Racing for Cheetahs

Dr. Laurie Marker, Founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, writes about the support of athletes for animals. CCF Ambassador Anna Fenninger is currently racing for gold in Alpine skiing events at the Sochi Olympics.

This weekend, the world will watch as over 6,000 athletes from 85 countries descend upon the town of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

During the two weeks every two years that the Olympic Games dominate newscasts around the globe, people are transfixed. Fans intently follow athletic events that heretofore held no interest for them whatsoever. (When was the last time, other than during an Olympiad, you scoured the newspaper to see the results of the Women's Skeleton competition?) The drama and the excitement of watching the race for gold captures our imagination. Heroes and legends are born during the Olympics: Jesse Owens at the Berlin Games, the "Miracle on Ice" that was the 1980 U.S. Men's Hockey Team in Lake Placid, gymnast Nadia Comaneci's "perfect ten."

The cheetah is an iconic species in the animal kingdom. Ask a room full of schoolchildren about big cats, and many will tell you how much they love the cheetah. For millennia, artists have depicted the cheetah, kings have sought them out as pets, and cultures around the world have revered it for its speed and grace.

And during this Olympiad, the cheetah, one of the animal kingdom's greatest athletes, has some allies. We're excited to see CCF Ambassador Anna Fenninger compete in Alpine Skiing in Sochi. Anna has been a tireless advocate for Cheetah Conservation Fund, and came to visit us in Namibia last year to learn more about the cheetah's race against extinction. Since her visit, she's been doing her best to help us win that race. We're also excited because we've found a way for everyday athletes -- runners, bikers and other sports enthusiasts -- to use their passion for sports to help us save the cheetah. Our HUMANS FOR CHEETAHS charity team will be racing in their inaugural effort this May in Portland, Oregon.

With almost a third of species of wildlife that have been evaluated by the IUCN listed as threatened with extinction, I am sometimes asked, "Why save the cheetah?" And some of the answer boils down to this: If we can't muster the world's attention and resources to save the cheetah, an iconic species that is treasured worldwide as a paragon of speed and grace, then what hope do the rest of the endangered species really have?

Icons matter, not because of what they are in and of themselves, but because of the ideals that they symbolize and the ways in which those ideals can be utilized for the greater good. The race is on to save the cheetah. And if we can win the race for the cheetah -- if we can successfully bring to bear the necessary resources and programming to secure the future of the cheetah -- the possibility that we can save any of the thousands of other threatened species, the power to save whole ecosystems, lies within our grasp.

It's the possibility of greatness, and during the 2014 Olympic Games, I hope we are all inspired.

This article was first published on The Huffington Post on February 6, 2014.