In a career stacked with challenges, Sarah Walker is facing her toughest task yet – trying to convince 10,000 of the world’s best athletes to tell her what they want.
The Kiwi BMX star is about to begin a campaign to ride at her third Olympics, in Tokyo in 2020. But at the same time, she has a more pressing assignment that goes well beyond her own sporting realm – and which will “empower and protect” athletes worldwide.
For the last two years, Walker has been a member of the Athletes’ Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC); a role which has tested her knowledge of the law and her time management skills.
Now, the 30-year-old is chairing the steering committee set up to create an Athlete Charter – a ground-breaking international document which will define the rights and responsibilities of athletes.
Walker sees it as her job to convince as many of the world’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes as possible to make their voices heard on the most relevant issues they face today.
Issues like sexual abuse and harassment, doping, corruption, gender equality and marketing revenues.
It’s believed to be the largest athlete-focused survey ever commissioned.
But Walker, the 2012 Olympic BMX silver medallist, knows first-hand how hard it is to pin down an elite athlete, and get them to fill out a questionnaire.
“Active athletes, we hate that kind of stuff. It’s really hard to motivate us to do it,” she says. “You’re so worried about yourself – what you need to do and what you want to achieve. You’re not worried about an Athlete Charter, so why would you spend 10-15 minutes doing a survey?
“Those who are towards the end of their careers, or the older and more experienced athletes, are more likely to give back. Younger athletes are very much focused on themselves still. So it’s figuring out how to engage them too, and make them feel like it will benefit them.”
It’s Walker’s ambitious target to get 10,000 athletes to have their say. One month into the three-month period for the survey, and so far just over 1000 sportspeople have responded.
“I’m not happy,” Walker says. “If we can get the voices of 10,000 athletes, it makes it easier for me to argue that it’s a response that fully represents what athletes want.”
But, on the positive side, she says, responses have been spread across 106 countries and over 70 sporting disciplines.
“You don’t want a charter that’s made by only American, Australian and New Zealand athletes, say, because their situation is a hell of a lot different to an athlete in Afghanistan or Uganda,” she says.
“An athlete in Pakistan may just want to be able to have food after training – the right to eat between sessions. A New Zealand athlete may want to get paid more. There’s a massive difference between nations.”
But one of the biggest issues facing today’s athletes across the globe, Walker says, is sexual harassment.
“I’ve been listening to stories from athletes about what they have had to deal with, where they’ve spoken up and nothing has been done,” she says. “Where they’ve been told, ‘there are no other coaches, so you just have to deal with it’.
“Either accept you will be harassed or assaulted, and keep doing your sport, or quit – those are the only two options. And they will stay in the situation because they love their sport so much.
“Hearing these stories has made me so determined to make things happen.”
The initial survey was sent out to almost 200 athlete representatives to determine the kinds of rights and responsibilities to include in the Athlete Charter.
It came up with five key topics: integrity and clean sport; governance and communication; career and marketing; safeguarding; and sports competition. The second phase of the survey has been put out to all athletes.
Also among the 20-strong steering committee of athlete representatives is New Zealand’s two-time Olympic long jumper and solicitor Chantal Brunner. The committee will present a summary of the survey findings in October, at the ‘Olympism in Action Forum’, to be held during the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
Walker hopes that in the near future, the rights and responsibilities outlined in the Athlete Charter will be enforceable. “So anyone who signs up to the Olympic Charter will have to abide by the Athlete Charter, and every national OIympic committee and sports federation will have to protect the rights of its athletes,” she says.
As committee chair, Walker has had to expand her legal knowledge “in order to do a better job”.
“What I bring to the table is that most athletes aren’t lawyers and it’s the athletes that the charter is for. It’s about making sure the athlete can read it, understand what their rights are, and say, ‘Actually that’s exactly my situation and I need to do something about it’,” she says.
“I’m learning more than I ever thought I could learn. I really enjoy learning.”
But Walker’s role on the Athletes’ Commission has also tested her skills of counterbalancing her advocacy work with a fully-committed BMX career.
“I struggled big time to start with,” says Walker, who was elected for her eight-year term during the 2016 Rio Olympics. “Mentally, I really wanted to give everything to being on the IOC, because it’s awesome – it’s global and you can make such a massive impact.
“It would be different if I was retired – I could devote all my time to it. But I have to work it in with my everyday life as well. If I give too much, I can’t be a good athlete. I’m still getting there.”
Most of her meetings have been over the phone. The next face-to-face engagement of the steering committee will be in Argentina, the week after Walker races there in a BMX Supercross World Cup event, which kickstarts the Olympic qualifying period for Tokyo.
Her next international event is in Inner Mongolia, racing for the Qiansen Trophy in a few weeks’ time.
After missing the Rio Olympics following a series of injuries, Walker’s serious return to BMX this year has been solid, but not stunning.
“My results and performances earlier in the season were really good, but then I broke a rib at one of the races, and I couldn’t train well for the world championships,” she says.
Nevertheless, the 2009 world champion managed to finish ninth in this year’s world champs in Azerbaijan – which qualified her for a performance enhancement grant from High Performance Sport New Zealand.
“I’m happy. I’m still at the top end of the field; it’s not like I’m dropping off the back,” she says.
The Tokyo Olympics are her ultimate goal, but she has taken on a new philosophy towards the games.
“I would love to go to the Olympics and that’s what I’m riding for, but if I don’t get to go, I also need to have enjoyed the build-up,” she says.
“If riding at Tokyo is the only thing that motivates me and I don’t make it, I’m going to hate the fact that I’d wasted two years. Especially because I love the IOC work, and I’d be disappointed that I hadn’t been able to take full advantage of the role, in order to keep training.
“I want to be like ‘I had such a good career, it was so enjoyable, and I’m so glad I did that. It was for me, not for anyone else, and it was just awesome’.”
She admits to feeling the pressure of having been at the top of the sport in New Zealand for a decade: “There are people who want to see me not be the best anymore. But I can handle that.”
And in a way, she’s doing her best to make that happen.
Walker finishes our conversation and rushes off to train with 17-year-old rider Jessie Smith. The Hamilton teen has been a three-time world champion in age group classes, and will race at the Youth Olympics.
“Jessie will also be going for a spot at Tokyo. I’m helping her to hopefully not beat me, but to be amazing. She’s already really talented, but she needs a bit more work on her self-belief. She sees me as being above her, so I figure the more we train together, the more she can see she’s better than she thinks she is,” Walker says.
It’s important to Walker, New Zealand’s first BMX Olympian, to pass on what she’s gleaned in her tenure at the top.
“I’ve spent so much of my career learning on the go, because no one had gone before me. Now these guys won’t have to spend as long figuring it all out. I can give them a shortcut to get faster, quicker.”