Powered by Purpose: How the next generation of UK athletes are powering positive change
Georgia Holt (left) and Sophie Unwin (right) winning silver in the women's Tandem B - 1000m time trial cycling at the 2022 Commonwealth games in the Velodrome, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London | Credit: Alamy
Being a top-class athlete is about achieving dreams and ambitions in the sporting arena. But for many of the UK’s top athletes in 2023 it is also about driving and effecting lasting positive change in society.
Both athletes and MPs know that elite athletes are vital role models for our communities. And on issues such as period poverty, water quality, disability inclusion, and mental wellbeing, UK Sport’s Powered by Purpose programme provides British athletes with the opportunities and skills they need to power positive change in our communities.
The last 12 months have shown how sporting achievements can stir the imagination of the nation and inspire future generations. That inspiration goes further than the extraordinary feats of British athletes on the field of play. It is also about our sporting heroes showing how their personal and sporting values can shape a positive and inclusive future for everyone.
Now, a new programme launched by UK Sport, Powered by Purpose, in partnership with The True Athlete Project, is working with 20 UK athletes to empower them to make a difference, be that locally in their communities or nationally, for a cause that is authentic and genuine to them.
Multiple Olympic medallist, and Chair of UK Sport, Dame Katherine Grainger, believes that the new partnership provides a valuable resource for athletes who want to make a wider difference.
“As an athlete, I experienced the wonderful influence and impact sport can have, but the world is changing, and the world of sport is just as affected by these shifts. The power and platform of high-performance sport provide a unique opportunity to contribute to lasting, positive change for people and the environment.”
Kim Leadbeater MP, who Chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Sport, agrees with Grainger about the vital role that elite athletes play in providing positive role models and driving up levels of participation, particularly for women and girls.
“We have such talent at all levels in this country, but our elite athletes are national heroes and ambassadors of our vital sports and leisure sector,” Leadbeater tells us. “Women athletes can face additional challenges including period poverty and the lack of equality in pay, opportunities and even changing facilities. I’m delighted that recent successes by our elite athletes have inspired a growing number of people to become more active and to dream of reaching the top.”
In an athlete consultation conducted in 2020, UK Sport found that 86% of athletes on the world class programme want to use their platform to make a difference to society whilst they are still competing. One athlete already benefiting from the Powered by Purpose programme is GB track cyclist Georgia Holt.
Holt is no stranger to sporting success. She secured a silver medal at last year’s Commonwealth Games piloting Sophie Unwin in the women’s tandem B 1000m TT, and a gold at the UCI Para-Track Cycling World Championships in the tandem team sprint.
She knows from her own experiences just how powerful sporting figures can be as role models for others. Her childhood heroes were British equestrian riders and what resonated with her was not just their sporting prowess, but the qualities of resilience that they demonstrated.
“I loved Mary King and Oliver Townend,” she remembers. “Both sustained bad injuries but they bounced back. I found their tenacity really inspiring when I was younger. That you can come back from anything. I remember thinking, ‘if they can do it, then, of course, I can.’”
Holt also cites Victoria Pendleton as another inspiration, not just for her stellar sporting achievements but for the very human qualities that resonated with Holt as a young athlete.
“She was the kind of athlete who wore her heart on her sleeve,” Holt says of Pendleton. “I found it incredibly empowering. That you are never ‘too loud’ or ‘too emotional’. That there is no such thing.”
It was in part the inspiration provided by athletes like Pendleton that motivated Holt to join the Powered by Purpose programme. Like her own childhood sporting heroes, Holt wanted to share the core values that drive her as an athlete with audiences beyond the velodrome.
With social media, people are realising that there is more to athletes than training or a gold medal
“With social media, people are realising that there is more to athletes than training or a gold medal,” she tells PoliticsHome. “That doesn’t diminish what a gold medal means to me, but you might relate more to what I say on active travel, period poverty, or para-inclusion. I want people to follow me on that journey as well as my athletic one.”
Holt is hugely positive about the programme and the tools that it is giving her to combine her sporting progress with the confidence and skills to speak openly and passionately about the changes that she would like to see.
In particular, she believes that being open and honest about the way periods impact on female athletes can help girls and young women at the start of their own sporting journeys.
“I’d love to do further work on menstruation in sport,” she tells us. “It can be something that prevents participation, especially with younger athletes. Speaking openly about it is such an important step forward, and something we must continue.”
Holt is also passionate about using her sporting platform to promote greater disability-inclusion in both sport and in the workplace. As an able-bodied athlete who is part of the para-athlete squad, she has seen first-hand the barriers that her visually impaired sporting partner faces.
“Although I am not visually impaired, I see the challenges that my para-cycling partner faces around everyday issues,” she tells us. “That simply shouldn’t be happening. It’s 2023.”
Caroline Nokes MP, who Chairs the Women and Equalities Select Committee, believes the Powered by Purpose programme can make a real difference, particularly on equalities issues.
“Elite athletes working to make a difference in their local communities should be celebrated,” Nokes tells PoliticsHome. “We know from the Committee’s evidence sessions on sexism and inequality in football there is still a lot to be done to root out harmful cultures in sport and make it an inclusive place for all. I am pleased many important equalities issues will be given a further platform through this initiative.”
As a nation, the UK has a deep connection with elite level sports. What athletes like Georgia Holt are showing is that connection can go far beyond gold medals and track performance. It can also help shape a healthier and fairer nation for us all.
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