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Kirsty Coventry, IOC Member and IOC Athletes Commission Chairwomen had a chat with Thierry Borra at SiS in Tokyo
IOC Member and IOC Athletes Commission Chairwomen had a chat with Thierry Borra at SiS in Tokyo
IOC Member and IOC Athletes Commission Chairwomen, Kirsty Coventry
IOC Member and IOC Athletes Commission Chairwomen, Kirsty CoventrySiS

Kirsty Coventry was our special guest at last SIS Tokyo. Kirsty has a fantastic curriculum, 5- time Olympian, started in Sydney 2000 and last at Rio 2016, 16 years of competing at the highest level. Seven medals including two gold, she broke multiple world record. IOC member, Chairwoman of the IOC athletes commission as member of the Executive Board, Vice-President of the Zimbabwean Olympic committee, Vice-President of the International Surfing Federation, Member of the FINA Athletes Commission, Member of the WADA as Foundation Member. She created her own Foundation, “The Kirsty Coventry Academy”, a non-profit organization looking after children through sport. Appointed recently as Minister of Youth, Sports, Arts and Recreation for Zimbabwe and last but most importantly, she will become a mom in a few months.

She is considered Zimbabwe’s “National Treasure”, role model and a hugely inspirational figure for woman and young people across Africa and around the globe. Thierry Borra, Founder of Sport Matters, had a great chat with Kirsty and discussed important topics around sports, technology, and innovation.

TB – We are at Sport Innovation Summit in Tokyo, to start with, what does Innovation mean to you?

KC -Well, first of all, thank you for having me, it's a nice a break, different crowd and environment. I think innovation for me would be looking at how it will simplify things for athletes. You know, sometimes that with a lot of sports is that human era and with innovation, with technology, with thinking outside the box that can always be taken away and it just creates a more level playing field and also I think moving forward into the future; so many young people today are wanting results and things to happen quicker and quicker and quicker and so with innovation in terms of sports hopefully we'll be able to get more access to watching sport globally and that something that super important because not everyone around the globe, I'm from Zimbabwe, in Africa, and not everyone has the ability to watch sports but as we progress as also have cellphones get better data becomes less expensive you have more access to just promotion of sport and the values that sport brings to a community and those are all really positive thing.

TB- Think about the performance. We've seen today some presentation about what could happen in the future, whatever it's about equipment or textile that you go to wear that’s going to keep data…how the athletes are reacting? Are they exciting or scared about that the innovation that's coming up, what they're looking for?

Kirsty Coventry and Thierry Borra
Kirsty Coventry and Thierry BorraSiS

KC – From personal experience, being a swimmer, we had some swimsuits back in 2008-2009 that was ahead of its time and caused quite disturbed in the swimming world because they allowed athletes to get bigger and stronger. There was a World Championship and every world record was completely broken. Everyone realized that we needed to have rules around these kinds of innovations and technology and not to stop anything from progressing but just to allow for their time to adequately appreciate how fast something was changing. That was something like the swimmer I was in 2008, I had one of the best suits and unfortunately that swimsuit company couldn’t reinvent their suit the next year and the other companies could look at their suits, changed it and make their suits better and then you had a situation where some athletes weren’t wearing the best suits in the market and so you were losing medals or places in finals and that brought your world ranking down and at the end of the day affected your salaries. There was a big chaos and I think that the innovation and technology that athletes are looking at now as long as can be monitor and there can be rules and regulations in place to help guide and not just an open market and basically the wealthiest athletes or the best well paid are the only ones that benefit because I do think that sports have always broken down walls, it creates a level plain field, it doesn’t matter where you come from, your religion or what sex you are if you can kick a ball in a soccer field . I think that the principle of sports still needs to be maintained in and among the new things that are coming and surrounding us.

TB – Is true that technology can increase the gap between the ones who can afford it and the ones who can’t. How is the world of sports or sports organization are reacting to it, are they trying to prevent that from happening?

