Is it really better to give than to receive? If you have just unwrapped an all-too familiar selection of lurid socks, lary aftershave and CDs you would not play even if they were the only thing in your car from Land’s End to John O’Groats, you may feel disinclined to agree.
But in seriousness, at this festive time the idea of doing things for others takes on a particular resonance.
Dame Kelly Holmes reflects in her latest newsletter on the workings of the charity she set up in 2009 – the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust (DKHLT)- that 2013 has involved reaching nearly 25,000 vulnerable young people.
“We’re running more programs and in more regions than ever before,” writes Britain’s double Olympic champion of 2004, “with the help of our 200-strong ‘GiveBack’ team of world class athletes.”
There is an additional report featuring one of the young people who has benefited from the DKHLT experience this year, 24-year-old Jess, from Thanet, whose life had fallen into an ebb following the death of her partner from cancer in 2012. Having been a full-time carer she had to re-assess her strengths and possibilities, and her local jobcentre told her about the imminent arrival of in her area of Get On Track – one of the models developed with the DKHLT to improve personal development of 16-25 year-olds through a sport-based program delivered “with mentoring support elite athlete role models.”
Jess, “although sceptical”, went along, and the program worked for her, ultimately helping to get her in touch with Mears construction company, which took her on as a receptionist.
Now there is a Christmas gift, even if it did come a little earlier in 2013. And of course the beauty of the DKHLT model is that everybody wins – not just Jess, in this case, but the mentors who helped her towards fresh confidence and fields of endeavor.
For, as Holmes knows so well herself, no matter how good a sportsman or woman you may be, there will always come a day when you have to contemplate being something else. And that can be very scary, as Holmes told me while she was in the process of putting together her idea for the new charity.
By the time she had been six months retired, and her daily elation at not having to go through the rigor of training had abated, she found herself asking a question: “Who am I now?”
“I feel passionately that sports people are role models for young people,” Holmes added. “And the more that young people can work with sports people the better. When people can collaborate more it will be better for everyone involved.
“Making a decision to retire after being an elite performer is something that many competitors are scared to do – because they have to address what to do next.
“A lot of competitors are lacking in confidence at that point in their lives. I know how I felt at that point – I felt lost.
“Many sports people have put 10 or 20 years into achieving excellence during their careers. Do we care about them?
“What we are saying to them now through the Trust is, ‘Hey, come over here, we will help you make the transition into a new career where you can give back some of the skills and discipline you have built up.'”
A conversation I had in Monte Carlo last month put me in mind of Kelly. This time I found myself talking at the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Gala gathering to another former Olympic athlete, Sandrine Thiebaud Kangni, the French-born sprinter and heptathlete who competed at the 2004 and 2008 Games for Togo, following in the footsteps of her father Roger Kangni, who ran in the 800 meters at the 1972 Olympics.
Sandrine may have competed in different events to Kelly, but she had the same blaze of determination within her to put something back into the sport which she loved. That determination shone in her eyes as she spoke of her plans to develop a film project on which she has been working for the last year with the French film journalist Caroline Pericard.
The project’s title – Footprint – is a metaphor for the imprint athletes put on their sport both during and, crucially, after their competitive career – the focus being on those who have made the decision to reinvest their expertise in the next generation.
Thus the pilot Footprint Athlete’s Legacy episode saw Sandrine and Caroline journey to Mauritius to see Stephane Buckland, the 200m runner who won Commonwealth Games silver in 2006, competed at three successive Olympics between 2000 and 2008 and reached three successive IAAF World Championship finals.
The opening shots establish Sandrine on a tideline, kicking through surf. “I j ust came back from the Beijing Olympics,” she says. “And I know I’m gonna retire…I’m just thinking of the champions I met on the track… and I say to myself: ‘What have they become?’ You definitely know them through their beings. This story is Footprint!”
Sandrine meets Buckland at the Bambou Stadium, where both competed at the 2006 African Championships. “I think I just want to give them what I did not have at their age,” Buckland tells her. “Because where I live, it’s not exactly a poor area, but kids still need help to step forward in life. In ten years’ time… I focus on one very specific aim: to be the best sprint coach in Africa.”
Their next meeting is in the mountainous area of Trou-aux-Cerfs, in heavy rain, as Buckland puts a group of his charges through hill training. “I teach them athletics is hard work,” he says, with the ghost of a grin.
The young athletes, returning to the top of the hill again and again, are certainly giving effort. But they are receiving.
Earlier this week I spoke on the phone with the President of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, Ivo Ferriano. This former Olympic competitor-turned-coach-turned-adminstrator is now consumed with the idea of transforming his sport. And one of the key plans for the future is an initiative which will better enable retiring athletes to follow the path back into the sport which he took. These are truly virtuous circles to contemplate this Christmas.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain’s most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. His latest book Foul Play – the Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (Bloomsbury £12.99) is available at the insidethegames.biz shop. To follow him on Twitter click here.