Portugal’s top athletes, aside, for the most part, from football stars who play in Europe’s biggest leagues or for the rich clubs in the Primeira Liga, do not make big money.
Once their athletic careers are finished, these elite performers are often at a disadvantage when they enter the job market. Their counterparts have spent their 20s and sometimes part of their 30s building work experience while the athletes have been playing sports.
Inês Caetano, a former modern pentathlete who worked for Sporting CP of the Primeira Liga as well as the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, launched Sports Embassy to change this. And she’s making the environment and climate an important focus.
GreenSportsBlog: Your journey that led you to found Sports Embassy story is a fascinating one. First, I have to ask you, what exactly is the modern pentathlon and how did you get into it?
Inês Caetano: Well, Lew. The modern pentathlon was created by Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics for the 1896 Games in Athens. The sports are shooting, fencing, swimming, equestrian and running. They all were disciplines that were part of military training, and my family has a military background, so it was kind of natural. I started to compete when I was eight or nine and liked all the sports, not that much for running, and all the practices were different.
Of course, I wanted to be an Olympian so I thought I would go to the U.K. or Ireland for university, but it didn’t turn out that way.
GSB: What happened?
Inês: When I was 17, I started having some symptoms related to hormonal changes that gave me a lot of pain and a lot of discomfort. I sought medical support and was prescribed some medications in doses much higher than those recommended in the market, especially a medicine that at that time was allowed in Europe but in the USA, it was already banned. I ended up with a blood clot and was fighting for my life in the hospital. After I went home, I was told I may not be able to walk the same way I used to and was unable to finish high school that year.
I spent several months at home. The doctors told me I needed the rest, but I said to them, “No, I have to go to school. I have to exercise.” I finally convinced them to let me go back to the pool — that’s a ‘no impact’ sport. It took a while, but they agreed. But I didn’t go back to the pool.
GSB: Why not, especially after all that effort to convince them to relent?
Inês: Instead, I worked out with a personal trainer at a gym — he really saved me because he believed in me more than I believed in myself physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
I also stopped eating red meat, and ultimately all meat, becoming a pescatarian. It turns out that my body didn’t produce the enzymes to digest it. My parents supported me in this, and it took about a year, but I was able to make an amazing recovery. Nowadays, I’m trying to turn into plant based diet and don’t eat fish either.
GSB: That is incredible! So, did you go to Ireland or the UK for university and modern pentathlon?
Inês: No, I wasn’t able to do that. I gave up on my Olympics dream, which was hard to do. I went to university to study sports management but after a year I switched to physical education, with a focus on high performance rugby, which I had played as a kid.
When I got back to practice and competing, I couldn’t do (and didn’t want to) do the five disciplines so I stuck with fencing — every practice for me was like winning a gold medal. I won a lot :).
After a while, I felt unappreciated professionally in Portugal and too comfortable. You know, Lew, it’s very dangerous for a human being to be too comfortable.
GSB: Oh, I know! So, what did you do to challenge yourself?
Inês: I ended up moving to Rio in Brazil in 2010. I had enough money for six months and I just went for it.
GSB: During the middle of the econopocalypse? Yeah, that sure sounds like a challenge.
Inês: It was. But I was there at the right time because in 2010, Brazil was preparing to host two mega-sports events: The 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. I knew I could help because I was experienced in event management and spoke English. And it was my chance to be at the Olympics…
I finished my Masters in sport event management and marketing while there and some of my professors were involved with the bids. And I networked through my contacts in modern pentathlon.
I ended up getting a job with the 2011 World Military Games, an Olympics for people in the military.
GSB: What did you do?
Inês: Logistics, transportation management and more. It was exciting and unusual because I was a civilian, a woman and, at 25, quite young at the time for such a responsibility. It was a great experience.
As a transport coordinator at the operational planning committee, I was part of the planning, execution and closing of the program and its several projects. During the event I was with the team that operated at the Joint Operations Center. Things were so intense that I slept at the office, a military unit, for three weeks in a row. I was one of the few women on the team, but I was treated very well, fortunately.
Eventually this led to me being asked to work at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, handling transportation as well and later as spectator services for all 12 venues. I was based in Rio and supported a team of over 20 staff and 600 volunteers at the Maracanã Stadium, site of the final game, as well as at other venues
GSB: That’s a huge task since Brazil is a huge country!
Inês: Yes, from Porto Alegre in the south to Fortaleza in the north to Manaus in the Amazon. I had to organize bus and auto transportation for staff, the executive committee, and for VIPs across the country.
GSB: Speaking of Manaus and the Amazon, what was your take on the environmental sustainability efforts at the World Cup?
Inês: First, let me say that although I grew up in Lisbon, my family had access to the sea, the country, and the mountains. This gave me a fulfilling lifelong love and appreciation for the environment.
