Celebrating athlete advocacy at the 2021 Laureus World Sports Awards

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Those two words talk to the mission behind these unique awards and the organisation behind them: to use the power of sport to change the world. Nothing less.  

Even though this time the presentation of the Awards was a little different, the two pillars of the Laureus World Sports Awards stood as tall and strong as ever: a celebration of elite athletic achievement, and of the impact sport can have on society – and on the lives of young people all over the world. 

We couldn’t be together on the night, but as we have all learned, these days there are ways around that. So we had a world leader, one of the world’s biggest pop stars and even an Avenger to share our story, along with the athletes honoured by Laureus. And this year, the story was not simply about who had ran the fastest or won the most, but about how they had changed the world around them. For every acceptance speech beaming in from all over the world, there was a tribe of people celebrating; this year’s winners not only thrilled us in the sporting arena, but touched the lives of others and inspired us all.

Naomi Osaka was the first athlete to pick up an award. She spoke from her training base in Los Angeles as her preparations for the clay court season continue, in the kind of evening wear that would make a Tour victory unlikely, even for her. 

From one Award winner to another – the greatest ever female Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn presented the Sportswoman Award, virtually, to Naomi.

In Tokyo, Los Angeles and Haiti, a generation of young women who are part of Osaka’s Play Academy project in these three diverse locations saw their role-model honoured as Laureus Sportswoman of the Year. Play Academy with Naomi Osaka – developed in association with Laureus Sport for Good and Nike – aims to encourage young women to find their voice through sport. It’s about developing confidence and leadership skills. Osaka’s message to those she inspires – that once you put yourself out there, anything is possible – had another perfect illustration. 

She was watched, too, across the United States by family members of the seven victims of police shootings she honoured during her run to the 2020 US Open title. She walked onto court for each match wearing a face mask bearing the name of a different victim. She brought the global conversation over police violence against the black community onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in one of the boldest, most memorable statements from a year in which athletes used their platforms to change the world. 

Lewis Hamilton became the inaugural recipient of the Laureus Athlete Advocate of the Year Award, introduced by Siya Kolisi, captain of the South Africa rugby team. Those two met at last year’s Awards, where Kolisi (receiving the Laureus World Team of the Year Award with the Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks) was impressed with Hamilton’s focus on advocacy in his acceptance speech for his Sportsman of the Year Award. In the following 12 months, Hamilton backed up his words with action, working with his Mercedes team – and the wider sport of Formula One – to ensure the sport is more reflective and open to talent from any background.

Hamilton won 11 races in 2020, on the way to a record-equalling seventh drivers’ championship. He took the knee ahead of every race, wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and was an active partner of the Mercedes Team’s move to race in black livery.  

In his speech receiving this new Award, Hamilton was every inch the athlete-advocate, dedicating the honour to all of those who participated in what he described as “the global uprising to address the long-standing issue of systemic racism and inequality in our society’ and challenged everyone watching to keep fighting ‘so that the promises of last year can turn into action”.

It wouldn’t be the Laureus World Sports Awards without a little bit of Hollywood star dust, and following in the grand tradition of actors such as Morgan Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bill Murray, Paul Rudd – possibly with the aid of Ant Man’s nano-technology – appeared on our screen.

Rudd is almost certainly the world’s best-known Kansas City Chiefs fan and provided a heartfelt dedication for their quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, the recipient of the Laureus World Breakthrough of the Year Award. Mahomes led the Chiefs to victory in Super Bowl LIV with a history-making performance, engineering a game-winning 21-point run that overturned a 10-point deficit and landed their quarterback the game’s MVP award.

But this award is for more than that. Mahomes was a leader as NFL athletes joined the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating for change within their sport. And ahead of the US Election, he focused on voter registration, both locally and nationally. Mahomes teamed up with fellow Laureus Nominee LeBron James by joining James’ More Than A Vote organisation. “Change isn’t made by watching from the sidelines,” posted Mahomes at the time.

When Laureus honoured Mohamed Salah with the Laureus Sporting Inspiration Award it was, like each of his goals, rooted as deeply in Egypt as it was on Merseyside. Salah himself dedicated the Award to fans of all sport, all over the world, at a time when their absence has been keenly felt. “This past year has been a very harsh reminder that sport – including football – is nothing without fans.”

However, the inspiration Salah provides extends even beyond that broad categorisation. Nowhere is his influence greater than in his home village of Nagrig, where he contributed towards building social infrastructure – from schools to ambulance stations.  

And back in Liverpool, political scientists linked a substantial reduction in anti-Muslim hate crime, both in the community and online, to the way Salah is seen by the city’s inhabitants. 

It was left to Jurgen Klopp, Salah’s manager at Liverpool, to provide an insight into the person behind the public figure. “When you think of Mo Salah, you think about an outstanding footballer and a great goalscorer, what you may not see is what kind of a good person he is. If I tell you he is an even better person than he is a player, then you may be able to imagine what kind of guy he is.”

In Germany, another young man originally from the same region as Salah had a different story to tell Laureus. Mazen Mirzo is a youth leader with KickForMore by KICKFAIR, winner of the Laureus Sport for Good Award. But his story began in Iraq, from where he fled in 2001. Growing up in Offenburg, Mazen saw himself as a loner, always getting into trouble and without a sense of place or belonging. When the KickForMore project came to his school, that changed, and since then he has become a youth leader in the project that empowers young people to break down barriers of culture and gender within a sporting and educational environment.

We were back in Germany for the next award, but moving south, to Munich, the home of the Laureus Team of the Year, Bayern Munich. Six titles in a year, including the treble of Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League, might well have been enough to justify any team award for coach Hansi Flick’s all conquering Bayern. However, the example they set to fans who for most of their success were not allowed in the stadium, went beyond even those achievements. 

