May 17, 2024

Sports, Sponsorships, and Events / Feature Story

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Ignite the Passion: Hannah Cockroft and Isaiah Kioiloglou—How Sport Can Drive Inclusivity and Positive Social Change

Ever since she was born, Hannah Cockroft has been defying expectations and refusing to take “no” for an answer. Despite suffering two cardiac arrests after birth that affected the development of her hips, legs and feet, she has gone on to become one of Britain’s most decorated Paralympic athletes.

As a passionate wheelchair racer, Cockroft has dazzled spectators around the world including at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, where she won gold in the T34 800 meters. Cockroft recently exchanged views with Isaiah Kioiloglou, an IOC Young Leader who is passionate about social inclusion, on how sport can break down barriers.

Ensuring para-athletes can gain access to equipment that fits

Growing up, Cockroft went to mainstream schools but was never invited to participate in sports until she met a very passionate physical education teacher who urged her to try wheelchair basketball. She took to it right away and later tried wheelchair rugby, tennis, and discus before finding her passion in wheelchair racing at age 15. Soon she began entering competitions and, as her performance improved, breaking world records. 

I had finally found a way to do something that I was always told I couldn’t do,” says Cockroft. “That’s me in a nutshell. I hate to be told I can’t do something, and I will go out of my way a million times to find another way to do it. That was my way to do sport. If I had to describe myself in three words, they would be ‘stubborn,’ ‘determined,’ and ‘friendly.’

Photo: Hannah Cockroft

Cockroft received her first sports wheelchair at age 13 from a para-sports charity and it literally changed her life overnight. As she won more and more championships on the track, Cockroft wanted to give back to the community that helped her. She now works with more than 10 charities that place an emphasis on providing para-athletes with proper equipment that fits them, which can make the difference between success and failure.

It’s incredible how much more able I became once I had a wheelchair that fit,” Cockroft says. “Imagine walking around in shoes that are three sizes too big. You’d always be falling over your feet, you wouldn’t be comfortable—it’s exactly the same in a wheelchair,” she explains. “I don’t want any other person to feel limited by the equipment they are provided with, so I wanted to support charities that give people that independence. Anywhere that I can use my voice and support, I try to put it there and hope that even if it helps one person, that’s a good place to start.

Cockroft also represents Panasonic as an ambassador for sustainability, an experience that she says taught her about the importance of avoiding greenwashing in pursuing environmental change.

Challenging the able-bodied to try disability sports

Appointed an IOC Young Leader in 2023, Isaiah Kioiloglou also believes sport can be an agent for positive social change. With a Greek-Cypriot background, Kioiloglou grew up with family members who had disabilities and experienced the challenges of being refugees and discriminated against. After playing basketball as a teenager and young adult, she started to focus on learning about and implementing non-formal education methods as a sport-for-development trainer and facilitator. In her role, she has gained experience using goalball, a team para-sport designed specifically for athletes with a vision impairment, in team-building and communication skills workshops led by women with disabilities.

Photo: Isaiah Kioiloglou

I’m very dedicated to my purpose because it makes me who I am,” says Kioiloglou. “Sport for development is a concept that uses the power of sport to address and contribute to social, cultural, and economic goals. It doesn’t have to do with recreational or competitive sport. It’s about recognizing what sport can do to develop you and your skills and thus bring positive change in society.

Kioiloglou raises a concept that, if mainstreamed, can make the able-bodied develop true empathy, not just for someone that has different abilities than them, but for each other within the society. “We all need to develop our skills,” she says. “You can do that simply by playing a disability sport.

As an IOC Young Leader, Kioiloglou is working to change the status quo of society’s attitudes toward social injustice leveraging the double-sided discrimination that women with disabilities experience. She sees sport, and in this case goalball, as a way to bridge differences. Only by bringing groups to interact together, does change take place.

She plans to train women with disabilities so they will be able to lead soft skills workshops through goalball for employees of a company or organization in different countries. She seeks to mainstream the world of disability into the world of able-bodied people, highlighting how the intersectionality of our backgrounds can lead to a better world.