Now, to your question.
FIFA had an impressive environmental plan for the 2014 World Cup, even though the environmental challenges in Brazil are immense. Strong recycling and energy efficiency programs were put in place. This showed me how to embed sustainable policies and behaviors in a big sporting organization. Of course, those were early days in the ‘sports sustainability’ movement so the greening programs now, only seven years later, are much more advanced.
GSB: FIFA did step up its sustainability game at the 2014 World Cup but there were many claims about greenwashing. What did you see in that regard and what is your take on that?
Inês: In 2013 and 2014, there were many protests in Brazil known as “There will be no World Cup”, or “FIFA Go Home”, that criticized the high government spending on the World Cup at the expense of investment in public services. They also criticized forced evictions and lack of policies in favor of decent housing, urban militarization, and police violence. Many demanded better working conditions.
We had some intense situations for a while when it wasn’t safe to wear our uniforms.
FIFA made commitments to social responsibility and sustainability that they said would make the World Cup the most sustainable sporting event ever. But the press focused on the fact that sustainability agreements were not being complied with. Here’s one thing I know:
FIFA’s 2014 sustainability program, entitled Football for the Planet, promoted good environmental practices, namely the construction of “green” buildings, waste management and sustainable development of communities, reduction and offsetting of carbon emissions and encouraging renewable energy sources. All 12 stadiums hosting the World Cup would supposedly be powered by solar energy and would be built to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Unfortunately, by the start of the tournament, only two of the 12 had received the certification in question.
GSB: Once Germany won the World Cup, was your next step to find work with the Rio 2016 Olympics?
Inês: You know, a lot of my colleagues and friends, as soon as the World Cup ended, started to work for Rio 2016. I went to Brazil to do the same, to achieve my Olympic dream, just not as an athlete. But I ended up deciding to go back to Portugal for personal reasons.
I was able to get a job in marketing for Sporting CP, considered one of the top three powerhouse football clubs, along with Benfica and Porto, in the Primeira Liga and with over 50 sports besides football.
GSB: They’ve already clinched the 2020-21 league title…
Inês: Yes, they’ve had a great season. I worked for them for three years as the right hand for the Chairman. I really enjoyed it a lot at the beginning as I got the chance to observe and be a part of the club’s global operations. But it ended up going downhill for me as it was too political an atmosphere and it also was difficult to move up.
I ended up leaving there in 2017 at age 32. I had opportunities for jobs elsewhere in Europe, but I stayed in Portugal because I was raising a daughter. So, I asked myself, what should I do next?
And then I thought, if I’m asking myself these questions at 32, and I have good professional experience, I have possibilities, what must professional athletes in Portugal be thinking as they approach the ends of their sporting careers? All they’ve done their whole lives is play their sport, recover, train, repeat. Some of them were friends of mine! And now they need a job because the money in Portuguese sport, except for the top football stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, is a fraction of what is in the States and elsewhere.
And that is how Sports Embassy became a reality in 2017 — as an organization to help Portuguese athletes to find career success after they retire from sport.
GSB: Where does the ‘Sports Embassy’ name come from?
Inês: Well, Lew, when you’re in trouble in a foreign country, where do you go to find home? Your embassy! And that’s how I felt we could be for these athletes who needed hope, needed direction, needed a home as they started this scary thing known as starting over.
And you know, in a sense I was starting over with them. I didn’t have a job. I was lost. But I did have a great deal of experience in marketing, events, logistics and more. I knew how to start from nothing and figure things out. Perhaps even more important than all that is that I had a cause. This was great for me because I’m a cause person!
Now, I had no idea what I was doing at first. I kept my goals small at the beginning: Help one athlete start his or her post-sport career.
I had a great network in the sports world — it’s a small community in Portugal — and in business. So, I talked to a lot of people about what athletes needed to be more marketable and how they could benefit companies as employees.
So, we started working individually with athletes, customizing our work to their journey. We’d offer career coaching, networking, academics, financial literacy and more. Word started to spread, and it wasn’t long before athletes began to search for us. We’ve easily touched over 100 athletes at this point.
GSB: How do you show companies that it is worth giving a chance to athletes who don’t have related experience?
Inês: We had to sensitize the work world in Portugal, to let executives at companies know that these athletes have valuable skills if not job specific experience. Those schools include overcoming obstacles, problem solving, team building, leadership and more.
So, we’ve gone to many companies, showing them that we have athletes with the soft skills that are core to job success.
GSB: How have the companies reacted?
Inês: They get it, for the most part. But it’s a slow process. Most hiring managers still go by the ‘safe’ route: Looking at grades and universities attended, that sort of thing. We need to find people who are willing to look at prospective employees a bit differently. And then you have the situation in which some athletes want to work while they are still playing — that’s tough for some employers, even though these athletes are driven by success!
