Performance


Sean Fitzpatrick on the power of sport to drive diversity.

29 March 2021

The New Zealand rugby legend reached the highest echelons of his sport. Now, he aspires to give children from all walks of life the same opportunities and break down systemic barriers to inclusion in sport.

Performance


Sean Fitzpatrick on the power of sport to drive diversity.

29 March 2021

The New Zealand rugby legend reached the highest echelons of his sport. Now, he aspires to give children from all walks of life the same opportunities and break down systemic barriers to inclusion in sport.

Laureus Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick hugs Laureus Academy Member Tegla Louroupe after finishing in the 1000m Sport for Good Run.

Over the past 20 years, Laureus Sport for Good has raised €150 million for the Sport for Development sector and changed the lives of more than six million children and young people. Image: Getty Images / Simon Hofmann.

In 2005, former New Zealand rugby captain Sean Fitzpatrick ONZM was visiting Sierra Leone with skateboarding icon Tony Hawk. The civil war had not long ended – a brutal 11-year campaign that saw children dragged from their homes to serve as combatants. To resist meant losing a hand, or worse.

Sean and Tony had come to see Right to Play: a humanitarian organisation that brings youths together to play sport and learn new skills. “It changed my life, all these little kids running around with only one hand,” says Sean. “They didn't know who we were, but I took a rugby ball, Tony took a skateboard, and it made them smile. Without the power of sport, they wouldn't have had an opportunity to dream and to be children again.”

Laureus Academy Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick.

Sean joined the Laureus World Sports Academy as a founding member in 2000. Image: Getty Images / Simon Hofmann.

The trip came about through Sean’s work with the Laureus World Sports Academy, which he joined as a founding member in 2000. Now Chairman, Sean explains that the academy was formed to host the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards; however, after the inaugural event, its members realised it had greater potential. “Nelson Mandela, our founding patron, was at those awards and he gave us the words ‘sport has the power to change the world’,” says Sean. “We needed a vehicle to do that and that's how Sport for Good was formed.”

Over the past 20 years, Laureus Sport for Good has raised €150 million for the Sport for Development sector and changed the lives of more than six million children and young people. It currently operates in over 40 countries, supporting more than 200 programs, like Right to Play, that use sport to overcome violence, discrimination, and disadvantage. Funding comes from sponsors, including Mercedes-Benz, which as a founding partner has worked with Sport for Good since its inception.

A team of 69 academy members (sporting legends that have dominated their fields) and over 200 ambassadors (current or recently retired sportspeople) volunteer their time to champion Sport for Good programs. “All of us have been very fortunate to have the gift of being able to play sport at the highest level,” says Sean. “But we were given an opportunity and that's what we’re trying to do: give all kids equal opportunities.”

One of the academy’s key focus areas is social inclusivity, which is reflected in many of its projects. Yuwa in northern India, for example, uses football as a magnet to get girls into the classroom, thereby turning the tide on child marriage, poverty and illiteracy. Having met some of Yuwa’s graduates, Sean is blown away by the impact it has had on their lives. “One of the girls said: ‘The most important thing for us as young ladies is that we can now dream. Before, we couldn’t.’”

Laureus Academy Chairman Sean Fitzpatrick with Yuwa Girls Football team at the 2019 Laureus World Sports Award in Monaco.

Sean says he is blown away by the impact sport has had in places such as Yuwa, in northern India, where they use football as a magnet to get girls into the classroom, thereby turning the tide on child marriage, poverty and illiteracy. Image: Getty Images / Matthew Lewis.

Though Sean passionately supports projects like Yuwa that use sport to promote equality, he never encountered inclusivity issues during his own playing career. Making his professional debut on the field in 1986, he says diversity seemed to be the norm in New Zealand, which was the first nation to give women the right to vote and where rugby is often seen as a uniting force between the Māori and Pākehā (white) communities.

In contrast, stars such as 2020 Laureus World Sportsman Sir Lewis Hamilton, have been openly critical about the lack of racial and gender diversity in their sport. As the only Black driver in the history of Formula One, the seven-time world champion last year launched The Hamilton Commission to improve representation of Black people in motorsport.

He’s not the only sportsperson fighting for diversity. Last year, three-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka created Play Academy: a Laureus-supported initiative that encourages girls to get active in Japan, where girls drop out of sport by age 15 at more than twice the rate of boys.

Such programs are inspiring young people to engage with sport at grassroots level, which Sean believes is vital to addressing systemic barriers to inclusion. “We need heroes, people banging the drum for diversity in their sport,” he says. “Look at our academy: we come from different countries, [we] no doubt have different outlooks on life, but the common denominator is sport. Sport doesn't discriminate.”

To learn more about Sean Fitzpatrick’s work with the Laureus World Sports Academy, visit laureus.com/

By Beth Wallace