Jun 05, 2024

Sports, Sponsorships, and Events / Feature Story

Sponsorship & Events

Ignite the Passion: Malaika Mihambo and Ryosuke Itomi—The Importance of Sport as an Agent of Social Impact and Change

Malaika Mihambo likes to fly. Unlike most people, she sails through the air on her own steam as a champion long jumper. The German athlete is the current Olympic and 2022 world champion in women’s long jump. Her personal best is a remarkable 7.30 meters, which she achieved at the 2019 World Athletics Championship, Mihambo has also been named German Sportswoman of the Year three times.

She also channels her personal passion into the realm of sustainability. Since November 2023, she has been partnering with Panasonic as a Team Panasonic Ambassador to promote mutual values of sustainability and social action. She has also been a host at Germany’s prestigious Green Awards and is pursuing a Master’s degree in environmental science. Mihambo recently discussed the importance of sport as an agent for change with Ryosuke Itomi, an IOC Young Leader who is passionate about using athletics to benefit youth in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

Winning the “inward championship” and expanding personal responsibility

Born in Heidelberg, Mihambo began doing track and field at around the age of eight, eventually participating in youth championships and improving her performance over the following decade. She won gold at the 2013 European Junior Championships and made her Olympic debut three years later at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Mihambo narrowly missed the podium but vaulted to the top with a jump of 7.00 meters.

When I do sports, it’s not only an outward championship but an inward one,” says Mihambo. “It’s a lot about mindset and connecting body and mind. My achievements have been really special moments for me, and they required strong focus and lots of dedication, but I have known for a long time that sport isn’t the only thing in my heart. Before embracing this, I was just an athlete, but now I’m so many things. I’m an environmental science student, and I love to travel and meditate. I read books in many languages like Spanish. I’m interested in so many things.

Photo: Malaika Mihambo

Ryosuke Itomi, a former volunteer with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, also spent a good part of his youth on the track—in his case it was distance running after having been inspired by Japan’s annual Hakone Ekiden, a two-day relay marathon held at New Year’s.

Making a difference through sport by empowering marginalized populations

At age 22, Itomi took up coaching, and since 2019, he has served as the national distance running head coach on Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific. He immediately recognized the value of the natural landscape as a venue for sport and began formulating a plan to create a sport-based business that would benefit the local people.

I also think sport is not everything,” says Itomi. “In college, I learned anthropology, sports science, and economics. But I realized that everything is related to sport and that’s why I wanted to pursue a career in sport with social impact.

Photo: Ryosuke Itomi

Even though long-distance running is not a very popular sport in tropical Vanuatu, Itomi has had the opportunity to work and train with different athletes who have achieved success. One of those athletes is Margaret Kuras, who was recognized for her long-distance running abilities. She demonstrated her excellence when she won silver in the 10,000 meters and gold in half-marathon at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa—all while running in her preferred way, without wearing shoes.

Photo: Ryosuke Itomi

Ryosuke Itomi is an IOC Young Leader from Japan whose passion is to empower marginalized populations, such as through his current work in Vanuatu to train young athletes to be international champions

To make a difference through sport, Itomi’s IOC Young Leaders project seeks to revamp a trail-running event on a remote volcanic island in Vanuatu and—through the process—establish a community-based and inclusive organizational body, which will include many different stakeholders from within the community. The trail-running event and the organizational body supporting the event will work towards economic empowerment at the community level.

The project also aims to contribute to environmental protection, cultural preservation, and community development by promoting regenerative tourism. Through his project, Itomi hopes to attract partners who align with the project’s purpose and promote athletics among the people of Vanuatu. He also aims to utilize the event as a platform to attract tourists from all over the world so they can discover the beautiful nature and tradition of the country.

Channeling personal passions into social causes that unite people everywhere

Social issues such as climate justice are something Malaika Mihambo has been interested in since she was a child, influenced by family members and their engagement in different issues and from her experiences as a member of social issues groups in school. She earned a degree in political science before competing at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and began studying environmental science in 2019. She says it helped her to communicate more effectively and to use her role as an athlete for advocacy.

It’s so important because we just have one world and we have to look out for each other,” says Mihambo. “I think it should be everyone’s goal to live as peacefully and in harmony as we can. We’re all different and we have different needs and backgrounds, but what’s more important is what unites us. I think we have to focus on that and include the environment and speak up for it.

Photo: Malaika Mihambo

Malaika Mihambo, an Olympic champion in the women’s long jump, started a charity that provides funds to underprivileged children in order to support their athletic, personal, and social development pursuits

In one example of her desire to create social impact, Mihambo began her own charity, Malaika Herzsprung e.V., which provides funds to families who cannot afford memberships in athletic clubs for their primary school children. Mihambo believes sport is essential not only for kids’ motor skills but also for their personal and social development. 

We have to be more connected with each other,” Mihambo explains. “In sports, you can have success but you can also still feel lonely because it’s people that make the difference—not achievements. It is so important to connect with others and give something back.” Mihambo, herself, continues to connect in the biggest way possible through her charity and her commitment to realizing her social and sustainability values. She also continues to achieve on the field. “With my last competition, last year, I qualified,” she says about the Olympic Games Paris 2024.

As an athlete and coach, respectively, both Mihambo and Itomi are looking forward to a big year ahead. The competition on the track will be brief, but their social impact is sure to make a difference for years to come.


Malaika Mihambo
Born in Germany in 1994, Malaika Mihambo grew up near Heidelberg and began competing in track and field at age eight. She finished ninth in long jump at the 2011 World Youth Championships and continued to compete in major international events before winning gold at the 2019 World Athletics Championship with a jump of 7.30 meters, a feat she repeated at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with a jump of 7.00 meters. In addition to being named German Sportswoman of the Year for three consecutive years, Mihambo has been a sustainability ambassador for the union of mineral water producers, a host of Germany’s Green Awards, and a Panasonic ambassador.   

Ryosuke Itomi
A native of Japan, Ryosuke Itomi is a former student athlete with a long-held passion for the relay marathon. With a Master’s Degree in development, Itomi serve as the Vanuatu’s national distance running head coach as a volunteer with the Japan International Cooperation Agency. In charge of delivering the nationwide Kids Athletics programme, Itomi has always been passionate about using sport to benefit youth and communities. He became 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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