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Interview with Katherine Grainger and Vijay Parbat on their work with International Inspiration - Episode 32

Images of projects and logo of International Inspiration
Friday, 11 December 2015

Given the recent scandals in sport we thought there is a need to focus on some of the more positive outcomes that sport can deliver.

In this show, LawInSport’s CEO, Sean Cottrell, is joined by Olympic gold medallist, Katherine Grainger, who holds the title of being is Britain’s most successful female rower and Vijay Parbat, Head of Legal at UK Sport and a LawInSport Advisory Board Member. 

In this interview Katherine and Vijay talk about their roles working with the sports charity International Inspiration. They share their experiences working with the organisation and highlight the significant role athletes and sports lawyers can play in promoting opportunities and protecting the rights of children around the world.

We hope this podcast will go some way to restore your faith in humanity and the power of sport.  

For more information on International Inspiration go to

 To read the transcript of the interview please sign or register for free here. 

Sean Cottrell (SC): First of all, thank you very much for joining me today. Today’s a slightly different interview than we’ve done in the past. Normally we focus on legal issues in sport such as anti-doping. However, sometimes, in the business of sport and law, we overlook some of the really important stuff that’s going on, particularly at the grassroots level and in international development. Therefore today, I am delighted to be interviewing Vijay Parbat and Katherine Grainger.

I wondered to begin with Vijay - could you introduce yourself and say what your role is both with the organization and on a day-to-day basis?

Vijay Parbat (VP): Yes, I am currently the Head of Legal at UK Sport and I volunteer as the Company Secretary for International Inspiration. So, my 9-5 [job] is at UK Sport; I get loads of quick questions about anything and everything from “Can you look at this policy for me? Can you look at this contract with this particular contract with me, and it has got to be done by 5pm today?” Through to, “we’ve got a board meeting coming up, we need a paper for this or what is the latest governance position on XYZ.” It’s very varied.

In relation to my role at International Inspiration, I am the Company Secretary so this role is much about making sure there is compliance with the Companies Act, making sure we’re following the Charity Commission’s guidelines and supporting legal and governance process, first and foremost. That, in practice, means working with the Board and the Executive Team with anything from due diligence about respective partners, from looking at grant agreements to insurance requirements, through to making sure statutory books and the minutes are up to date and making sure all the filings are also up to date. But, you have to be on your toes. There are some very high profile individual people on the Board, and definitely the person that gives me the hardest time is Katherine.

SC: Katherine, I think everyone will know who you are, but can you introduce yourself and explain what you do at International Inspiration?

Katherine Grainger (KG): I am Katherine Grainger and before I was known for sitting in a boat and going backwards; I’ve been to the last four Olympics as part of the British Rowing team. I am a full time athlete. I also sit on International Inspiration’s Board of Trustees and I definitely do not give Vijay the hardest time... I’m sure there are much tougher people than me on the Board.

The Board governs the overall strategy of the charity and brings together massive different expertise within sports and also, within an international development sector. We can advise and support a charity’s development - financial, fundraising communication strategies or plans, all sorts of different stuff. We work closely with the executive team and the Chair who was until recently, Lord Coe, to raise the profile of the charity. But as an athlete, getting to work with that caliber of people and doing this and the jobs we do, it’s really been a privilege.

SC: Katherine, can you explain, for those who aren’t familiar with the charity, exactly the type of work and some of the projects you’re involved with and how big the scope is?


“It’s low-cost, high-impact intervention and hopefully a springboard into bigger social issues”


KG: Yeah, of course. It’s called International Inspiration and it’s shortened to “IN,” because it’s much easier to say. The idea behind it is believing that sport can provide young people all around the world with a chance to learn and develop and basically create new opportunities for them. From my point of view, children and young people are some of the most vulnerable people in the world and they can potentially face a lifetime of discrimination, while trapped in poverty. The idea is that sport can play an influential role in achieving worldwide change through its ability to bring people together, provide a platform to reach out, and engaging young people in issues that might directly affect them- things like education, promoting human rights, gender equity, and making sure children with disabilities have the same chances as everyone else around them.

The charity works in 9 countries at the moment and providing young people with opportunities to gain new skills, access education, and get health information through sports. The charity’s work was way back when the Singapore bid was made in 2005 for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games - the idea that getting opportunities through sport was going to be a strong theme throughout the bid, International Inspiration or IN was London’s international promise to share spirit of the sport outside of the British Isles. From 2007 to 2014, International Inspiration operated at three levels of intervention. First of all, working with participants, which are children and young people, working with practitioners, who are coaches, schools and sports clubs, and then also policy makers, which is national government and international government organizations. That’s the 3 P’s - the participants, practitioners, and policymakers. The program ran in 20 countries around the world and reached the lives of 25 million children and young people. Still working with existing government structures, 55 policy and papers were influenced, including some significant changes to PE in the educational curriculum.

