The Olympic Torch Relay is underway in the United Kingdom leading up to the opening ceremonies of the Games in London. One of the Olympic torchbearers is Vadsana Sinthavong, who represents the largest hunger fighting organization, the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
Nearly one billion people worldwide suffer from hunger and malnutrition and WFP is active in over 70 countries. Vadsana works with the school meals program that fights child hunger in her home country of Laos.
Vadsana recently took a few moments to talk about her experience being part of this Torch Relay. She also talks about her mission trying to end global hunger and how she thinks the Olympics can play a role.
Tell us your reaction when you found out you were going to be the WFP representative at the Olympic Torch Relay?
I was in Vietnam, on vacation, and didn’t have access to the internet. All my colleagues started calling me — eventually they reached me to tell me the news. I thought it was so amazing. I couldn’t believe it — I was thrilled, just so happy. It’s a great honour for my family and for my country, too. I was very proud I would be able to represent WFP and our work with people watching from all over the world..
Are you experienced in running and relay races?
Not really. I never ran a relay before, and our sport lessons in school didn’t really include running. But when I was younger I walked a lot – to school, of course, but also many other trips were made on foot. One time when I was 11, I walked 40km in one day to bring a buffalo that was a present for my older brother on his wedding day. There were very few trucks at the time and our family could not afford one, so I had to walk.
But even though I didn’t run much before, I started preparing myself when I heard of my selection to carry the Olympic Flame. Even when I went to remote villages to do trainings and assessments for our school meals programme, I always found some time to train a little.
How important do you think school feeding is for any country to have a strong Olympic Team?
Well, first of all, with the daily nutritious snack we provide, children have more energy and they can concentrate better in school, and be more active during breaks. They have more opportunity to build their brains and bodies, and to become good sports people, or do anything else they want to achieve in life.
But I think the real impact is much more long term. In Laos, for example, every second child in rural areas is chronically malnourished. These children don’t grow up as tall or strong as they could be, and of course that also impacts their ability to be competitive in sports.
Studies have shown that educated children grow into men and women who produce and earn more, and who are less likely to have malnourished children. So school meals help prevent chronic malnutrition in future generations, and those kids will have a better chance to participate and succeed in the Olympics than their parents and grandparents did.
(Note: There is an interesting correlation between stunting rates in a country and Olympic performance; if broken down to per head of population, nations with high stunting rates are significantly underrepresented in regards to medal scores and team sizes at Olympic Games. You can find more information about this here: Banerjee, Abhijit and Esther Duflo (2011): Poor Economics. A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Chapter 2)
What role do you think yourself and the London Olympics can play in furthering the cause of ending child hunger?
The Olympics are one of those events that focus the attention of the world on one place. Even the Torch Relay leading up to the Games really engages people, both locally and from all over the world.
When I ran my portion of the relay early in the morning on a Sunday, but still so many people came to watch and cheer me on.
So the Olympics are a great opportunity to highlight the problem of child hunger and show how WFP fights hunger all over the world. I was so proud to be the one who represents WFP’s work in front of the eyes of the world.
Here in Laos, the main focus of my work is to cooperate closely with the Ministry of Education to assist them in building their own National School Meals Programme. The Lao Government recognizes the value of school meals in bringing children to school and keeping them in class longer, and they plan to ultimately provide school meals to every student in the country. I am very happy to be part of WFP’s effort to help Laos achieve this goal.
How far was your part of the torch relay?
I ran quarter of a mile, or 300 meters, but it felt much shorter. This was such a special moment for me! I felt proud and happy to represent WFP, and was overwhelmed with the support from the people along the road who had come to see the Olympic Flame travel through Birmingham, even though it was so early in the morning on a Sunday. I could have run a lot farther – the moment was over much too soon.
What were some of the landmarks along your route?
I started in front of Bullring Shopping Centre, and on my stretch of the relay I noticed a lot of Indian restaurants and shops. I was surprised, I didn’t know the UK is such a diverse country!
For more information about the World Food Programme visit their home page.
Article first published as Olympic Torchbearer: Games Can Highlight Global Hunger Crisis on Blogcritics.