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14 Sep 2018
Olympic News, Olympism in Action Forum
Olympism in Action Forum

#UnitedBy the gift of life

The power of sport to transform lives is undisputed, and nowhere is that more evident than in the global transplant community. Sport plays an essential part in helping transplant recipients achieve health and fitness, while also demonstrating the value of organ donation and providing hope and inspiration to anyone waiting for a transplant.


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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It is goals such as these that underpin the activities of the World Transplant Games Federation (WTGF), which was founded in 1978 and now has 65 member countries around the world. Celebrating successful transplantation and the gift of life – a common bond uniting all its members, its primary goals include raising public awareness of the importance and benefits of organ donation, and encouraging recipients to make sport an integral part of their lives.

Heading up the WTGF in an honorary capacity is 55-year-old Australian Chris Thomas. A former medical reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald, among other newspapers, Chris is also the CEO of Transplant Australia, a national charity that is currently engaged in an organ donation campaign with the Australian Olympic Committee, part of an agreement signed between the WTGF and the IOC in 2016 with a view to raising public awareness on organ donation, and inspiring recipients to get active.

The campaign takes as its theme “Be a hero for someone else”, and features four Olympians talking about their sporting achievements. Among them is Olympic swimmer Brooke Hanson, who makes the point that you can be such a hero simply by registering as a donor.

Emphasising the importance of doing so and also letting your family know about your decision, Chris said: “If you register as an organ donor but you’ve never discussed organ donation with your family, the family consent rate with those potential donors is just 44 per cent. But if you’re registered and families are given the final say, that consent rate more than doubles, to 90 percent.”

The campaign is running in the lead-up to the 16th edition of the Australian Transplant Games (ATG), to be held in Gold Coast from 30 September to 6 October 2018. Like the World Transplant Games, which will next be held in the UK in August 2019, the Australian version seeks to demonstrate the tangible, living proof that donation works and gives people a second chance at life.

As Chris explained, the message has been getting through in Australia, one of 95 countries across the world to run an organ transplant programme: “Donation rates have doubled over the last 10 years, and I think we can safely say we’ve played a significant role in helping to improve the lives of Australians waiting for an organ transplant, and we’ve helped to save many more lives.

If you register as an organ donor but you’ve never discussed organ donation with your family, the family consent rate with those potential donors is just 44 per cent. But if you’re registered and families are given the final say, that consent rate more than doubles, to 90 percent. Chris Thomas WTGF

“One of the most important things we do is provide a tangible argument to people about why organ donation is so important. We demonstrate the living proof that there are people out there today who have been alive for 5, 10, 20 and as many as 60 years, and they all owe their lives to the generosity of someone else whom they’ve never met and who signed on to become an organ donor, or to that person’s family who agreed to organ donation at that critical time.”

Emphasising the role that sport plays in the physical and mental recovery of transplant patients, Chris said: “These people are chronically ill and only get organs as a last resort. They have to deal with low cardiovascular function, reduced anaerobic capacity and muscle wastage, and sport is an integral part of them getting on the road to recovery. It’s great for their mental well-being too, especially team-based sports for young children, who were often the last pick on the soccer team at school. Getting out there in a team-based environment, winning or losing as a team and working with team-mates is very important in fostering social inclusion and personal development. And when you see six-year-old heart transplant recipients running down a racing track, it is very inspiring too.”

Thanks to the selfless actions of donors, moments such as that will be commonplace at the upcoming Australian Transplant Games, which, like the World Transplant Games, mirror the Olympic Movement’s key values of excellence, friendship and respect, values that know no boundaries, as Chris went on to explain: “Transplant recipients come from all walks of life, all cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. Yet they share a common bond, namely that someone else, through their generosity and selflessness, gave them the chance to live again.

“The Olympic spirit was never more visible than at the Rio Olympic Games when 5,000m runners Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin helped each other across the line. That spirit exists at every edition of the World Transplant Games and beyond in the field of donation and transplantation; excellence, friendship and respect are all on display as the world unites in giving others new life.

Having helped to set up the WTGF’s Fit For Life programme, which aims to motivate and support the worldwide transplant population into leading an active life and practising sport at all levels post-transplantation surgery, Chris is a firm believer in the benefits of sport for everyone. Though not a transplant recipient himself, he suffers from adult-onset asthma and never feels better than when he is physically active.

A player/coach for a local over-45s football team, he is also a very keen cyclist, and in 2014 covered the small matter of 4,335 kilometres in travelling coast to coast, from Perth to Sydney, on a daunting 45-day solo journey that took in the arid, windblown Nullarbor Plain. “It showed I had reserves of energy that I never thought I had,” Chris said of his epic trip on two wheels, which he recounted in a blog. “I’d ride 180 kilometres one day and get up the next and ride 140. I lost eight kilos on the way, though I have this theory that the kilos never actually left me; they just dragged on behind, off in the distance, and as soon as I stopped they caught back up with me.”

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