KC – I don’t’ think they are trying to prevent it but trying to understand what that means and then trying to figure how the can possibly be subsidized to make it a level plain field and if they can’t subsidize in a way how can the go back and guide it so that it’s possible for all athletes to use the same shoes or the same headgear, so that the level plain field be maintained. I would hate to watch a sport knowing who is going to win because someone got XYZ and others don’t because they can’t afford it of what they are wearing. That completely takes what’s sports itself and what we all love, we love competitions, we love watching the best athletes fighting till the end and that’s thrilling and exciting and I think that if Federations and the sport world don’t oversee that progression and that transition, that excitement and thrilled might be gone and we have to be very careful about that.

7-time Olympian Kirsty Coventry
7-time Olympian Kirsty CoventrySiS

TB – I think that’s going to be tougher and tougher because sports organizations used to deal with traditional sports suppliers and the reality is that you have new players coming. I remember in the last year in Paris we had a neurologist that presented a headset to improve concentration and not in a traditional environment of sports, so you are having new players coming so it’s more difficult for sports organizations to build that.

KC – I think is going to be a lot more difficult in terms of managing the new players that are coming on board, the new kinds of systems but at the same time, it could be good. Some federations still don’t use cameras, in swimming, we don’t use underwater cameras to make a call, we still rely on the human eye and people around the pool and that’s an area that we should progress and look at the opening that technologies up. Also we have to be very careful of what we open up to, and I definitely think that as a Federation and a National Body they really need to understand, and that takes time and not that every Federation has the capacity to hire someone particular to work with, to give them all that information, because there are so many new things coming into the market every day and you need a dedicated person: 1) understands all the technology and innovations and 2) that can pick out the relevant ones at the time and they change so quickly.

TB – We talked about the changes of doing marketing these days because it’s so complicated but if we think about disruption, and we know that a lot of Sport organization are quite traditional and conventional and is not easy to be disrupted. Do you have any tips and how can we know how to build these bridges, this kind of summit is about it, bring different people coming from different environment. How can we increase that in the traditional sports world?

KC – I think by inviting more of those traditional bodies to take part in an event like this, to understand. Because I don’t think that is necessarily people not wanting or being afraid of it, I think that is the understanding of knowing what that might change the sport or how it might change athletes opinion of what that sport has been doing. There needs to be a big emphasis on the education around innovation and technology that’s coming forward and the more than that can happen and that we take a bit of time, don’t rush it, and going in because a lot of organizations, as you said, are very structured, lots of National Federations have been there running sports for a long time and history, and that history has a strong foundation but it does need to evolve and change but we have to allow for there to be some time of accepting and understanding of what this new technology or innovation could do and I think that being able to understand how I would benefit the organizations. I’m not the most technologically advanced but I see the benefits of it, but even then I would sort of need time to sort sit and say okay how's this going to see what are the pros and the cons and as long as you can show those organizations that the pros are going to outweigh those cons on those negative then I think you'll start a really good relationship. Having gained that confidence from them is the first step.

Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s “National Treasure”, role model and a hugely inspirational figure for woman and young people across Africa and around the globe.
Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s “National Treasure”, role model and a hugely inspirational figure for woman and young people across Africa and around the globe.SiS

TB – You make me smile because when I think about someone else presentation seen today and I picture sharing this presentation with some of the IOC members. I think underlying something very important is the need to build bridges so we can understand each other and I remember from my previous job that's one thing I try to do is to get short-cuts and be closer to the people so we better understand each other because we know that there is value we can create from each other.

KC- And I think its understanding each other's values. Sport is a very value-based product, most organizations whether they have a long history or short history they are making an impact on someone's morals and values. A lot of what we see today with maybe innovation or maybe the e-sports is a good one, some of those values on them and we don't share them, so then, where do we find a connection and so until you can find that connection and get someone to buying and say “actually were not just a business, we’re not just a tech company that's wanting to make billions of dollars, or we are actually wanting to change lives, we’re actually wanting to improve the lives, we’re actually wanting to make a difference”. Then, you're going to have a lot more support organizations buying whatever your product is, but if you don't make that connection and there's not that shared value or the shared morals, yeah you're definitely be lost in translation.

