Athlete activism upsurge encouraging next generation to speak up for social causes

It’s the “gumption” of the younger generation that gives Helen Richardson-Walsh hope for the future.

The Olympic gold medallist wants more sports stars to show they care about social issues by speaking out. She’s seeing encouraging signs; that those coming through are getting more savvy about social media and are recognising the power of their platforms. There’s an improved understanding that you can be a high achiever and an athlete activist, but that it takes initiative and self-confidence to succeed at both. Richardson-Walsh is ready to help harness that enthusiasm.

“When I was younger, I’m not even sure I’d have recognised it was necessary,” she admits, when asked if she would have felt so comfortable in the past to address inclusion, gender equality, and mental health. These are three issues which the hockey champion – who won almost 300 caps for England and Great Britain – has brought to wider attention through discussing her own experiences, at events, in interviews, and on social. But even in her youth – “I was a grumpy teen, often moaning” – it was never the case that she didn’t care enough, just that she lacked direction.

A pointed comment from a teacher sticks in her memory. “She looked at me once after I’d complained about something, and said simply, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ It’s only in recent years that I’ve truly started to appreciate what she meant.”

Her sense of purpose is shared by the women alongside her on a panel discussion about Olympians and Paralympians’ perspectives on social causes, being held at the relaunch event of the thinkBeyond Talent agency. Like Richardson-Walsh, Baroness Tanni-Grey Thompson participated in multiple Games before refocusing her energies to bring about change; next to her, Jade Jones-Hall is pursuing her own targets in paratriathlon as well as wider goals in access to disability sport; and Molly Thompson-Smith, a Sky scholar, is using her journey towards Tokyo 2020 to raise awareness of the lack of diversity in climbing and adventure sports.

Together they represent Generations X, Y and Z, with Richardson-Walsh and Grey-Thompson familiar to medal podiums and public speaking, and Jones-Hall and Thompson-Smith eager to gain more experience of both. The aim of thinkBeyond is to assist talent in identifying causes close to their hearts, and to best position them so that their words are heard, and their hard work gets results. In a video message after the panel chat, Michael Johnson presents a showcase for his Young Leaders programme, while boxer Carl Frampton appears in person to discuss his commitment to community cohesion in his native Northern Ireland.

It’s a time of opportunity, particularly for those in the UK who are picking up on the raised volume of athlete activism in the US. As a Serena Williams tweet earlier in the week put it, “Listen up. This is the voice of the athlete.” Even by itself, that call to action would be strong, given Serena’s personality and history, but it’s galvanised further by the presence of the Nike logo. ‘Until We All Win’ is a brand slogan that strives for equality and which people can buy into – in every sense.

Richardson-Walsh describes herself as “a massive Serena fan”; they were in fact born only a few days apart, and while both struck gold at Rio 2016, Helen would be the first to emphasise that their personal narratives and the size of their respective global audiences are vastly different. Yet in relative terms and through their individual sense of identity, both have become accomplished storytellers.

Helen’s triumph with Team GB at Rio 2016 had added significance as it was achieved alongside her wife Kate, providing a milestone for LGBT visibility in sport. Her parents were special needs teachers, and the spirit of their work continues with the Richardson-Walshs serving as ambassadors for Access Sport on the Flyerz Hockey programme for disability hockey. In addition, Helen has spoken of her own experiences with depression in a bid to eliminate the stigma that surrounds mental health.

A commitment to participation for all underpins her inclusion work; she cites Flyerz as an example. “I feel like I’m coming from a place of privilege in certain areas, and that would be one of them.

“Everyone should grow up, regardless of who they are, with the opportunity to play sport. That’s why I feel so passionate about disability hockey. When you see those people out there on the pitch, connecting, enjoying it, it takes me back to why I used to play. Sometimes it’s easy to forget why we play sport, and what it can give.

“You can get just as much satisfaction out of helping someone else play, and seeing them develop, as you do yourself.”

She is encouraged by the albeit slow progress on the visibility of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in sport – “it is important, and every year, it gets slightly better” – but debates around the T in LGBT frustrate her. “I try to put myself in different people’s shoes, and this is one area where I’ve been disappointed with LGB people. I don’t think there is that support that there should be for the trans community.

“In society, there absolutely isn’t either. Trans people are going through what gay people went through in the 70s and 80s, and it doesn’t need to be the case.

“In sport, I think governing bodies and associations need to really start talking about this. Recognising that there are trans people that want to play their sports is first and foremost. But the more vocal we are as a collective, the better it will be.

