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#UnitedBy helping ahtletes - Nicky Van Rossem

04 Oct 2018
Olympic News, Olympism in Action Forum
Nicky Van Rossem is a Young Change-Maker from Belgium. Her work involves research into elite sport organisation and employment for athletes after they retire from sport. For her Young Change-Maker+ project, she partnered with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to research doping and prevention. She will be speaking at the Olympism in Action Forum preceding the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 in October.


In the run-up to the Olympism in Action Forum in Buenos Aires (5-6 October 2018), we looked at groups and individuals who, inspired by the power of sport to contribute to a better world, have used their initiative to organise projects and programmes to effect change at all levels.

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Helping student-athletes find their centre of balance

As a student at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Nicky Van Rossem found her calling in the field of sports management. She was particularly interested in learning about the lives of student-athletes, both during their time as students and as they moved forward with their lives upon graduating. As an undergrad, master’s student and postgraduate, she had the opportunity to study various topics affecting elite athletes, including their transition to higher education and post-athletic employment.

What Van Rossem learned was telling. “Based on my research, I found that it is difficult for athletes to go for another career after they retire from sport,” she says. “But it is proven that athletes who go for a dual career, for example if they study or have an internship while being an elite athlete, have an easier time finding employment later. What we want to do is prepare athletes during their athletic career for a life after sport. The biggest thing is to help them find the perfect balance between both lives.”

It was my job to create good team spirit and the right atmosphere before, during and after the Youth Olympic Games Nicky Van Rossem

Van Rossem first had the opportunity to help elite athletes find that balance as a Young Change-Maker at the Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016. As a Young Change-Maker at the Games, Van Rossem's primary role was to be an expert in the IOC’s Athlete Education Programme. “It was my job to create good team spirit and the right atmosphere before, during and after the Youth Olympic Games,” she says. “I tried to be a good team member and friend for our athletes. This way, I could better connect with them.”

According to Van Rossem, Olympians who take part in the Athlete Education Programme and do the activities they are interested in have better overall development as they move from junior to senior athlete – fulfilling part of her goal in working with them.

Beyond Lillehammer

“I was really inspired after the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer,” Van Rossem recalls. “The slogan ‘Go Beyond, Create Tomorrow’ stayed in my head.”

For Van Rossem, to incorporate the Olympic values in her work, she also had to live by them. “I'm convinced that through living by the values of friendship, excellence and respect, I am creating a better version of myself, and I want to use my role to transfer those values to others. I do this by helping younger athletes.”

She also helps these athletes to see the big – Olympic – picture. “The Olympic Games are not about winning. They’re about performing your best. The aim is to go for a medal, but the way to the Olympics is important as well, and we want to support athletes in getting there. But we don’t want to support them just once, when they're selected for the Olympics; we want them to be prepared for their entire lives.”

“One way I can help them prepare is by educating them about doping,” she explains. “Another is by helping them with their dual career and holistic development. This was how I realised the Young Change-Maker+ project was a perfect fit between my work as a volunteer and what I do as a researcher.”

After graduating, Nicky also assisted with research at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Her work focused primarily on the decision process of athletes. “They told me their stories of why they doped and what they would do if someone asked them to dope,” she said. “For those who doped, the answers were classic things like ‘I wanna perform better’ or ‘I have an injury, and I want to recover faster.’ Injury is the biggest thing that kept coming back. But this is also something athletes should expect, so the question is, ‘Even if they’re injured and want to perform better, how can we help athletes avoid going to a forbidden substance that is also dangerous?’”

In conducting her research, Nicky realised that the conversation around doping wasn’t necessarily what it needed to be. “They need somebody to talk with about this tricky subject, someone who can tell them about the dangers of doping, and about the consequences,” she says. “I think that prevention is the goal, but not negative prevention, like ‘They doped and look where they are now – out of the community’ and blah, blah, blah. No, really positive prevention, like ‘Be proud that you are a clean athlete.’”

Nicky’s ambitions started small, but now she realises the full impact her work could have. “I think doping prevention with younger athletes is something that we miss a little bit. Logically, we educate the older people who get caught doping, but it's really important that we prevent athletes from seeing it as an option from the beginning of their careers. It's wrong on every level. I always say that if I can avoid one athlete doping with my project, it is successful. But I'm convinced that I can have a bigger influence.”

They need somebody to talk with about this tricky subject, someone who can tell them about the dangers of doping, and about the consequences Nicky Van Rossem

The Young Change-Makers+ (YCM+) Programme, now in its fifth cycle, invites National Olympic Committees to nominate inspiring young people aged 20-25 to serve as role models for their athletes and ensure they get the most out of their YOG experience. The YCMs are tasked with guiding the athletes through the Athlete Education Programme, encouraging them to be open to cultural exchanges, and introducing them to the Olympic values and all the movement stands for so they too can return home as ambassadors of the rings. YCMs are also invited to apply for seed funding to deliver their own social projects leveraging sport to address an issue in their community. The YCM+ Programme – which is supported by Panasonic – has so far seen 19 YCMs deliver 28 projects across 17 countries, impacting over 9,000 individual participants.

Learn more about the Youth Olympic Games and the Young Change-Makers+ Programme.

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