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Olympic Athletes, Private Foundations and Corporations Work to Fill the Gaps In Youth Sports Opportunities

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Parks and schoolhouses used to be the breeding ground of Olympic athletes. Coaches didn't used to come with a high price tag, but were P.E. teachers who volunteered for positions after school. Participation in high school football didn't used to mean that parents shelled out big-time money. Playing ball in the park didn't used to mean the possibly of being caught in rival gangs' crossfire.

Edwin Moses was an Olympic who honed his craft at a neighborhood park. For Moses, who would go on to win gold medals in the 400-meter hurdles in the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games, to have access to sports activity, all he had to do was, "get to the local park." "I lived at the edge of the park, so I was a park junkie. That's actually how I got involved in track and field. When I grew up, those were the days when they had all kinds of federal, state and city sports programs. In the summertime, they'd have coaches who would be in the park leading sports activities. My mom would give my brothers and I $2, and it cost 50-cents to enter an event. We'd leave on a bus in the morning, go to Cincinnati, compete and come back. That experience had a lot to do with my career," Moses recounted.

In the days since Moses developed his track and field prowess at Ohio parks, much has changed in the way that sports opportunities are presented to America's youth. Much of these changes are the direct result of our country's economic downturn and the shifting priorities of government leaders. A recent study by Up2Us found that in the last two years, budgets for sports programming in public schools were cut by $3.5 billion. This, in turn, has caused most school districts to begin charging participation fees for students who participate in sports. While school sports face budget cuts, parks and recreation departments face their own problems. Across the country, parks face serious deficits, resulting in youth sports programming cuts. Add to that the fact that parks in some inner-cities have been overtaken as the turf of violent gangs, and you begin to understand what is propelling the childhood obesity problem in America.

If there is a clear victim in the war on youth sports opportunities, it is the youngsters in economically disadvantaged cities. Luckily for these children, though, Moses and the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation realize that they are the ones who most often need the intervention of sports to set their lives on the right track.

Founded in 2000, the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, of which Moses serves as the chairman, funds and promotes sport as a tool for social change. One of the recent sports projects that the organization has engaged in, is a partnership with Mercedes-Benz USA and Coach Across America to provide 250 coaches to sports programs in underserved neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans. "With the way funding is going in the United States for education and after-school activities, it's not possible for any group or entity or even the government to do all that needs to be done," Moses said. He further iterated the importance of corporate partnerships -- like Mercedes-Benz USA, who donated $1.3 million in 2012 to the program -- to the future of youth sports. "We are very fortunate to have Mercedes-Benz as a global sponsor and sponsor for the U.S. foundation. They stepped up to the plate with their brand and they want to make a difference. On September 30, Mercedes-Benz stepped up again, when it announced it would increase its support to the program to $2 million.

Through its 140 projects worldwide, the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation has impacted 1.5 million children. It estimates that for every 1 Euro ($1.36) it spends on sports projects, 5 Euros ($6.78) are saved in the associated cost of crime. For Moses, though, the collateral affects are bigger than the costs of providing such projects. "A lot of the issues that we are teaching the students about, are leadership and life skills issues. On top of that, we are helping curb obesity, teenage pregnancy, gang participation, and high school dropouts," Moses said.

Going forward, Laureus and Moses hope to expand the coaching program to more cities. The organization also continues to hone the evaluation of how its programs impact children. Laureus does this through the use of a specialized software which allows the organization to evaluate children's athletic abilities and compare them to other children across the world. "What we are trying to do is not just put people on the street, but figure out how to assist every program to make it as good as it can be," Moses noted.

When it comes to being as good as one can be, Moses understands that part of the task is giving back to others and remembering what led to one's own success. "It's an unstated responsibility. I'm fortunate to be involved with Laureus, because we have world-class athletes, Olympians, skateboarders, and race car drivers, who have dedicated a portion of their lives to do this. I'm very fortunate to be involved with an organization charged with making a difference. Each of us has a story in terms of an influential person in our lives and how we got into sports and how lucky we were to be in the right spot at the right time. We must pay it forward," Moses remarked.

To learn more about the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, click here.

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