“Ever since I was a small child, I was told that karate was not for women,” explains Ana Maria Stratou, who fell in love with the sport as a young girl in Moldova. Fortunately for her, her father saw differently.
“Sport was important to my parents before I was even born, so it was natural that they would want me to be involved too,” she says. “First, when I was four years old, I started with ballroom dancing; but at the age of eight I moved on to karate. My brother was the first to try it, and then my father decided that it would be good for me too. I think he was impressed by the coach and how well he dealt with children.” At 23, after having earned her black belt, Ana was the highest ranked athlete from Moldova in her sport.
Her love of sport eventually led to her applying to be a Young Ambassador (YA) for Moldova at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Nanjing 2014. YAs are nominated by their respective National Olympic Committees (NOCs) ahead of each edition of the YOG to ensure that their athletes get the most out of their YOG experience and enjoy all the Learn & Share educational activities on offer, such as workshops on anti-doping, injury prevention and career transition.
Aged between 18 and 25 at the time of their nomination, the YAs come from all walks of life but share a passion for sport and its values. Since Singapore 2010, the programme has amassed a global network of 203 impassioned YAs from 105 NOCs. “It was pure coincidence that a sports journalist friend of mine informed me about this opportunity, so I decided to go to the NOC and apply for the programme,” says Ana. “Nanjing was very exciting and challenging for me. The amazing atmosphere of the Youth Olympic Games was something I had never experienced before, and we had a great team of young athletes. The best moment was when our country won its first gold in canoe. The whole team was there to cheer, and after that day many of us lost their voices, including me!”
Encouraged by her experiences in Nanjing, Ana continued to work in sport – initially for the Moldovan NOC before roles with the Organising Committees of the European Games Baku 2015 and the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and the National Karate Federation of Moldova. She also continued her karate career, competing at the European and World Karate Championships as the only female athlete representing Moldova; and when the opportunity came up to apply for IOC funding through the YA+ programme, she was inspired to start making the sport more accessible to women in her country.
The YA+ programme invites the community of YAs to apply for up to CHF 5,000 to support them in delivering their own grass-roots project designed to make a real and positive impact in their community through sport.
“Not much has changed since I was a child, and we still have a low number of female athletes,” she explains. “I decided to bring a small change to our society by offering young girls an opportunity to practise karate for free, thus contributing to breaking these existing stereotypes in our community.” The support Ana received allowed her to successfully organise her country’s first-ever women’s karate festival.
“As soon as we received the news that the IOC had approved the project, we started to prepare for the event,” says Ana. “The first Women's Karate Festival was basically a test event, but it was a great success and provided additional motivation for girls to practise what they love.”
The festival proved to be so successful that Ana is already planning the next edition for 2017. “We had good feedback from partners and media and we discovered new potential partners, as we held it around International Women’s Day. We included fun games and a presentation of the sport, making it easier for the public to understand. Since then, the number of girls practising karate has increased, and the next event is already scheduled for 5 March 2017.”
Ana has also expanded her efforts to support athletes with a physical impairment after being inspired by one of her Moldovan team-mates, who lost his sight as a teenager. “In many countries, karate and other sports are practised on a large scale by disabled people, but in our country this rate is low,” explains Ana. “This means that disabled people are missing out on the benefits they can gain from sport, and athletes like my team-mate Nicolai Bondarev are not as widely appreciated. “As a youngster he started to lose his vision and only had 7 per cent remaining by the age of 18. But he never gave up. In 2016, he won the world title in the blind and visually impaired category, becoming a role model for all those children who were born different. I thought that we should use him as an example to motivate those children.”
Since initiating her projects, Ana has seen karate receive greater support within Moldova – with the World Karate Federation even donating a tatami mat to the country’s national federation – and she has now set her sights on achieving greater success in the future. “My objective is to have an equal number of male and female karate athletes in our country,” she says. “Eventually, I would love to see some of these athletes representing Moldova at international events, both girls and disabled children. Above all, it is aimed at building confidence and perseverance in these children. It is a long-term project, but after one year we have already built a strong base. I would love to raise awareness among other organisations in Moldova, showing them that sport can have social benefits and helping them to develop similar projects.”