TB - Talking about new sports or sports evolution, we've seen recently the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina bringing new things; the urban clusters, skateboarding, rock climbing, new things, in the mid time we were talking about earlier today about the 3x3 basketball taking ten years to enter into the Olympic Arena. Things are changing slowly how we can increase that speed of change because in the world we are living in consumers or fans want the chance to appear tomorrow.

KC- Yeah, the Youth Olympic Games it has been a huge success in terms of showing news and fun sports in more established environments and organization and the concerns that I've mainly heard from people around the table especially within the IOC is how long are those new sports going to be new and cool, and we don't know.

We don't know how long rock climbing or skateboarding it's going to continue to grow, if it’s going hit a peak and then level off and then we bring it on to the Olympic program and ten years down the line it's not cool I think those are the kind of conversations that we're now having to look at; and again I don't think there's an easy fix, but I think, the Youth Olympic Games is a great platform to showcase new innovative ways, new sports, fun sports, exciting sports. I come from a big cricket country and five day matches not my thing, Cricket Twenty20 is awesome, it’s a quick game, it's fast, it's fun, high emotions, everyone's excited and you're there for two, three hours and then it's finished and so I think again coming back to that automatic gratification that we'll get from cell phones and it is normal going into libraries and looking things up you just Google it, that is becoming more of an everyday occurrence and sports is having to adjust, so “old school sports” in terms of swimming, soccer and gymnastics are having to update and revolutionize things. You're starting to see, in swimming, probably more people watching the 50M freestyle than the 800M, it's just how it is.

I think the challenge is how do we keep updated with what's happening around us and how do we then embrace some of those newer sports that are exciting and that young kids want to do and it's becoming more popular and like I said I don't know if there's a quick way in doing that, I've learned that things take a little bit of time but I also think for a good reason the Olympic movement is protective of over what it has and it’s an incredible brand because of the high level of sports and continuity that it does have so it has to be a little cautious.

Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s “National Treasure”, role model and a hugely inspirational figure for woman and young people across Africa and around the globe.
Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s “National Treasure”, role model and a hugely inspirational figure for woman and young people across Africa and around the globe.SiS

TB - We talked a lot about the fans engagement today and if you think about these new sports as we mention; e-sports players can interact with fans on twitch live, you have e-formula also, and you can use the “fan booster” to help a driver. Can we expect that coming in the more traditional sports, Olympic sports, for example, and athletes are ready to be more engaging with the fans directly?

KC - I think athletes are definitely ready, you can see just with social media. If you're not on social media you're making a big mistake as an athlete, so I think athletes definitely want to engage more with the fan, you can already see that by the way they use their using social media. It's not just “here's my results”, “how I did great game”, you're seeing more behind the scenes, you're learning about them, the person, their family, their husbands, wives, girlfriends, mother, father. They are showing that all to you, that whole package that they have, that whole life, so I think athletes are definitely very open about it; they see the benefit that it could have for them and their career and I think sports are as well. I do think especially in terms of engaging with fans that's something very important to the Olympic movement, to the sports movement, we were not going to have a great sports event if there are no seats filled so it is very important and fans are expecting more when you then go to a game it's not just want to go and, actually you watch and want to walk away with whatever, a t-shirt, for example, getting a one on one or something else that added value.

We're definitely looking at lots of different options and I think it's quite an exciting topic because everyone is very open-minded when it comes to that it and with regards to the sponsors or the regards to the host cities they all have different ideas on and how to uplift that engagement; we saw in Buenos Aires that they really tailor-made the games to fit within a city not the other way around so we didn't have to wonder if we have a lot of people coming to watch this event because it was right there, there were hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets and I think that is the and was an incredible thing.

