Going for gold
Photo by iStock July 27, 2021
UD Prof. Matt Robinson helps coach Olympic coaches
In the leadup to the (long-postponed) 2020 Summer Olympics, which finally kicked off on Friday, July 23, much has been written and discussed about a checkered Olympic history: human rights abuses in host countries, sexism, state-sponsored doping and the displacement of entire villages when building needed infrastructure. Some have called for an end to the Games altogether.
Others have argued that such a move would deny the country and the world the beauty of sport — its power to unite and heal and inspire — on a global scale… one flip turn, cutback or front handspring at a time.
One man focused on this uniting and healing and inspiring is Matt Robinson, professor of sport management at the University of Delaware and director of the International Coaching Enrichment Certificate Program (ICECP) and the International Coaching Apprenticeship in Basketball (ICAB). Both initiatives are funded by the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Solidarity Fund, which designates money generated from Olympic broadcast rights to sport development and education programs around the world. Each is offered in partnership with and partially funded by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
Through these initiatives, Robinson partners with Jeff Schneider, senior instructor in UD’s College of Health Sciences, to work with over 350 coaches from 125 countries in 25 different sports. The ICECP program covers topics such as talent development and identification, leadership skills, and sport sciences such as nutrition, sport psychology, and kinesiology. Some of these mentees have gone on to launch grassroots training opportunities in the developing world, while others have worked with the world’s most elite competitors. Several ICECP and ICAB graduates can be found in Tokyo with their athletes for the 2020 Games.
UDaily spoke with Robinson about this year’s Games, the next most likely Olympic event and why he, ahem, carries a torch for this type of work.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Olympics for a year. Is there any precedent for this?
Robinson: The closest would be the cancellation of the Games around the two world wars — they were not held in 1916,1940 and 1944.
Q: The decision to move forward with the Games at all during the pandemic has come under fire. How do you feel about it? Worth the potential cost?
Robinson: I think everything is being done to ensure the safety of the athletes and others, and to make sure the events happen in a responsible way. I think it was important to go forward, when you consider the sacrifices these athletes have made and the commitment Tokyo made as the host city — it is a testament to the Olympic spirit.
Q: What has been your most memorable Olympics moment?
Robinson: In my role as chairman of the Delaware Sports Commission, and then-athletic director at the University, I worked with my friends at U.S.A. Basketball to bring the U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball team to UD’s Bob Carpenter Center to play exhibition games before the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was so satisfying to have the chance to share the Olympic spirit with the people of Delaware and also to give [UD alumna] Elena Delle Donne the opportunity to play in front of her home state fans as a member of the Olympic Team. That was a special night. I also fondly remember the London Games. I had done some work with U.S. Soccer, and I got really close with the women’s national team staff, so I was close to the field in Wembley Stadium to watch them win the gold. To hear our National Anthem played with the raising of the flag and the athletes on the gold medal stand — that was truly an amazing experience.
Q: What, in your mind, are the must-watch moments of this Olympics cycle?
Robinson: I love to see the fencers, the archers, the pentathlon athletes — these aren’t the high-profile sports and, believe me, these athletes are not getting rich chasing that medal. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the high-profile sports, but the commitment and sacrifice of these athletes counts just as much. They are there like all the athletes: representing their country and competing with the best in the world in their sport.
Q: The events are one thing, but the Olympics are also about the stories behind the competition. You have done sport diplomacy work for the U.S. State Department, implementing projects around the globe, and you’ve mentored coaches from around the world. What are some of the more inspiring stories from Olympic hopefuls you’ve come across during your career?
Robinson: We worked with an archery coach from Bhutan who wanted to implement a youth program. The sport requires arm guards, and they did not have the funds to purchase them for the beginners, so she collected shampoo bottles to make into arm guards for the athletes. We had a swim coach in Uganda without access to any pools in which to train his swimmers, and you couldn’t swim in open water there because of the crocodiles, so he negotiated with a local hotel for use of their pool. He did his best, but still his athletes never swam in a 50-meter pool before a competition. These are just a few of many inspirational efforts to grow sport around the world through the ICECP and ICAB. We also had a graduate who created a rowing center for East African Nations on the Nile River in Sudan. He spent time as part of the ICECP program with the Princeton University rowing team and the coach there had just acquired new shells and so he arranged to have the previous shells sent to the new center. That’s just one example of how the American sport community has supported our program, and it makes me so proud of American sport. This is what sport is all about: cooperation, communication and the friendships that are formed. You know, people in the U.S. tend to think Olympic athletes fall out of trees, but when I see a gold medal, I see the culmination of a journey, and all the people who contributed to the athlete’s success.
Q: There are four new sports in the Olympics this year: surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate. This is also the first year we’ll see a transgender athlete, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, competing. And it will be the first year without spectators, due to the pandemic. What other firsts might we expect in the future?
Robinson: In some way, shape or form, I think you’ll see the introduction of esports in a future Olympics. It’s right to say, when it comes to the Olympics, the only constant is change. I think you’ll continue to see them experiment with sport to make sure they keep up with the times.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about the Olympics?
Robinson: That it’s about the Games when, really, it’s about the four years between the Games. It is about cooperation, this idea of building a better world through sport, coming together voluntarily and peacefully — the Games are a celebration of those efforts. Jeff and I are so motivated working with coaches who are making a positive difference in their home countries, and we are honored to work with the amazing professionals at the USOPC. I think about one woman, a featherweight boxing champ from Trinidad and Tobago who, for her final project for the ICECP Certificate, developed Boxing Beyond the Ring, a program that uses the sport to promote women’s empowerment and self-defense in her country, where rates of physical and sexual assault were high. This is the kind of thing that happens in that four-year span between the Olympics, and Jeff and I have been so humbled to have the IOC fund our program and to have the UCOPC as our partner.