquatics are not just swimming - there are other sport involved - diving for example and these are the only facilities that can provide both diving and a 50 metre pool.
    Corby, the new east Midlands pool has the 50m but the diving facilities only go up to 5m which is not sufficient.

    It might be worth looking at why Manchester and Sheffield have good facilities - it's not through development - they were built for specific events Sheffield the World Student Games ('92) and Manchester the Commonwealths (2002. Glasgow of course get the 2014 Games but they do not get diving facilities - only swimming.

    It was interesting to listen to the remark about no diving club in Coventry put to Lord Coe on his interview Friday.
    I was actually coaching in Coventry and Jamie started with me. I was thrown out by the pool after developing diving there for 18 months - very successfully- for complaining about unsafe practices and a total lack of management commitment to any development of the sport. In the week of the Beijing Olympics I taught 50 beginners in diving, all of whom wanted to continue, I asked for extended time which was available so as to increase numbers, the pool then found an excuse for getting rid of me ( I was away for 2 weekends at diving championships), stopping the lessons completely.
    At least they now have no one badgerng them to run it in a safe manner and to put some effort into developing diving there.
    My local pool (Peterborough)where I got new facilities installed a year ago has just closed it's facility after an accident and will not talk about how long it will stay shut. Again, over 40 young (and not so young) divers have nowhere to go.

    Yes the Olympics could do good, but, not the way it is being handled by leisure providers and sports governing bodies. Apparently, we don't need more facilities.


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