Just from my experience, you just know that sport can reach vast numbers of people in really hard to reach places and those probably most in need. It’s low-cost, high-impact intervention and hopefully a springboard into bigger social issues. Aside from the direct benefit that we all know physical activity can give, at present, sport is not sufficiently acknowledged or valued as having a big role in international development. The work we’ve discussed has the potential to be scaled up and used around the world to achieve big aims of addressing global inequalities.

SC: Fantastic. Thank you for that. I think, especially at a time where the ethics of sports is being questioned heavily because some of the practices being covered, it is great that there is an organization like yours that is doing this type of work and shows the positive impact that sports can have internationally. Vijay, could you, being the purse string holder, if that’s the right way to phrase it, give us some examples of some of the projects you’ve been involved with and what the outcomes from them have been.


“Under 50% of girls attend secondary schools and for boys its just 60%”


VP: Yeah, definitely. A couple of examples - first one I’ll talk about is in India where the program supports the development of sports participation and athlete development pathways. That was by introducing and shaping community sports. Under 50% of girls attend secondary schools and for boys its just 60%, sosport is a real opportunity to provide social messaging and education around important issues, such as equality inclusion. Going down a bit further, just over 20% of people living in rural areas have access to improved sanitation facilities and so to address these issues around both education and health; sport can really reach out to those hard to reach areas and help deliver a real enhanced message and knowledge around health issues, such as sanitation and rights awareness and also, importantly, not to be discriminated against. Some people outside of the formal education areas are able to play and develop their sports skills, but coupled with their social skills.

SC: I presume then that there are games centered around their education. So how does that sort of education process work?

VP: Through the program there were significant amounts of advocacy undertaken that encouraged the government to move this agenda forward. Here, it was used as a potentially soft power and linked into the policy point that Katherine was making earlier. As a result, the Government made PE a compulsory subject in primary schools in three districts in India. That change came from both the grassroots level and from the top - that is the unique part of IN’s work, ultimately. With the people in the field - practitioner and participants - they were also part of a systematic change here.

So, in Tanzania, there is work with the National Sports Council and the Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture, and Sport and that was developing a higher quality sport through technical expertise. The developing and strengthening of new frameworks was key in ensuring that resources are used effectively and that there was monitoring and evaluation- and that’s the key part of our work.

SC: Katherine, what Vijay is saying really backs up what you were saying in that sport can address these wider issues, rather than it’s not just playing sport and having a direct physical benefit, it’s also about addressing some of these bigger issues.


“the idea is focusing on strengthening women… teaching key skills and cultivates networks of support”


KG: Yeah, absolutely. I think anyone who has ever benefited from sport or enjoyed sport the health and social benefits are very natural and very sort of taken for granted now. But it is a concept that it can be much bigger than that and that influence sport can have is far beyond obvious health benefits. We are talking on the scale of it helped us, as a charity certainly, to really lobby for human rights.

The policy we have for sports programs running in the field and International Inspiration is an independent charity now, so we’re still working with grassroots organizations all around the world. For example, one that is really close to my heart, is in Zambia, IN supports two programs that supports the rights of women through sport. One is called the Go Sisters program and it provides young women with the opportunity to take on leadership roles within their community and be trained on sport, life skills, and health education and all that improves employment opportunities. By taking these prolific roles in communities, it helps demonstrate not just the skills they learn themselves, but more positive attitudes towards the girls because they see them in these bigger roles. The women’s empowerment program, the idea is focusing on strengthening women physically but also teaching key skills to make sure that they are more employable and cultivates networks of support they can lean on through relationships they have built through sport. It is really important that it does alter the perceptions of sport and brings it into the spaces that do command attention of their community, that people see women and sport and therefore treat them differently.

