Kiwi Olympian kick-starts favela food effort

WHAT started as an innovative Olympic fundraiser has turned into a humanitarian campaign by New Zealand Olympic kayaker Mike Dawson.

The canoe slalom star has been handing out food parcels in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, along with local kayaker Pepe Gonçalves, in their lead-up to next week’s games.

Dawson has spent nine weeks training in the Brazilian city over the last six months and quickly learned about the plight of the less-fortunate in Rio.

Brazilian kayaker Pepe Gonçalves with 2yo Sophie, one of the many homeless children on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Mike Dawson

Having helped fund his Olympic campaign with food – producing a 72-page athlete cookbook entitled “Eat like the locals” – Dawson figured it was a fitting way to redistribute the incredible support he’s been shown.

“My cookbook was a way to self-fund my campaign and get me as much time on the Rio course as possible and it was successful beyond my wildest dreams,” Dawson said.  “I’ve loved coming to Rio and the city is incredible but just around the corner from this massive Olympic production are people living in absolute poverty.  That was pretty eye-opening, coming from New Zealand, with whole families living on the streets and kids with nothing. So many people from New Zealand supported me and I thought it would be kind of cool to share that support.”

Several favelas surround the purpose-built Olympic Whitewater Stadium at the Deodoro X-Park complex and, with Gonçalves helping and translating, Dawson began buying and distributing food earlier this month.

“We were able to find out a lot more about why they were living on the streets and how delighted they were to get help, although it’s been a bit heart-wrenching, seeing little kids’ eyes light up at just a little bit of food,” Dawson said.

Knowing they could only do so much, the kayakers have targeted a couple of families who’ve become familiar to them, with the aim of providing a year’s supply of food.  Dawson will keep working throughout the games, then rely on Gonçalves to keep a steady supply going.

He’s also well aware of the irony, having funded his campaign on food.  His Olympic funding was cut after finishing 28th at last year’s world championships, so he and girlfriend Martina Wegman put together 22 recipes from his travels around the world, along with anecdotes from his various kayaking adventures.  The cookbook has sold nearly 700 copies already, with several sizable donations also coming into his website in the last few months.

Dawson, who finished 15th at the London Olympics, has made a habit of unorthodox funding throughout his slalom career, having survived for many seasons off the back of prizemoney from various extreme races around the world.

Following his Olympic campaign, he’ll get back into a plastic creek boat for more extreme races, as well as acting as an ambassador for the inaugural WhitewaterXL event at Auckland’s new Vector Wero Whitewater Park in November.


Brazilian kayaker Pepe Gonçalves with one of the many homeless families on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Mike Dawson

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