“Even for hockey, they struggled to support outwardly myself and Kate in our relationship. There is that fear factor, of not wanting to say or do the wrong thing. Whether those NGBs look more to Stonewall or they talk more to trans people in sport, they need to really try to understand what’s necessary for inclusion. And that’s only the starting point.”

Richardson-Walsh continues to seek out answers herself; she now has a Masters in organisational psychology, with her studies providing a deeper knowledge of workplace behaviour, while also allowing her to apply academic thinking to the elite sports culture in which she grew up. In union with Kate, she has an ongoing pledge to “smash stereotypes” and is interested in how clever marketing can kickstart the kind of conversations that release people from their pigeonholes.

In the last week, she has attempted to stay across reactions to the new Gillette advert, titled ‘We Believe’, which takes a didactic approach to how ‘men behaving badly’ affects society. The campaign launch has followed on from the release of a much-discussed American Psychological Association report on the dangers posed by traditional masculinity. So did Gillette get the tone right? “If everyone’s talking about the ad, then it’s probably having the impact they wanted. When we start talking, that’s when stuff changes.

“But I don’t see it as being about ‘masculinity’.” The ad shows various scenarios where men act inappropriately towards women. “Really, it’s about how we pick up on what’s wrong. It’s saying we should treat people the right way.”

Later, Richardson-Walsh cites another Procter & Gamble campaign – Always’ #LikeAGirl – which first ran five years ago and used examples from sport, society, and the more limited emoji library of the times, to show how girls and young women received a stream of negative signals in their day-to-day lives. “We live in a constructed world,” she explains, “that puts stereotypes – which are limiting and excluding – in our heads. That leads us to take shortcuts, and to put things into groups.” During the panel chat, she asks the audience to be mindful of that and to leave a space between thought and action; room to manoeuvre around the stereotype.

Thompson-Smith is still at the beginning of her career as an athlete but is equally determined to inspire others. “I want to teach girls that it’s cool to be strong, and to take on adventure sports,” she says. The 21-year-old is already working with British climbing’s governing body, the BMC, to make the sport more accessible to BAME people and women, producing content and video and tailoring introductory sessions so that new starters come back for more. “I’ve heard girls say, ‘I don’t want to train, there’s boys in the area, I’m scared’… all kinds of excuses. But it’s all about encouraging them to have goals and to go for them.”

There’s certainly a feeling at thinkBeyond that UK sport contains many more athletes like Richardson-Walsh and Thompson-Smith who want to make social change part of their stories. For whatever reason, those individuals have struggled to find their voice or to be heard thus far. Maybe that’s due to a sense of ‘British reserve’, or uncertainty around the impact they could have. For others, it could be a fear of negative reactions or even indifference – there’s often a ‘who cares?’ response expressed on social media, particularly on an issue like LGBT representation in sport. “We have to ignore them and carry on with what we’re doing,” says Richardson-Walsh.

The advice to athletes from Baroness Grey-Thompson, who has been a crossbencher in the House of Lords since 2010, is to be clear what you want to achieve, and do it with personality. “I have an opinion on everything, but the world doesn’t need to hear all of them,” she says with a smile. For those closer to the conclusions of their sporting careers, the ability to focus a new goal takes on even more importance. “It’s that transition – what’s next? You need other things to think about.” Jones-Hall cites the example of Andy Murray, for whom injury is forcing a finale in tennis at the age of just 31, as a reminder of the sharp shock of impending retirement. As a long-standing vocal champion for gender equality, his views are guaranteed to be sought out after the big serves have stopped, on matters inside and outside the tramlines.

What about our other modern-day idols, particularly those in the Premier League? Their community work often tends to go unsung, while in many cases, players’ social accounts are managed almost to the point of sanitisation. The impact made by Raheem Sterling’s polemic on undercurrents of racism in the media had added power because it felt so rare for a footballer to make such a strong statement. “I’m sure there would be a lot of footballers who have things close to their heart which, if they were given the choice, they would probably stand up for,” says Richardson-Walsh. “It’s interesting why more of them don’t do it.

“Agents and management companies can play a massive part in that, just by asking the question – have you thought about this? Is there anything that you’re really passionate about, a campaign you want to fight for?”

Thompson-Smith may not be a household name just yet, but it won’t be long until Olympics fever is again building in the national consciousness. Grasping all the opportunities which that presents is the next level. “The job is more than just sport, it’s about inspiring people,” she says confidently. As more athletes find their feet in the arena of social causes, the climb towards equality continues to gather pace.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride and supports Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign.

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