WHO putting Laureus’ Sport for Good Cities program into public health advocacy a huge opportunity

By Adam Fraser

When it comes to explaining the role sport plays in strengthening our communities, at its core I always start by talking about the opportunity it gives us to connect people. The joy and good health associated with sporting activity, and its power to build bridges, is well established. As our founding patron, Nelson Mandela, said: “It unites us in a way that little else does.”

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, and look to build our societies back stronger, there’s verifiable evidence to show that sport is crucial to the mental and physical well-being of humanity.

It doesn’t just connect people. Sport connects government and industry; public and private bodies. The voice of our athletes has grown stronger and reaches further with the backing of purpose-driven sponsors and media. If we are going to be bold, I would claim that sporting activity is the No. 1 common interest shared by us all, yet the shame of it is — amid the racial, gender, and financial inequality highlighted by the pandemic — there are many living in poverty who don’t get to fully experience the opportunities sport has to offer.

In terms of its role in community, sport gives people the ability to shape a better quality of life, but also creates fiscal health within our own corners of the world — presenting a hidden gem that links the well-being of our society with the strength of our local economy. By introducing greater opportunity for the youth of the day to discover sport, we are seeding the foundations for a healthier, happier, and richer society for the future, and that requires investment in the right places, to ensure the people who need sport the most don’t go without it.

That’s why, in order to reach the world’s underserved communities, Laureus is innovating the way it connects local governments and its global partners and other funders with local communities in cities around the world, so that they are able to allocate ample funding and the correct resources on a much more granular level.

Whereas in the past, the social-impact model has seen outside forces, including in sport, predetermine how aid should be invested, our work in a growing number of Sport for Good Cities — also known as Model Cities in some locations; a name coined when we first launched in New Orleans in 2014 — takes a wholly different, bottom-up approach, tailored toward listening to community and youth leaders on the ground to help those with access to capital better understand the needs of the neighborhoods they serve before deploying support.

With the Sport for Good Cities initiative now also active in London, Paris, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York, our approach is geared toward creating a coalition of private and public-sector partnerships unique to each and every major city. This month marks a major milestone for the initiative, which has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its newly published policy brief, which highlights Laureus’ Sport for Good Cities initiative as a model for sport-for-social-impact best practice in public health.

This is important on several levels. Not only does it mean that our bottom-up approach is endorsed by a body with the influence of the WHO to the world’s governments and major companies, it also demonstrates the determination of WHO and the United Nations to put sport front and center in the fight for greater equality among the world’s growing population. It further accentuates their desire to guide the private and government sectors in how they can best support their local communities through sport and bridge the divide between policymakers, employers, and the general public.

And the buck doesn’t stop with public health. Improving and maintaining the health of the population is paramount to building a prosperous and equal society. However, by championing sport’s role at a hyperlocal level, WHO’s recognition opens the door to opportunity in other sectors too, including the role it plays in the education sector, and how inclusive learning can lead to greater diversity and employment opportunities.

As a result, WHO’s recognition offers a forum for sport to facilitate these conversations between government, business, and community, and helps address the numerous and wide-ranging issues faced by people today. 

In Chicago, to give one example, our partner programs reach more than 20% of the city’s youth, demonstrating the opportunity of reaching scale with our model. Considering that, by 2050, an estimated 2.5 billion more people and more than two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities, by aligning the goals of city councils and local coalitions, our model offers a chance to make a difference where it really matters. This means — with greater use of public health and economic data — they can establish more meaningful relationships with the communities that their organizations are built on.

We believe this model also holds the capacity to change the meaning of “legacy” in the cities of major sporting events and how the revenue they generate is distributed. As the sun sets on Tokyo 2020 and an unprecedented year in the history of the Olympic and Paralympic movements, it’s important that we look to newer, groundbreaking ways in which host cities go about their work and establish legacy programs that aspire for social equity and stand the test of time.

Looking ahead to Paris 2024, LA 2028, and the other major events in the next decade, we are certain Laureus and the Sport for Good Cities initiative, endorsed by the WHO and many more, will play a vital role in ensuring the subsequent Games and other mega-events can effectively contribute to supporting some of the world’s most underserved communities and populations.

It is our hope that Paris, L.A. and more will serve as an example for how other sporting bodies and national governments can optimize the relationship between the private sector and community projects — and, as a result, help put the needs of their people top of the socio-political agenda.

Adam Fraser is chief executive at Laureus Sport For Good Foundation. Visit www.laureus.com.