x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The day it dawned on Dawn

If you wonder why famous athletes bother to burrow into projects such as those of Laureus, well, sometimes all of this can stem from sights that affix to memory.

The Australian Fraser has won swimming gold medals in three disparate continents.
The Australian Fraser has won swimming gold medals in three disparate continents.

In the brain of an Olympic icon lingers one stunning scene from Mumbai.

Dawn Fraser had won swimming gold medals in 1956 and 1960 and 1964 on three disparate continents. She had walked into opening ceremonies at the 2000 Sydney Olympics to a rousing ovation owing partly to her renown for embodying the great Australian word "larrikin," a term she defines as "carefree … honest … cheeky". She had never been anybody's idea of a hermit.

Yet that day in 2005 when she rode the so-called "magic bus" as part of her work with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, she stumbled upon a rarity for a seasoned traveller: stark, outright bewilderment.

"I saw these children," she said yesterday in Abu Dhabi. "Children knocking on windows. If you stopped at the stoplight all these children came out, and with little babies. My God. I was never subject to this until I went to India. And I thought, that is what really goes on in the world."

She tells it with a still-amazed look that makes you think you see it also. She saw children with no legs, children performing, children climbing street poles. "Coming from Australia, we don't really see that side of the world," she said. So: "You could have knocked me over."

It gave her a precise thought: "Where can I start?" She spoke of her appreciation for the big eyes of little people. She considered her involvement with Laureus and said: "It's good to belong. I'm very proud to be a Laureus member."

If you wonder why famous athletes bother to burrow into projects such as those of Laureus, why a constellation of them have begun to converge around the Emirates Palace hotel for the 12th Laureus Sports Awards set for tonight, why they have made Abu Dhabi spend yet another moment as seemingly a sports vortex, well, sometimes all of this can stem from sights that affix to memory.

In the brain of a famous "extreme-sports" athlete linger scenes from Sierra Leone.

Tony Hawk became a brand even before he felt ready to become a brand. The Californian scored an unprecedented 900° in skateboarding one summer day in 1999 and helped usher the sport toward recognition. He has helped needy American communities build skating parks. He has seen much.

Yet one day in the war-wrecked West African country, he lent himself to a Right To Play International programme which aimed to reorient children who had been trained as soldiers, and he came upon a new-found thought.

"What I saw was just how important just having a coach and, say, one soccer ball or a frisbee, how much impact that has on children, how rudimentary the help could be and just have resonance," he said.

They seemed to see his skateboard as something of a "magic carpet," Hawk said, and he keeps in mind what happened when he offered up the slightest little exercise. "They were all lining up just because I was grabbing them and spinning them around," he said.

Rugby players, athletics stars, racing drivers, tennis luminaries, footballers, motorcyclists, golfers, high-achieving disabled athletes and a range of others started turning up around the vast hotel.

Nadia Comaneci, the perfect gymnast from Montreal 1976, told of working with Special Olympics children in China.

Sir Bobby Charlton, the wildly famed England 1966 and Manchester United footballer, spoke of working with children with depression and feeling amazed at football's reach. "All sorts of things are not right with the world," he said, "and we have to do it." In the brain of a Wimbledon paragon lingers also Mumbai.

Boris Becker, who so outrageously won Wimbledon at 17 in 1985, has worked on enough projects that he strained to recall the term "magic bus," but he recollected how he was the driver one day as the bus transported children and athletes to a football pitch.

"Kids in really poor living conditions were picked up. They jumped on. We drove around their houses," he said, noting he would not really call them "houses",

They reached the pitch and, he said: "For two or three or four hours they were smiling and running up and down."

Said a three-time Wimbledon and five-time grand slam champion : "I strongly believe that in those four hours those kids forgot that they had to go back to nothing."

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae