Making a Difference: Change Agents

UPDATED: May 7, 2010
PUBLISHED: May 7, 2010

It sounded grand, maybe even a little Pollyannaish. Two well-heeled businessmen decide they want to connect athletes and their star power to charitable efforts worldwide, drawing attention and funding to the good works. They hope to bring those athletes together for an annual Oscar-like event highlighting the chosen charities and rewarding athletes who have dedicated themselves to much more than their sports. But when the two men are the CEO of Daimler and the executive chairman of Richemont (the parent company of Cartier and Montblanc, among other brands), grand was the only way to go. So they tapped their relationships within the world of sports, then arranged for one of the world’s most recognized sports lovers, South African legend Nelson Mandela, to keynote the first gala and to serve as the organization’s founding patron. “Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela told the crowd. “Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair.” In the 10 years since that moment, the multifaceted Laureus program has become an international force in the world of charities. The idea has blossomed into creation of the Laureus World Sports Academy, comprising 46 world-class athletes dedicated to helping programs supported by the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation and celebrating their successes annually at the Laureus World Sports Awards. “From supporting six programs on four continents in that first year, we now support 72 projects in 32 countries on six continents,” says Edwin Moses, the American track legend who chairs the academy. Laureus makes contributions to help finance these programs and pays the expenses of athletes who help raise awareness and additional funding. “I said yes the day I was asked to join this effort and I believe in the approach even more today. We have the chance to use sports for good every day through this foundation. We have the chance to change lives like few of us could ever do on our own as athletes.” The Laureus Sport For Good Foundation has a list of programs that address a host of social issues around the globe, from substance abuse to gang violence to solving a lack of educational and employment opportunities in depressed economies. “When we adopt a program,” Moses tells SUCCESS, “we become truly involved. We look at their books, study their management. We are going to give them all that we can to help make them successful, including sending in members to help them fundraise, so we want to make sure that we’re aligning ourselves with high-quality programs.” Laureus helps fund three programs in the United States, including “Fight Back” in New York City, which teaches martial arts to at-risk children and battered women as a means of fostering self-confidence and discipline. As the students become more proficient, they become teachers themselves. “I’ve visited that program twice,” Grand Slam tennis champion Monica Seles tells SUCCESS. “When I went a couple of years ago, I was amazed by how completely they had thought through the process and how they understood this concept that sport can do great good. Then I went back recently and I was talking to one of the young instructors, a really self-confident young man. After a few minutes, he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’ Then I remembered that, two years ago, he was a young guy who I had talked to at this same program who was struggling. But now he stood there and the transformation was incredible. “Moments like that make the point—we as athletes have an opportunity to do something special. But we have to take these moments,” says Seles, who now dedicates much of her time to supporting Laureus. “When I look at the people who are in the academy with me, sometimes I have to pinch myself. Sometimes I sit there and ask, ‘Is that really Nadia Comaneci sitting next to me? Is that really Edwin Moses?’ But I think that’s what’s so great. These are some of the best athletes in the world and what you see is that their hearts are as great as their talents. All of these athletes volunteer their time, flying all over the world to support these programs. What we all have in common is that we love sports and we want to give back. This is a great way to encourage kids from New York to Africa.” Comaneci, the Romanian pixie who became the first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10, has visited the Fight Back program as well as about 20 others that Laureus supports. “I was born in a foreign country in a time when the Iron Curtain still existed,” says Comaneci, who is now married to legendary American gymnast Bart Conner. “Although I now live in the United States, I can tell you that sport is something that transcends all political, cultural and generational differences. No matter what language you speak, we all can identify with playing sports, and the fun it provides. You can drop someone in a foreign land, with no ability to speak the native language, and yet, if there is a ball, or a playground, people will find a way to relate. So when you start with that foundation, you can use sports to teach important life skills such as goal setting, respect for coaches and teammates and a solid work ethic. Sports training is just a natural way to help kids learn skills that will allow them to be positive contributors to their community.” Johann Rupert, executive chairman of Richemont, is credited with envisioning the Laureus concept and founding it with Dieter Zetsche of Daimler. Rupert says his belief in the power of sports to change the world stems from an experience more than 30 years ago when he lived in New York. Rupert had befriended a black athlete from his neighborhood and noticed the athlete paid extra attention to his penmanship when asked for his autograph by a white child. Rupert asked the athlete why he did so and the answer was life-changing. “Johann, if a white kid has my poster in his bedroom, he can hardly discriminate against the black kid in his class,” Rupert wrote, describing the conversation. “Laureus’s passion is based on a simple truth: Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your background, sport can give you the chance to be a better person tomorrow than you are today.” There are few greater examples of that mantra than longtime NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, who was honored by Laureus at this year’s gala. During his 17-year professional basketball career, Mutombo made regular trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo, his homeland. The poor standards for healthcare in that country led him to spearhead the building of a $29 million, 300-bed hospital on the outskirts of Kinshasa. To kick-start the fundraising, the NBA all-star donated $3.5 million of his own money, and then added another $15 million to help complete the building. In the three years since it has opened, the hospital has treated more than 25,000 people. “All I wanted to do was change the living conditions of the people in Africa,” Mutombo told the audience as he accepted the Laureus Sports For Good award in March. “It’s been very hard for me, every day as I played basketball, to see how many millions of children continued to die on the continent of Africa. If we are not putting in an effort to save these women and children, our world will continue to suffer.” To have so many athletes bringing attention to these efforts is extremely gratifying, Mutombo tells SUCCESS. “Our challenge today remains large. We have to raise more than $1 million a year just to keep the hospital open. Moments like these help bring attention, and that helps so much.” German tennis star Boris Becker says he was moved by Mutombo’s description of the hospital, which is named for Mutombo’s mother. “When he was telling us what he faced in his country and what he overcame and gave to make a difference, the audience was silent,” Becker says. “Right there, everyone understood how true the Laureus headline is: Sport and sportsmen and women can change the world.”