For us, like myself- sport is my life, and for us, on a really deep level, sport anchors us to values and disciplines and that is what I think we want to translate all around the world, to reach a lot of people who might not realize that otherwise. For me personally, I’ve certainly taken all of that for granted. I’ve been involved in sport pretty much my whole life; my family wasn’t overly interested in sport, but they were always really supportive and I got involved in things at a very young age. I got involved with rowing when I was 17 and I went to university. It means I’ve always been surrounded by driven, dynamic, capable, strong women who have got a great sense of humor and feel they can take on any and every opportunity that opens up to them, it is an expectation that they can, and they should and they will. That’s just very normal in my life and the people I work with, and for me to get to work with IN has been a really timely reminder of how much sport can bring and develop characteristics as well as opportunities that might otherwise have not been there. That’s just something that I just have my life each day. It’s a really good reminder that you can’t take that for granted and that you if you can give that to someone, it is quite a gift and both home or abroad I’ve seen how sport can just give girls and women confidence; how they come together to achieve something, they support each other-there’s just lifelong friendships that are forged through the massive highs and lows that are shared. In a sports class, that is an amazing way to learn those life lessons.

I absolutely realize how lucky I am, especially being in a team sport being such a central part of my life. It’s just been great for me to think that IN programs can help bring those benefits to people, girls, women, and young children all over the world. Some of the work we do in IN highlights the unique role of legacies, especially after major events and lasting long-term impacts that sporting events can have and often go unreported, so in Britain at the moment it is, “was there a legacy after 2012? How many people are doing sport? How many people are participating?” And probably the international benefits are being underreported. The Olympic program we discussed earlier is recognized by the IOC and the UN as the first ever legacy initiative linked to an Olympic and Paralympic Games and has set a really high precedent for other major events, especially Olympic and Paralympic Games going forward.

SC: Do you think that this focus on shared value and the work that you are doing has enabled you to achieve bringing people together who share these values? Has it helped to go through this humbling experience to see people in other environments where they are facing much more difficult challenges and maybe don’t have access to the facilities, support, people, and structure as you said, Katherine? Do you think that it is an example, about what can be done if you can get athletes and business professionals and others all together with these values aligned?


“ need to assess what the values are and once you accept the actual values and what you’re going to live up to”


KG: Yeah, I think the values aspect is really important. I think any business organisation, club, sporting setup, anyone as a big group, or a team coming together, one of the biggest things they can have is a shared goal; and that vision of what you are going to achieve together and everyone needs to know the role of how to achieve that. I think that is absolutely fundamental and that needs to be there in place. But, on a deeper level, once you follow that through to a few stages on, you need to assess what the values are and once you accept the actual values and what you’re going to live up to, the value system is on a deeper, more intrinsic level than the goal setting, which will change constantly. The values stay there and are very implicit and when you have people who are aware of those values and plan up to those values, live by those values, then it becomes more powerful in the change you can affect and a very easy way to engage people when you can ensure what those values are. It is very universal and you want, as humanity, to strive to achieve and live up to.

SC: The organization is doing some wonderful work in what is clear is having a really significant impact in changing people’s perceptions in competitions. However, from a legal perspective and from an organizational perspective, working in multiple jurisdictions has its own unique set of challenges, not purely just from the pure legal perspective, but also from a cultural perspective. Vijay, from your side of things, what are the challenges the organization faces?


“...we shift our focus to ensuring the money that we’ve handed over is used for the purpose for which it’s given...”


VP: I think the first thing we need to put into context - we are a small charity with limited resources and limited funding. With that there come it’s own challenges, but we have a global reach. The risks we had in terms of the work we do in countries arise from a simple scoping visit where we might need to go into a country - and I have to emphasize, the countries that we work in are not going to be the safest or most transparent; they’re going to have different cultures, values, customs, and practices- ones that we will not be accustomed to, so we need to consider practical issues on how we can practically mitigate risks as far as we possibly can. For example, we’re referred to FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) advice on a particular country, we review insurance cover, and we debate unethical practices if we’re facing them. For example, what do you do in a scenario where you’re presented by someone overseas who has to do a certain job, but they expect a felicitation payment to that job for you, and without it, they won’t do it or you’re threatened physically if you don’t make a payment? So,there [where you safety is threatened,] you’ve got your own personal safety, whether it’s committing an potential offense under the Bribery Act, what do you do? I know what I would do in that situation. I would pay the price, because my own personal safety, under duress, where you know the law will recognize those sort of situations, but you’ve got to address this because these situations can arise. I’m not saying they arise here, most of all scoping visit are successful. When they are, we do partner with local organizations and enter into funding agreements and that presents another challenge because it is a multi-jurisdiction - it’s a different jurisdiction.