Photo: Isaiah Kioiloglou

Isaiah Kioiloglou is an IOC Young Leader from Greece whose passion is changing the status quo of attitudes toward disabilities and even mainstreaming the world of disability into the realm of able-bodied people

Making the world inclusive and sports safe for all

The two women discussed the importance of social inclusion through sport and how it can be used to end the daily experiences of exclusion faced by people with disabilities. Cockroft described being shut out of sports clubs as a girl and being told they were not for people like her. She compared that to being barred from a shop because it doesn’t have a ramp or a train because it has no staff to assist with boarding.

Sport is such an important factor for social inclusion because it is so easy to adapt,” says Cockroft. “Everyone can do a disability sport, whether you’re able-bodied or not. It is inclusive for all.” 

Cockroft and Kioiloglou also agreed that sport should not only be inclusive but safe. The “safe sport” movement has grabbed the spotlight in recent years because of the toll that competition can take on athletes’ mental well-being. The 2016 IOC Consensus Statement defines safe sport as, “an athletic environment that is respectful, equitable and free from all forms of harassment and abuse.”

Cockroft, who will again face the world’s best wheelchair racers at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Game, believes that safe sport is sport that’s free of not only doping and abuse but also from negative language or lack of support when an athlete disappoints.

Everyone wants to step up and celebrate with you when the race has gone well,” she says, “but everyone disappears when the race hasn’t gone the way you wanted. For me, safe sport is when, no matter the result, people are there to support and be present. It’s using positive language and knowing that no athlete gets on that start line to lose. You have to be empathetic, put yourself in the athlete’s situation and realize that we are all just human. The sooner we understand that the safer the sport will be.

Photo: Hannah Cockroft

Hannah Cockroft, a champion wheelchair racer from the UK who took home the gold medal from the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, is a Panasonic ambassador who is passionate about the cause of sustainability

Looking ahead, Kioiloglou asked Cockroft about her vision for perceptions of disability in the future.

In a dream world, we wouldn’t notice disability,” says Cockroft. “Everything would be accessible, and people would have the independence to get around and live a normal life. People wouldn’t notice disability or a wheelchair or a missing leg and would just speak to the person. I want people to address the person who’s in front of you. Right now, just put yourself in someone else’s shoes.


Hannah Cockroft
Hannah Cockroft is a British wheelchair racer. She suffered two cardiac arrests when she was born in 1992, affecting her hips, legs, and feet. Even though she was told to not take part in sports at school, she began wheelchair racing in 2007. Since then, she has competed in multiple Paralympic Games in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 meters, winning seven gold medals; she has also netted 12 world titles at the World Para Athletics Championships. Cockroft’s many accolades include being appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2022 for services to athletics. 

Isaiah Kioiloglou
Isaiah Kioiloglou is a sports-for-development trainer who designs and implements educational programmes for different communities and believes that philosophy, values, and soft skills development converge in sport. Born in Athens, Kioiloglou was a basketball player before focusing on non-formal education. She runs “The Cycle of Femmability” project using goalball in team building workshops led by women with disabilities. Kioiloglou was selected as an IOC Young Leader in 2023.

About the “Ignite the Passion” Series

This series of interviews invites Team Panasonic athletes and IOC Young Leaders to share their passions and the actions they are taking to bring about positive change on key issues, including the environment, physical and mental health, gender equality, education, and diversity and inclusion. The series will coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic Games Paris 2024, with an aim to inspire young readers to join these athletes in making changes that can help realize a more sustainable and inclusive society.  

About the IOC Young Leaders Programme

The IOC Young Leaders Programme, is a joint project between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Panasonic which aims to develop future leaders by selecting 25 young people worldwide to help them leverage the power of sport and make a difference in their communities. The programme works together with a number of initiatives in various countries to address a range of social and environmental issues, many of them focus areas of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Panasonic is the Founding Partner of the IOC Young Leaders Programme. 

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