IOC Young Leaders: setting sail for a more inclusive and peaceful future

Ahead of the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP), IOC Young Leader and Olympian Sophia Papamichalopoulos has launched her project, Winds of Change, aiming to use sailing to bring together young people from communities in Cyprus divided by conflict.

Winds of Change Pantelis Hadjiminas

The power of sport to unite communities and foster peace and cooperation has been evident to the Cypriot her entire life, as she grew up witnessing and experiencing sport’s positive impact through her athletic career. Now, the 2010 Olympian in Alpine skiing is seeking to harness that peacebuilding potential further by forming the first bi-communal Greek and Turkish Cypriot team to sail around the island through her IOC Young Leaders project, Winds of Change, which was launched on 1 April in the lead-up to this year’s IDSDP.

“We chose this date because of the importance of recognising and celebrating the contribution that sport has in our community, and the power of sport to bring people together in peace, especially in a country like my own, that has been marked by war and division,” said Papamichalopoulos. “As an Olympian, I am a firm believer that sport has the power to change the world, and I want to utilise this power to contribute to peace in Cyprus and to create an opportunity for young people to connect and participate in this process.”

The potential of peacebuilding through sport

Papamichalopoulos, a medical doctor and surgical resident who has remained involved in sport and became an IOC Young Leader in 2021, is determined to harness sport’s unique power as an enabler of positive change, having experienced it first hand.

“The fact that my father’s family are refugees, who like many other families were forcefully displaced in 1974, impacted my life growing up, and I strongly feel the need to contribute to a sustainable peace on the island,” she said. “I understand the pain and loss of the families who suffered the consequences of the war. My own family lost their home, and my father’s brother was wounded and missing for weeks. And yet I refuse to allow negative feelings to prevail. I chose to feel the hope and confidence that we can create a brighter future.”

IOC Young Leader and Olympian Sophia Papamichalopoulos Sandija Jirgensone

“Creating a peacebuilding project through sport has been something that I’ve been passionate about for a very long time. I grew up in a country that was divided by war. But I also grew up playing a lot of sport, and I always felt it was a great tool to forget about politics and conflict.”

“I had my first bi-communal experience when I was 16 at a summer activity camp. I realised how sport connected us much more than anything else. When people experience sport together, it creates this special bond between them, and I recognised how sport can be such a great tool to eliminate barriers.”

Launch event in Nicosia

The Winds of Change project launched on 1 April 2023 with an event held in the United Nations (UN) buffer zone in Nicosia, the area that cuts through Cyprus’s capital city and divides the island in two, with members of both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities joining together to run a loop around both sides of the city. Applications for places on the “Winds of Change” sailing team are now open, with the circumnavigation itself set for the first week of September 2023, and Papamichalopoulos hopes the launch event will help spark interest in young people to apply.

“We have put a lot of effort into the first phase of the project, which will include a series of workshops and sports activities focusing on breaking the ice between participants, team development and Olympic values education,” she says. “I can’t wait to see everyone go through this experience and develop into advocates of sport for peace.”

Support from local and international partners

Community and collaboration are fundamental to every level of the project, and Papamichalopoulos has worked closely with the IOC, the IOC Young Leaders Programme’s founding partner, Panasonic, and a number of domestic and international stakeholders, including World Sailing, to make her idea a reality.

“We have managed to secure meaningful partnerships for all stages of the programme,” she explains. “The IOC Young Leaders Programme has offered me support, not only through its targeted curriculum and seed funding, but moreover to believe that this project was possible. Once the project was developed, the fact that national and international stakeholders offered their help to bring this project to life was huge. I’ve found strength and motivation in inspirational figures who were willing to lend an ear and offer advice.”

Sophia Papamichalopoulos at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony IOC/Christopher Furlong

Winds of Change has joined a growing network of initiatives, programmes and people all channelling sport and the Olympic values to actively contribute to peaceful, healthier and more equal societies across the globe. The project contributes to the “sport, peace and safe communities” portfolio of the IOC’s Olympism365 strategy, which is aimed at strengthening the role of sport as an important enabler of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Reflecting on the mission behind Winds of Change, Papamichalopoulos offers a powerful vision of Olympism in action, 365 days a year: “I believe everyone involved in sport is in a unique position to influence people and communities in a positive way, and to also integrate different social development goals through their sports activities. I think that, through the Winds of Change, we can really touch people’s hearts and minds.”

Worldwide Olympic Partner Panasonic’s continued support

The IOC Young Leaders Programme has been supported by Worldwide Olympic and Paralympic Partner Panasonic since 2017, and this will continue through to 2024. Panasonic, as the programme’s founding partner, is committed to supporting the IOC Young Leaders through various initiatives, for example providing its creative and technological expertise, along with its network of influencers and ambassadors, to inspire the Young Leaders and equip them with the skills and tools they need to enhance their projects.

Find out more about Panasonic’s support for the programme.

IOC Young Leaders Programme

The IOC Young Leaders programme, launched in 2016, empowers talents to leverage the power of sport to make a positive difference in their communities.
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