The first few days we saw people lining up just to get into the venues and we've never seen that before and I was just thinking “wow is it because it's a Sunday” “are we still going to have this a week later?”, “people still going to be excited?” and people were still there, they wanted to get in, they wanted to experience it. I think that engagement with fans could be one of the first steps in creating this link in this relationship with sports, innovation, and technology, is saying “we can actually help you with your engagement in fans trusts and they're like “oh wow that's what it can actually do for me” then, that could be the first step.

TB- Thinking of Buenos Aires remind me a little anecdote. For the skateboarding initiation they had 20 hosts to be in Buenos Aires with a few other superstars and it was a bit of a last minute planning so the organization said “how can we get all the kids to come to see these superstars?” and they decided to communicate in all the skate park in Buenos Aires and said “Come with your skateboard, it will be your free pass to enter the park” small innovation things, but sometimes, it could work very well.

We talked about athletes becoming brands, being more “vocal”, wanted to be more involved, I know you taking actions to build these bridges and bring back the athletes more together. Can you tell us more about next year? I've heard that you launching the biggest athletes forum ever.

KC- Yeah, we're launching. We have an athletes’ forum every two years and we have it from the IOC athletes commission point of view, but this year I think, in the world of sports there's been a lot of the division, there have been some dark clouds especially in doping scandals and it's created some riffs and some divides. We thought it was a really good way to say “right, let's bring everyone back together” and not necessarily agreeing but let's get everyone in the same room and let's talk and let's discuss and that's really figured out where we want to go and what we want to see as athletes and how we can make our voices heard throughout all the different labels, and so we're going to invite and all national Olympic committees, 206 national Olympic Committees, all International Federations, we going to have IPC, WA, WADA Athlete Commission, whole bunch of other athletes committee representatives. I think we're going to have about 350 people there, all athlete representatives all wanting to make a difference and it's going to be very exciting.

I think one of the things we learned from Buenos Aires is we had the Olympism in Action Forum and was great for him because it was a very open forum and people could sort of say “these are the things that I love”, “these are the things I don't love so much”, “these are what I think could help maybe” and ideas. The way I personally see this forum working and happening is that everyone can come in and discuss things and again I don't think we always have to agree I think we are stronger when we have differences of opinions but we're all wanting the same goal whether that's clean sport whether that's more innovation whether, equal pay whatever it is we were all going to have differences of opinions on how to it but that angle is still generally always the same especially from an athlete's point of view so we just have to figure out and have really good communication and how that's going to happen and what that's going to look like and we're going to do that next year in April.

TB- Exciting for sure. I'm sure that could be a force of energy that could know how to change the things and innovate because athletes are close the young people but as you said earlier when we discussing, when you compete, you focus on training and competing, you are far from understanding on how sport is rule and how the constraints are so I think building these bridges doing that education will help a lot. We've seen this morning some interesting innovation and how technology could help to prevent doping or to have the control, can we imagine in the future doing a “hackathon weekend” for WADA giving a briefing or inviting many startups, scientists, to think about how we can bring technical solution to the problem we have to face.

KC- Yeah, I think that would be great one of the things I'm not so keen about is I think we were done at one stage there was an idea of putting like tracking devices into athletes and I'm not sure I really want to go that far in being monitored in that way but I think there's a lot of technology around testing the efficiencies around how we target specific athletes in different sports. Those are all things that technology can help with and I think most athletes and even most sports stakeholders would be extremely interested in helping because it's unfair on the athletes to be competing against dopers and cheaters but it doesn't do anything good for Federation or National Federation or country so they're just as invested and ensuring that they have clean sportsman and woman as the athletes are so I think there could be huge scope for that kind of stuff.

TB – Sport and society. You have your role as a minister and you have your role as a foundation creator, what is the role of innovation in sport and society, do you see innovation helping to accelerate the development of sport in society?