We say English law and the law of jurisdiction of England and Wales apply. But that’s not going to give any legal benefit to the charity because we’ve got limited resources if things go wrong. What can happen there is we have just got to shift our focus to ensuring that the money we’ve handed over is used for the purpose for which it’s given and we make sure this compliance is reported and monitored along the way. With all of that, if assets are being purchased for example, there is evidence of this, this all sounds obvious, but as you can see from recent allegations of corruption in the international sports federations when you’re paying for something for a particular purpose, you have got to make sure that purpose is being achieved. Or, if it is for buying something, you go and make sure that thing is being bought.

SC: I think we talked impressively about what the organization does and it sounds wonderful. I think everyone can agree that it is a great thing to get behind. However, then when you talk about issues about people’s liberty or safety being at risk to get some of these projects off the ground, I think it makes it all very real about the effort and challenges that you have to face to really make an impact. You can forget sometimes that you have these issues that people are dealing with in order to just make some positive change. I guess it’s in stark contrast to your day-to-day work when you’re working with elite athletes or governing bodies. Following from Vijay’s point, Katherine, IN works with a lot of children in sport- can you talk about what you’re doing around the protection of the athletes? That is something that I think doesn’t extend to developing countries, but it extends to the whole of sport.

KG: Absolutely, and to be honest, safeguarding children is not just restricted to sport. It is something that we are aware of everyday in every location in probably every country around the world. You just need to look at any TV headlines and the news to see the tragedies that can happen to children at the hands of other people. Safeguarding children is massively important and what IN does is be a part of a UNICEF-led initiative to safeguard children in sport to international safeguarding and procedures around child safety in partnerships with over 40 federations, associations, clubs, and nonprofit organizations. If the procedures aren’t in place, IN supports organizations to develop and strengthens their capacities to implement and handle these situations. When thinking of children as one of the most, if not the most, vulnerable people in the world, their safety is absolutely paramount. I think sport has all these tangible impacts, but it often not seen as influential or important as it could be in other areas and subsequently still remains an undervalued and underutilized tool. When you can shift the culture of how sport is viewed, and especially the grassroots of how it’s viewed, then I think that is when you start to see changes happening. That is where sport’s international development - if you can enable the expertise of smaller organizations, like IN, to contribute to big conversations, then you can start making an impact on every level.

SC: Basically you’re saying that taking a positive stance, and saying to people, you gave an example there where someone would like you to bring a project to a particular region and you go there and you say, “Actually we can do this, but if you allow us to help you develop the systems or put the appropriate protections in place.” Is that easier than saying, “You haven’t got this and until you have got this, we are not going to turn up”? To frame it as a positive rather than a negative, as an opportunity.

KG: Absolutely, it’s an opportunity to improve. It’s not us saying “until you do that, we’re not going to be interested” or “we’re not going to help until it’s going to be wanted.” Ideally the safeguard of children is something you would hope every community, every club, every location would want, and if they haven’t got it in place, then absolutely we would like to help them get it into place because should hopefully importance of it or help to achieve the opportunity then it’s going to improve everyone. So yes, hopefully something that can help improve the lives of many.

SC: Vijay, you’re a commercial lawyer, you deal with the regulatory matters, but you’re also a commercial lawyer - what do you think the benefits are, commercially and economically, for regions and towns and other organizations for that matter that participate within? What do you think those benefits are from that side of things?

VP: Sport and development area has both social and commercial return for international sports organizations. Now, I haven’t quite pinpointed exactly the commercial return, but I think the issue that needs to be looked at is how do you fit this in within the vision, mission, or objective of the organization as mainstream, rather than being overlooked from a commercial perspective of being part of corporate social responsibilities and only indirectly contributes to the vision mission and objectives of the organizations. How do you put it back into the mainstream core function of the organization? How can you contribute to that? At the moment, I don’t think it’s the right approach that we’ve been taking from a commercial perspective, and I think there can be a direct benefit - I haven’t put my finger on it, but it’s worth having a discussion. But ultimately, a holistic view should be taken about this particular area and how it fits into wider commercial programs, national and international sports programs that their commercial partners have.

SC: Doesn’t it come back to what Katherine was saying as well, about the values as you said in the mission, that rather than it being just lip service, you’re doing something because you feel you have to or need to be seen doing it if you live, eat, and breathe it? Quite clearly it seems, from what you were saying, if an international athlete can be involved, such as yourself Katherine, who has been around the world, a quite grounded individual can get so much from it, quite clearly then you’d like to think that other people would also benefit as well from being involved.

On that point, how can people get involved? We’ve got the world’s largest readership of sports lawyers and alike, people involved in sports regulation and governance. We’ve got young, aspiring lawyers and aspiring sports lawyers and sports executives. What is it that you’re looking for in terms of having people get involved in the organisation? Either if it is a commercial partner or one of these individuals who is listening or reading the interview now or thinks this an organization they’d love to help- what can they do?

