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Athletes no longer shy about speaking out

More and more these days, athletes are influencing change by using their voices on a variety of platforms to bring attention to their causes, writes Deidra Dionne.

Media-savvy competitors are making their voices heard

Captain Meghan Duggan and the U.S. women's team won their dispute with USA Hockey in part by attracting media coverage to their plight. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

More and more these days, athletes are influencing change by using their voices on a variety of platforms to help them navigate sport's internal politics.

Traditionally, the intersection of politics and sport has played out between sporting bodies, bureaucrats and countries. That collision has led to many notable and historically significant moments in sport history. Exclusions, boycotts and terror attacks have all memorably affected sport for the athletes that play it.

But as times evolve, athletes are taking centre stage when it comes to getting their message out.

"I speak my mind and embrace the chance to better sport," says Olympic champion kayaker Adam van Koeverden. "I'm comfortable using my voice in the political sphere of sport. I see it as an opportunity, not an obligation. It's a chance to use my platform for positive change and I'm more than willing to do it."

Van Koeverden can proudly say that his voice has made a difference. As a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee's Athletes' Commission, he was part of a group of athletes that successfully lobbied the Trudeau government for an increase to the Athlete Assistance Program.

The funding bump, the first in 13 years, was announced in the most recent federal budget.

Media savvy

Van Koeverden is part of a generation of athletes that enjoys direct access to an audience, and doesn't have to accept being limited to performing physical feats on the playing field.

"In my day there were very few platforms to speak out," says 1992 Olympic swimming champion Mark Tewksbury. "I remember having concerns about the systematic doping issues with the East German swimmers. My only outlet was to go directly to Prince Albert [of Monaco], who was a bobsledder training in Calgary at the time and also an IOC member."

As evidenced by the recent stand-off between USA Hockey and the U.S. women's national team, social media and the 24/7 sport-news climate can elevate an issue to new heights. And as USA Hockey found out the hard way, the strategic use of social, digital, print and television media to garner widespread support can effectively shift the power in a negotiation.

It's not just Olympians speaking out.

Professional athletes in other sports also seem more willing to take a stance publically. From NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's kneeling (or sitting) in protest of inequality in the U.S. during the playing of the national anthem, to the Williams sisters' fight for equal pay in tennis, to Alex Ovechkin's vow to participate in Olympic hockey regardless of whether the NHL wants to, athletes suddenly seem less shy in speaking out for what they believe in.

Both van Koeverden and Tewksbury agree — the power of the athlete's voice is important. And that voice deserves to be heard.

About the Author

Deidra Dionne is Director, Business Affairs at Rogers Media. Her unique outlook on the business of sport stems from her experience as a two-time Olympian and Olympic medallist in freestyle skiing aerials, and from her education and experience as a lawyer in the sport and entertainment industry.

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