Debbie Lye, Director on International Development; Programme Director, International Inspiration, UK Sport


On teaching life lessons through sport

  • Even if all you do is give children the opportunity to play, it is worthwhile
  • Sport gives children permission to play, and we remove that opportunity from our children at our peril
  • Sport, in general, is a part of our becoming human, as it teaches us to interact with others
  • Sport is a metaphor for life. It doesn’t automatically teach those lessons, but skilled sports coaches can draw them out


How did you enter into the sport industry?

After 20 years as an English teacher, and also as the head of faculty at a college, I decided I needed to refresh myself. I had always been interested in government and politics, so I applied for a civil service position. I took the examinations and tests and was accepted into a senior post in the Ministry for Education because of my background in education.

I worked in education for one year, during which I met many people who worked at the intersection of government and sport. Through them, I was able to move into sports administration. I entered my current job as a stranger to sports. I am not a sports trained person. In fact, I identify with those people who didn’t get picked for school sports teams.

How did your non-sport background affect you in your role in the sport industry and how were you able to bridge the gap in knowledge about the industry?

Doing my job well is beyond sport. Understanding it from an outsider’s perspective allows me to see the social possibilities of sports. I am passionate about opening sports up to more people. In contrast, there are many sports purists in the industry who had a sports background.  For example, my mentor, Baroness Sue Campbell, who was until recently the Chair of UK Sport, was one of those women who was always good at sports and played sports in college and at county and national levels.

When I was working for the government, I was delegated to work with Sue, who was an independent special advisor at the time (someone who offers specialist advice to the government from an independent view). I didn’t know much about the industry, but she taught me a lot and also how to operate within the sector. She was my champion and my mentor, and encouraged me to come to UK Sport. She was a great female role model.

From the point of view of someone who is not a sport purist, what is it about sport that inspires you?

When you go to developing countries and see children living in very deprived circumstances with no physical space to play, you realize how important playing is. Even if all you do is give children the opportunity to play, it is worthwhile. They laugh, they run, and they enjoy being physical. I think that’s cast into very sharp relief for me. Even here in the U.K., I see what sports mean to children who live desperate lives and whose families don’t care about them. It all hit me — Sport gives children permission to play, and we remove that opportunity from our children at our peril.

I love to play. For me, as someone who plays tennis, there is nothing better than chasing that stupid, yellow ball around. Sport, in general, is a part of our becoming human, as it teaches us to interact with others. In fact, at a higher level, interacting with colleagues in a way that is playful, rather than just “getting” and “doing” is an incredibly important skill.

Sport is also a microcosm of the world.  Take a team sport for example. That team is rule-bound, rule-governed, and has a set goal and objective. You begin to model what it is like to interact as a human. Sport is a metaphor for life. It doesn’t automatically teach those lessons, but skilled sports coaches can draw them out. As someone who grew up and matured through teaching literature, I can actually see how sport is metaphorical and contains great value as a metaphor.

How does this passion for play intersect with your work at UK Sport?

Well, UK Sport has two main jobs: to organize the elite sports teams in the U.K. and to enable us to host major sporting events such as the Olympics.  My responsibility is to represent the U.K. to the developing world through sport.

Our international development agenda is a small but important focus area. The predecessor of UK Sport started doing development work in South Africa back in 1990, right when Nelson Mandela was released. At the time, there was a global boycott of sport with South Africa as part of the anti-apartheid struggle.  Sport was used as a weapon in the struggle. But when Mandela was freed, in 1991 our Prime Minister John Major went to visit him and found they shared a strong belief that sport could be used to build bridges between the UK and South Africa. More specifically, it could function as a bridge within that divided country to include black kids who had never had this opportunity before.  That is when our first projects got going and I am incredibly proud of this. 

Since I’ve started in 2005, we have expanded beyond Southern Africa. We now work in East Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda; West Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana; the Caribbean; India; Bangladesh; Pakistan and East Asia. We have started some work in Brazil, and we are hoping to do more work in South America. It is easier to work in the Anglophone world. Obviously, it is more challenging to work when we need a translator; otherwise, we would work in Latin America more. 

Your focus on children is truly incredible. What role does sport play for children in the U.K.?

Children at both ends of the economic spectrum have become invisible. One of the things we have identified, both in the U.K. and overseas, is the necessity to bridge the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Sports. We believe in combining sports, education, and children. When we began working in India, the government advised that we could only collaborate with one focal ministry; but a year later, thanks to our hard work, the ministries of youth and sport and human resource development (education) were collaborating on policy change.

Many people said Indian educationalists wouldn’t listen to us because they focused on creating IT and science whiz kids not holistic education. But, on the contrary, they have done a lot now in India to integrate both sports and leadership models we have shared with them into the curriculum. Even a country like Singapore is now eager to learn from the UK about the role sport plays in developing the whole child in education. 

Can you share a bit about International Inspiration, its link to sports, and the impact that it has made?