KG: I think what has been great, I mean obviously I’m biased, but I absolutely enjoyed the experience of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. One of the big things we saw there as a game changer was the idea of the volunteers, the game makers at the time. People are involved in something they are very passionate about and it was quite an honor to have everyone play a role in it. I think we’ve seen an increase, not just because of the big games, but in time recognition of sport and charity work and it’s growing and it’s getting more popular, which is fantastic. It also puts huge pressure on organizations both overseas and in the UK to find new funding sources, which will always be limited. So certainly at International Inspiration we are always looking for people who can take part in charity events or fundraising support, anyone who listens in and thinks that I want to know more about that, or get involved with or support, or help, or learn more about the projects we do, or visit some of the projects we do, then the easiest thing is probably visit our website which is very simple, can find out more.

Another website to find other organizations who might need legal support especially, or if you’re just volunteering in the field is Basically, we’ve got young people at the heart of our activities so we want people to get in touch with the sector and it’s a great opportunity to network within sports. For example, what you were saying about the commercial partners and stuff, there are huge amounts organizations in the field that are supported, both as funders and donors, by the world’s largest sport brands, federations, and associations, you name it - like the IOC, FIFA, Adidas, Nike - not to favor any particular ones, but big brand names. There has been a significant trend for private sector companies to increasingly invest in this work so if International Inspiration is the work we talk about today and if in any way it aligns with the kind of values that people out there are thinking about, then please get in touch because there is always something that could be done and we always want people to get involved.

It is a podcast specifically about law. For me, law was my original love. Before I started rowing, it was genuinely what I thought I was going to do with my life. I went and got my law degree and I thought that would be my future. When I was really young at school, my big sister was bullied for a while and I remember I just always felt a really strong sense of frustration and anger at that bullying and always just naturally hated injustice and inequality. For me, I think on a base level, I didn’t consciously think it at the time, but I think as I got older and thought about careers, law to me felt like something that could help levels of playing fields and help people who might not be able to help themselves and give people a chance, a sense of self-worth, and a level of protection that they might have not have otherwise. That to me was what law could offer and I thought I would help people through law, but ironically I helped people through sport and came back into law that way. For me, the most important thing law can do is give people a voice and it doesn’t matter who is right-everyone deserves a voice.

SC: It is my heartfelt belief in this organization and what we stand for is that, in order to have a true order of law, people have to understand the rules and regulations that are meant to govern their behavior and I bore everyone with that phrase all the time. I think if people do have access to information in a sport or any other art form for that matter, allows people to understand, engage, become more confident and have access to information. Particularly if you look at the sanitation stuff that Vijay was talking about or the empowering women’s initiatives that you were talking about, Katherine, it is so powerful. If you can find that vehicle and people interested and feel that when they do take action it actually has an impact, then it can achieve wonderful things and I think you have to look at the policy changes. If you’re able to change policy, it is a powerful thing and I always recommend to a lot of the established sports lawyers who are not already, should be involved with organizations like yourself. I just think it is an enriching experience- you just get so much back from it, rather it’s not so much about you giving, you get so much back.

KG: Yeah, certainly from sport, I have gained so much from it over the years and it’s given so much that I want to give back in some way and I was always someone who felt athletes should think beyond just the sport and get involved in the biggest way they can. I believe passion in a sport can make a difference, but it genuinely wasn’t until I started working with the charity and the organization that it hit home for me just what an impact you can have. I think impact is a crucial word because it is great to have these ideals and these goals and these visions and everything else, but ultimately it’s about making change and it’s about actually directly inserting policy and having an impact that can change people’s lives. When you feel that momentum happening and actually not just words or amazing rhetoric or a great vision of what could be, change is happening with real people on the ground level, then you feel you’re actually doing something good. There is hope for a better future for everyone, really.

SC: That’s awesome, you’re inspiring me right now. I am ready to go and do some volunteering for the day...

Vijay, thank you for your time today and putting us in contact. Valerie Samzun, thank you for organizing this. Katherine, I know that you are busy training at the moment. Thank you both very much. I think it’s great work your organization is doing and I am pleased that we are able to give some profile and explain a little bit about what you’re up to and the impact it can have, and hopefully, there are other charities or organizations out there listening as well and take some inspiration from that as well- it is very positive! So thank you for giving me a positive morning.

**A special thank you to Yasmin Hosseini of Pepperdine University, School of Law, for her excellent work transcribing this interview.

Sean Cottrell

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