GSB: Speaking of success, please share a Sports Embassy success story.
Inês: We work with Pedro Cary, a member of the men’s indoor football team. He played his club indoor in football in Spain before coming back to Portugal in December 2019. Now, he’s a bit ahead of the game in that he graduated university and has invested some money.
But he came to Sports Embassy for some help. And in the end, his club approved him working part-time in real estate. He shares his experiences on social media. And he’s doing our “Future Program” with a psychologist.
Pedro is a great role model for the younger guys since he’s at the height of his career, has played in the Indoor Soccer World Cup and is a European Champion. And yet he is super-focused on being prepared for when his athletic career is history.
GSB: That’s great to hear. I imagine that the pandemic was brutal for Portugal’s athletes and for Sports Embassy. How did you fare?
Inês: Oh, you’re right, Lew. COVID has been very tough, but we’ve been resilient and flexible.
On one hand, all our work regarding mental health increased a lot (only 13 percent of the Portuguese clubs have mental health support) and we developed a platform to support the athletes and other sport agents regarding this; now we need to get the financial support to launch it.
On the other hand, due to the crisis and the fact that a lot of clubs dismissed the athletes, stopped paying them and more, our mission became reacting instead of working on prevention. So, we helped with resume preparation, job search, and classes. We are slowly getting back to the point where we can help the athletes prepare themselves for these more strategic approaches instead of having to respond critically to urgent situations. The pandemic has been tough, but Sports Embassy is helping the athletes to be resilient. If one athlete needs us, we need to stand up for him/her.
GSB: What is the Sports Embassy business model?
Inês: What we’ve morphed to is the Sports Embassy Academy, which was planned pre-COVID for athletes who are transitioning. It launched for athletes in February 2021 with our financial literacy course. Other courses include “Leadership and Communications”. We are about to kick off a program to accelerate new business ideas. The athletes pay for the classes and, in some cases, athletes — including Olympians and world champions teach them.
We also have courses for companies, which they will pay for, knowing that they are contributing for more than an Academy. Many of the courses are given by active and retired athletes who have been and are being prepared with us and include topics such as team management, organizational leadership, how to deal with mistakes, communications between teams, etc.
We also hold virtual panels and other events, where we try to include topics like sustainability, with martial arts athlete, journalist and yes, EcoAthletes Champion, Nuno Dias.
GSB: …Nuno is a terrific advocate for ocean health and climate action And, he’s trying to make his first Olympics in his 40s! How do the environment and climate fit into Sports Embassy’s work?
Inês: It started with my health issues.
I became concerned with the chemicals I was eating. Then, as I mentioned earlier, I saw sustainability have a big presence at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. From that point, I read more about sustainability, including on climate change — and how it is affecting everyone now, that it’s not a 2050 or a 2100 issue. It’s a 2021 issue and is related to so many aspects besides macro-climate action. Sustainability starts with the small choices we do in our daily life: what we buy, how we handle our personal finances.
And so, when I started Sports Embassy, I wanted to bring sustainability into it. I just wasn’t sure how to put it into practice, especially climate changes and nutrition. Especially when you consider that athletes speaking out on any social issue is not nearly as common in Portugal as it is in the USA.
GSB: That’s Sports Embassy’s opportunity right there — to give the Portuguese athlete a voice on environmental issues!
Inês: That’s a big goal! And athletes used their platforms here for “Use The Mask” campaigns but it’s not so easy on the environment.
GSB: Why do you think that’s the case?
Inês: There are some negative stereotypes out there, about veganism or climate change being a political issue. And let’s face it… not all of us relate to politics or to the profile of Greta Thunberg…So, we need different role models!
GSB: I think, I HOPE the stereotype around veganism, climate, and Greta flips from negative to positive, and quickly…
Inês: Well, that’s part of our job at Sports Embassy to help make that flip happen.
So, we’re going to offer courses on plant-based diets and athletic performance, the greening of sports and more. It will be a challenge — many of our athletes have been in a bubble their whole lives in which sport is everything – and this is our main struggle event to speak about career transition.
And we will be up for the challenge, providing the information they need to have to understand environmental, climate and sustainability issues. We don’t get into the politics, it’s their choice to become activists – or not! What we will give them is the facts about the problems and the opportunities, including about the UN agenda for 2030 and the Sports For Climate Action framework.
GSB: Are “Green Jobs” part of your program?
Inês: Not yet, but this is something we are looking at, especially as Green Jobs grow in Portugal.
GSB: How do you communicate sustainability to your athletes?
Inês: Our magazine, which comes out every other month, will further our environmental focus. Nuno has an eco-column so sustainability will be front and center every issue.
Photo at top: Inês Caetano with Carlos Andrade, former Queens University (North Carolina) and Portugal pro basketball player (Photo credit: Inês Caetano)