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And the Medal Goes to…Philanthropy

I’ve got Olympic fever.  Who doesn’t? With all the hype and media coverage it’s hard not to have the Games on the brain.  And between cheering on Aly Raisman and ogling Ryan Lochte, I began to think about how philanthropy plays into it all.  Of course their origins are similar – the first athletes competed in Olympia, Greece in 776 BC and the word philanthropy originates from the Greek root “philo” meaning love.   But the Games have changed a bit since the days of ancient Greece, most notably in the amount of money that is involved in putting them on.  The cost of the 2012 Summer Games in London is upwards of $19 billion and Beijing spent over twice that amount ($43 billion) in 2008.  The costs to the host cities don’t even scratch the surface of the amount of money surrounding the Olympics though.  One must also take into account the corporate advertisements and sponsorships, merchandise, and numerous endorsements that athletes receive.  There’s a lot of money in these Games, but is any of it going towards philanthropy?

As it turns out, London has actually been focused from the start on social responsibility.  In preparing for this summer, the planning committee set an ambitious goal to hold the first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The One Planet Living Challenge, in partnership with WWF and BioRegional, builds upon the goals of the UN’s Agenda 21 and the Olympic Games Global Impact (OGGI) project.   London also launched Inspire, a program aimed at encouraging citizens throughout the UK to be inspired by the Games to make real and sustained change. Since its inception in 2008, over 2,700 projects have been awarded the Inspire mark.  The International Inspiration program, which was proposed during London’s original bid, has also seen success enriching the lives of 12 million children in 20 countries and succeeding in its original mission put forth by Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Organizing Committee, to “reach young people all around the world and connect them to the inspirational power of the Games so they are inspired to choose sport…improving their lives as a result.”

So it would seem that London is doing a pretty good job, but what about the stars of it all – the athletes? What is their involvement in philanthropy? The truth is most athletes are already involved – either through donations or volunteer time – with a number of noteworthy charities.  Lolo Jones, U.S. track and field star, was named the 2008 Visa Humanitarian Athlete of the Year after donating her $4,000 in prize money from the Olympic Trials to a fund assisting flood victim Renee Trout, a single mother from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  U.S. beach volleyball player, Misty May-Treanor gives to the Special Olympics and volunteers with organizations working to protect animals.  Then there are others, such as Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh and Usain Bolt, who have started their own foundations in hopes of making a greater impact.  Without a closer look into each foundation, it’s hard to know whether the athletes who are doing more than checkbook giving are granting money in the most strategic way.  Still, most Olympians invest their time just as much, if not more, than their money and that may be more influential than anything else.

Although many might argue that it’s a requirement these days, it’s nice to see the philanthropic efforts being put forth by London and the athletes.  My only complaint is the lack of coverage about all of this.   I imagine there were promotion efforts in the UK around Inspire, but I think few outside of the host country are aware of the planning committee’s objectives and activities.   The Olympic Games always put a spotlight on the host city, which is understandable, but there are global problems that no individual athlete, or even country, can solve on its own.  Yes, the games are a competition and I’m not interested in taking away the patriotism that surrounds them, but in the global spirit of the Olympic Games we’d be wise to recognize an opportunity to educate each other and collaborate in our efforts to address global problems.


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