KC –Yes, what I see the most from my program and foundation at home is that sport just gives a community that has or feels they're sort of left or forgotten and it gives them that confidence back and that personal confidence to say “actually I’m worth something and I’m valuable and I have something to give” and that gives them the confidence to go out and try new things and possibly go and get a job, with the little kids that we work with you just see that it allows them to forget about maybe not having breakfast that morning or it allows them to forget about the situation they're in and again it brings back that confidence into “I’m value, I'm worth something” then allows for us to sort of sit there and say “okay, what can we do? how else can we impact? What are the innovative ideas that we can come up with?” and one of the things is to make the program more sustainable. For example, chickens are a popular meal at home. Can we get people in the community to look after a certain number of chickens, then once those chickens are grown they go and sell them, they can buy some more; becomes more sustainable. Can we get people in the neighborhoods and the communities to grow certain vegetables that we know a lot of the local restaurants use instead of having to import? Can we set up little greenhouses that are then going to become financial stability for these families and then they can still volunteer-time to the sports program? So there's a lot of different things now that we're seeing and the communities that the change that you see in them where there's suddenly feeling fulfilled and there's suddenly feeling that confidence back. The one in particular with one community that we work with I think I have a document about this big with other ideas that they've now come up with and for me that's massive we're not going to be able to do all of those but there are going to be some programs that we can do and it shows that they have now had the confidence to come up and say “Hey I know now that you believe in me, I believe in myself and this is not what I think I can give back” and I think that the power that sport has an that we've seen.

TB- Empowering communities and empowering young people. We have seen some NGOs who came at the session in Paris, for example, some of them were using design and architecture in the urban context to empower committees to re-change, that recreates a playground with different sports, it was really into a nice presentation


Audience: What advice do you have for a young woman getting into sport business?

KC - Know what you want, be very clear, and work very hard making sure that you have good people around you that are going to give you the opportunity to go off to that and if you find yourself in a situation where you're not really progressing be forceful, don't shy. I think, especially in sport it is still a little bit of a man's world and you do have to know what you want and be very clear about your intentions and then just go for it and don't worry about what were people are really going to say and obviously be respectful I think that something that's helped me is I've never disrespected anybody around me even if they haven't been supportive but I've tried to just make my opinion and my voice heard consistently and eventually that breaks them down and I get so annoyed that they have to listen to me.

Audience: As Athletes Committee Chairperson, what are the challenges that you have to address?

KC - I think the biggest challenge as athletes is that we're always very passionate about whatever we believe in, and sometimes that can mean that we don't really take into recognition someone else's beliefs or ideas. We think are also correct and I think we have to learn to recognize that we are stronger because of our differences and because of the diversity that allows us to have, but again, working towards the same goal so I think we can always disagree but it as long as we're working towards the same angle. I would say some of the challenges is the way and how we communicate and communicating globally with so many athletes, we got 10,500-11,000 athletes in the Summer Games, 3000-4000 in the Winter Games and you have the Youth Olympic Games how do we proactively and efficiently communicate with all of these athletes.

I think that we still have quite a bit of work to do and that's maybe where innovation and technology will really and could really play a part, we seeing it now, it's a lot easier to jump on Skype and jump on telecommunications and gets 50-60 people all connected and talk and we do that every few months.

But how do we open that up, how do we get it every voice around the globe really feel that they are heard because I think that's part of the struggle is it's not just having a platform to voice your opinion but I think someone has to walk away from that platform feeling that they've been heard and that they then are feeling you that sort of fulfillment so figuring out how to do that are interesting challenges.

Jeese Lovejoy at Beyond Innovation SummitBeyond Innovation Summit
Craig Spence, International Paralympic Committee Chief Marketing & Communications Officer.SiS
Hervé Andre-Benoit, FISE Founder and Hurricane Group CEOSiS
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