Canadian rugby sevens star Charity Williams – a Youth Olympic and Olympic medallist – is among the growing number of athletes who are eager to use their sporting status as a platform for championing social change.
Having competed at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Nanjing 2014 as a 17-year-old – winning a silver medal in the process – Canadian rugby sevens star Charity Williams was exposed to the Olympic values at a young age.
Having gone on to win a bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at the age of just 19, the fast-footed winger has become further engrained in the ideals of the Olympic Movement and, now that she has established herself as one of the most exciting players on the ever-improving Canadian rugby sevens team, has also seen the impact that athletes can have when they speak up for causes that they believe in.
Now aged 23, Williams is keen to use her platform as an Olympic medallist and a role model to champion issues that are important to her, such as women’s rights, racial equality and sustainability. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has also shown her support for the Vancouver Island Steps Up initiative – established by team-mates Pam Buisa and Caroline Crossley – which aims to raise money for members of their local community who are struggling financially due to the ongoing health crisis.
Here, we talk to Williams about her desire to champion social change, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted her, and how she – like IOC President Thomas Bach – hopes that the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can act as a light at the end of the tunnel…
You made history as one of the first Olympic medallists in rugby sevens – how has life changed for you since then?
“It was so cool being among the first [to compete in rugby sevens at the Olympic Games] and then getting that bronze medal was one of the most special moments any of us had ever had in rugby and, honestly, in our lives. It was quite amazing. The thing that I have loved the most since then is that so many young women have signed up for rugby after seeing us get that medal. We kind of paved the way for them and I just really like being a part of that story.”
Is gender equality in sport an issue that is important to you?
“Yes, it is really important to me. It can be tough sometimes because we train just as hard as any men's team out there, but often we find that we're an afterthought, or that there's a shadow over us. I'm always fighting for women's equality and just for us to be a team that's known everywhere, just as much as any men's team. And I think people are waking up to the fact that it's a huge problem now, and they are beginning to look at us more as equals. But it's definitely something that still needs to be worked on. I appreciate that people are noticing and taking those steps, and I really think that it's going in the right direction.”
Do you feel a responsibility, as an Olympian, to speak up about issues that are important to you and use your platform for good?
“I definitely do feel that responsibility, and it's been growing more as I've become more of a player in this game. I really do love that I have the ability to reach so many people. I try to portray it, myself, as much as possible and promote things that I believe in. And if you believe in those things, too, that's great. If not, then at least I'm saying it, putting it out there.
I like fighting for women's equality. I like fighting for equality amongst black individuals.Charity Williams
I, personally, want the world to be a better place.And I like the fact that I get to use my platform to try and get to a world like that.
You’ve also partnered with a sports apparel label that makes its clothing from recycled plastic. Is sustainability another issue that is important to you?
“It is, especially since I moved from Toronto to Victoria. Toronto is a big, crazy city; it’s just so busy and there’s so much going on. When I moved to Victoria, I just saw how beautiful everything in nature was and, living by the ocean, the air quality is so amazing right here. But I was so shocked to learn about the waste that still gets thrown into the ocean. I would honestly never expect that from how beautiful it is here. So I feel really strongly about that and was really happy to partner with a company that is trying to do something about it. It’s an incredible initiative.”
How did you feel when the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
“It was definitely a huge shock. It felt like my life was just being put on hold. You work so hard for four years and then, all of a sudden, it's all over. It almost felt unbelievable, like it wasn't really happening because things like this never happen. So it took a little while to come to terms with the decision and really understand what was happening. But you can't really be selfish in this situation. We spend our entire lives training for the Games, but people all over the world are suffering, and we can't just put ourselves ahead of anyone else. I think that’s what made it easier for me to accept, knowing that I have to stay home for those who are going through a lot of hardships right now.”
How much has your life been impacted by the measures that are in place due to the pandemic?
“It is like a completely different world. I've been on the team for seven years, and it's all very scripted; we do the same thing day in, day out. We train all the time. We don't get many breaks, and we put a lot into it. Now, we don't really know when we're going to be playing again. Everything's really up in the air. Definitely the biggest change is just not having a set schedule, not seeing my team-mates every single day, not being coached, having to find ways to train on your own. It gets a little tough sometimes.”
Do you think the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a “light at the end of the tunnel”, as IOC President Thomas Bach has suggested?
“I do. I think, as athletes, we're really lucky because we can touch so many people. There's been so much darkness going on lately. I think it will be a little bit longer before we see any light, but I do feel really lucky to be in a position where I could give that to people when we compete. And I think it will be a light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of people, and I'm really happy that I get to be in that position.”