The International Canoe Federation and the international organisation Peace and Sport have signed an historic partnership, and Togo’s 2008 canoe slalom Olympic bronze medalist, Benjamin Boukpeti, is thrilled.
Boukpeti, who made history by winning his country’s first ever Olympic medal, is one of more than 100 “Champions for Peace” who promote the work of Peace and Sport around the world. The organisation uses sport and its values as an instrument for peace.
“The International Canoe Federation is already working with people all around the planet. I am proud of this partnership because I am a paddler myself,” Boukpeti said.
“Peace and Sport bring another way of thinking about sport. They identify a social issue, and then they look at how we can use sport to solve this issue. For me this was the first time I had faced people thinking in this way.
“That’s why Peace and Sport can play such an important role. We have the methodology, and we can go step-by-step to make changes and improvements.”
Boukpeti made headlines when he grabbed bronze in the men’s K1 at the Beijing Olympics. At the time he acknowledged very few people in Togo knew who he was, or what canoe slalom was.
Many would assume standing on the podium, watching the Togo flag being raised, would be his favourite memory from Beijing. But even then he was thinking how sport can bring the world together.
“The Olympic Village and the restaurant was something amazing for me. There were athletes from all over the planet, in the same place, in a peaceful way,” he said.
“You could be talking with an athlete from a very small country that has only one or two athletes, and then you turn around and there is Roger Federer. I remember Kobe Bryant in the restaurant, and that was just amazing, there were people from countries that were at war, and we are all together.
“We were all just enjoying our life and were really happy to be there. It was even more powerful than the competition.”
His experience at the 2008 Olympics makes Peace and Sport a perfect fit for the 39-year-old. These days Boukpeti only gets onto the water occasionally, usually just for a relaxed paddle with his family.
But he stills loves sport, and loves canoeing. And he has strong views on how sport can make the world a better place.
“When I was young, sport was just for leisure, but then came the competition and a chance to express myself,” he said.
“As I progressed, I really understood how sport could bring something very important not just for myself, but also for society and bringing people together. I think athletes are very interested in the role they can play to promote a better society, but I think we need more strong leaders on this.
“Leaders who can go forward, and bring people with them. There are a lot of athletes who are doing great things for peace and social development, but they are either doing it by themselves, or inside an organisation.”
Not everyone is comfortable with athletes speaking out about social issues. As a result, many athletes prefer to keep their opinions to themselves. The toxic nature of social media has made it even more challenging for sportspeople to make a stand.
Boukpeti believes now, more than ever, athletes need to embrace the standing they have in the community. The Covid pandemic, and the upheaval it has caused around the world, is putting pressure on everyone.
“I think it would be great to have a team or community of athletes from different sports who are leaders, not just ambassadors for organisations,” Boukpeti said.
“There are a lot of athletes who are ready to move and be part of it, but its difficult because its about more than talking about sport, its also talking about society problems.”
“When we lose our job, when we are in a really difficult situation, we can get scared, and when we get scared we can start to lose our humanity. But thanks to sport we can be together, we can find peace for ourselves and for others.
“Just doing sport helps my body feel better, because my body feels better my spirit feels better and I can be better with people around me.”