When we won the Olympic bid back in 2005, the bid chairman, Lord Coe, made a promise to the International Olympic committee (IOC) that if London won the games, we would use the opportunity to reach children around the world. When we won the bid my hair stood on end. That’s when I realized that international sport development is a really exciting field. There we were, having just won the Olympic Games bid, and we promised to reach children around the world through sport. That’s what my team does every day.

I knew the London bid team had no concrete plans to execute their promise; it wasn’t in their contract. I felt it was my job to help them keep the pledge. But the day after we won the bid, there were terrorist bombings in London. Because my Minister was responsible for humanitarian assistance in the wake of the attacks I had to leave sport temporarily to help. But, the whole time I was thinking, “what are we going to do about that promise?”

Then a job was advertised at UK Sport which specified developing an international Olympic legacy as the main task. I got the job. We had no money, but we forged a partnership with UNICEF and the British Council. These relationships allowed us to develop a program called International Inspiration, which has the vision of enriching the lives of 12 million children in 20 countries around the world through high quality and inclusive sport, physical education, and play. And we have done it. We are working in 20 countries. We have run different, context specific programs in each of the countries, and each program focuses on the needs of that country.  Common to each country is an element of leadership, and sports as a catalyst for developing leadership in children. We have reached 15 million children and until December 2012 we were the only program not run by the London Organising Committee that was allowed to carry the full Olympic branding. We have an amazing team.

We are trying to make sure International Inspiration lasts and really makes a difference, so we are constantly monitoring the impact. Across 15 of the countries, there have been internal policy changes since we began. For example, in Azerbaijan, they recently passed a law saying that all children, regardless of disability, have the right to play a sport. It’s not us creating these laws, but we are a significant influence that makes change happen. 

What changes have you witnessed in the gender makeup of the sport industry in Europe?

Last year, I was asked to speak to the government department I used to work for about women and International Inspiration, a program I run. When I spoke to them, it reminded me of the first international trip in my job. At the time, I was working in this government position and my boss, the senior civil servant, was a man, along with the heads of the three other teams in our department. The two government agencies’ chief executives and chairs were both men. Moreover, Sport England then had a male CEO and male chair; Sport Scotland and Sport Wales were both the same.

That was 2003. When I look at us now, I think, “my God, things have changed!” Now, at UK Sport, my chair is Baroness Sue Campbell, and my CEO is also a woman, Liz Nicholl. Sport England has a female CEO, Jennie Price, and Sport Scotland & Sport Wales both have female chairs. At the very top of sport administration, women are dominating. Unfortunately, if you look at where the money is (in our country: tennis, cricket, etc.) men are still dominating.

Earlier, you mentioned the influence of Baroness Sue Campbell on your success. What advice would you give to women looking for mentors?

Yes, the Baroness has been a great mentor. When I have been self-doubting, she has been a tower of strength and assurance. She is not afraid to show her weakness and that she is vulnerable, and her resilience really shines through. She always gets up and fights another day.

My advice would be to not look for a mentor in a formal way. Rather, look for someone with whom you have a personal connection. Your mentor need not be in your field, although it can help if they are in your field when you are looking for jobs.

I’ve been asked to mentor both women and men, and I have mentored both, although I am not sure that a formalized process really works. In my days of teaching, a few women chose me as their mentors, and we still talk to this day.

As busy as you are, how have you managed to juggle your family and work?

My story is a different story, but an important story for young women. When I started my career in the sport industry at 45 years old, I had three children, two of whom had already gone off to college. Sport has been an utter inspiration for me. I could have been an empty nester, or pushed myself to do something new. I obviously chose the latter.

I’m passionate about being a feminist, and as a feminist, there is a real value in raising a family. Women shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to raise a family and to say that time with kids is time well spent. There is time to have a family and the time to have a career. We tend to rush through things, but we all only live so long. If you can financially afford to take an easier career load, enjoy being a mother and relish it. It will make you richer, stronger, and your life more full. You have 45 years to have a career, so there is time to do it all.



Debbie Lye has recently been appointed as Chief Executive of the Spirit of 2012 Trust, a new charity endowed by the national lottery in the UK to perpetuate the transformational spirit of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games within communities across the UK to provide a lasting social and cultural legacy.

Until September 2013 she was International Development Director at UK Sport where her belief in sport as a driver of social change, inspired her to join with the British Olympic and Paralympic Associations, LOCOG, UNICEF and the British Council to design, International Inspiration (2007-14), the international sports legacy initiative of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Supported by UK Sport, the board of the charity International Inspiration (IN) is now chaired by Seb Coe and is developing a continuing strategy to use sport to engage, inspire and empower young people worldwide.

Before joining UK Sport, Debbie gained extensive experience in sport for all policy-making at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  She began her career as a teacher of English where she most enjoyed her time in further education helping adults to gain access to higher education.


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