When the pandemic separated Bayern from their fans, the players, led by Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, formed We Kick Corona, a fundraising initiative aimed at getting help to the most needy in their community. More than 4000 donors have contributed over €5million to support 661 medical and relief organisations struggling to survive during the pandemic. Bayern donated €250,000 to the charity and Kimmich and Goretzka, who made a joint pledge of €1million, said: “As professional footballers, we live a healthy and privileged life. We therefore feel obliged to take on responsibility in these difficult times.”

The multi-cultural make-up of the Bayern squad also formed the cornerstone of their Rot gegen Rassismus (Reds Against Racism) campaign, which launched with a powerful series of personal statements from the biggest names across the organisation. As well as contributions from the club’s iconic goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and forward Thomas Muller, there was also a deeply personal testimony from winger Alphonso Davies:

“My parents fled from Liberia, I was born in Ghana, grew up in Canada and now feel at home in Munich. That’s my story: from a refugee baby to a player for a top club in the Champions League. I know that football knows no borders… Racism has no place in football.” 

Next stop, North America, and first Laureus honoured Maya Moore, who stepped back from a Hall of Fame WNBA career to focus on the fight for justice for Jonathan Irons, a man who had served 23 years for assault and burglary before a campaign for a review of his case resulted in Irons’ conviction being overturned in the summer of 2020. Moore and Irons were married later the same year. As she has done in a sporting career that includes two Olympic gold medals and two world championships, Moore redefined what can be done when an athlete uses his or her platform to fight injustice.

“I wake up every day without taking life and the things I love for granted. And that’s what I am most proud of.” So said Max Parrot, standing by the river, looking sharp in his tuxedo to accept the Laureus Comeback of the Year Award. The Canadian snowboarder reminded us that almost exactly two years earlier he had been at his lowest ebb, about to start the 10th of 12 chemotherapy sessions as treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. Parrot persevered, holding on to the idea that he would return to compete on the slopes. 

Two months after his final round of chemotherapy, in August 2019, Parrot was back on the winner’s podium at the X Games Europe in Oslo, where he won the Big Air event. Then at the start of 2020, he returned to the Winter X Games at Aspen and won his sixth gold there, a year after missing the event to begin his treatment. The following March, he won the Slopestyle event at the Winter X Games Europe in Oslo. It’s a comeback that drew recognition from the highest office in Parrot’s native Canada, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined the Awards from Ottowa. “Beyond reclaiming his success as a snowboarder, Max has had a greater impact off the slopes,” said Trudeau. “He started to give, promote and fundraise for the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada and he has raised awareness of this terrible disease, giving more people a fighting chance of beating it.” 

Not all our winners are Olympic medallists honoured by Prime Ministers but our next was the beneficiary of a democratic process of which Canada’s leader would surely approve: Chris Nikic won the popular vote for the Laureus Sporting Moment of the Year Award. Nikic became the first athlete with Down’s Syndrome to complete a full Ironman Triathlon – a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile cycle, with a marathon 26.2-mile run to finish. The cut-off time for recognition is 17 hours and Chris finished less than 14 minutes from that deadline in as inspirational and dramatic a sports story as we saw in 2020. All over the world, young people with Down’s Syndrome (and anyone without the condition) had their idea of what is possible altered by this courageous 21-year-old from Florida.

From Spain, Rafael Nadal accepted the Laureus Sportsman of the Year Award for all he achieved in 2020: not only a 13th French Open title and 20th Grand Slam championship, pulling level with his friend and rival Roger Federer, but also leading on one of the most impressive and significant Covid responses from any athlete. Nadal partnered with Pau Gasol, the former NBA star, to launch #NuestraMejorVictoria (Our Greatest Victory), a campaign to encourage those within sport, starting in Spain, to lend their support to the Red Cross Responds campaign. 

Its aim was to raise €11million to help citizens who were in need during the pandemic, but in June 2020 Nadal announced that the money raised exceeded €14million.

He said: “Between us all, we have managed to do something important and beautiful. Not only the money raised, which exceeded €14m, but also the solidarity and teamwork shown during difficult times.”

At the same time, the Rafael Nadal Foundation worked to adapt around the pandemic, using the Foundation centres in Palmas and Valencia to provide sports-centred educational resources to children in disadvantaged areas. “We believe in the power of sport and education to create opportunities for these children,” said Nadal as he received his Award

Billie Jean King accepted the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award with a speech that reminded us that her role in modern sport is ongoing and stretches beyond what she achieved in the arena in a way matched by very few sporting careers. 

But let’s not forget about the tennis. King won 39 Grand Slam titles, including a career Gland Slam in singles – only Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova have more. 

However, that is less than half of the story. In over 50 years of activism in and out of sport, King has been a pioneer, seemingly always ahead of public opinion on key issues. These included the move to professional tennis in the USA; the establishment of a women’s tour (King even secured sponsorship) and the unionisation of tennis players. Away from the sport, she has been a champion for the rights and equal representation of women and gay people and in 2009 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honour in the USA – by President Barack Obama.

Few athletes have had that honour, and fewer still could command tributes from Magic Johnson, Naomi Osaka and Elton John, three of the friends who joined us to celebrate Billie Jean King. Her final shot – as ever – was a winner. 

“Every one of us is an influencer – we need to show up, stand up and speak up!” 

For an Awards celebrating sporting success with prestigious and highly contested Awards limited to a lucky few, it is striking that at the end of the evening something is clear: through the work of so many athletes and Laureus itself, Everyone Wins.

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