It was almost impossible not to be moved by the emotional scenes at the end of the first Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon on Sunday. After pushing his great friend, after whom the event is named, 26.219 miles in a specially adapted wheelchair, Kevin Sinfield stopped a few feet from the finish line.
He then unbuckled Burrow, lifted him out of his chair and put his arms around him to make sure they completed the class together. After carrying him across the finish line, Sinfield gave his pal a loving kiss and put him back in his seat. The pair have been team-mates with the Leeds Rhinos, England and Great Britain for so many years that there was yet another spectacular combination to the cheers of the crowd.
My colleague James Moore wrote eloquently today about how the image made him wince and concern that it might inadvertently lead to unwanted help – and unwanted touching – for disabled people in their everyday lives. Because of this legitimate concern, it is important to emphasize that this moment was entirely consensual, as two teammates worked together to create an unforgettable image, based on a trust built on 20 years of friendship honed in the furnace of a elite sporting environment.
It was not intended to belittle Burrow or to imply any form of helplessness – quite the contrary. This was a celebration of everything the pair have done to raise awareness and money for motor neuron disease (MND) since Burrow was diagnosed with the degenerative disease in late 2019 – just two years after he passed a 17th week of life -year rugby league career. Building on the amazing work of former Scotland rugby union international Doddie Weir, the pair have raised more than £8million for MND charities including Sinfield, 42, who has overcome a series of incredible physical challenges.
In 2020, he ran seven marathons in seven days and was selected because number seven was Burrow’s jersey number. The following year he wanted to run 101 miles in 24 hours from Leicester, where he coached rugby union side Leicester Tigers, to Leeds, but got lost twice along the way and ran 104 miles instead. Then, in 2022, he completed an incredible seven ultramarathons in seven days – covering 40 miles a day and completing the challenge at half-time in the men’s Rugby League World Cup final with a rapturous reception at Manchester’s Old Trafford.
So where does he get the inspiration to complete these endurance tests? “I do it because that’s what friends do,” he previously explained in his typically unassuming manner.
During his playing career, Sinfield was nicknamed ‘Sir Kev’ by Leeds Rhinos fans and honestly it’s high time the nickname was made official. Forget the seven Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenges he’s won on the rugby pitch: Kevin Sinfield undoubtedly deserves a knighthood for all he’s done for MND charities.
He was awarded an OBE on the 2021 Birthday Honors Roll for his campaign and charity work, but inexplicably did not receive an upgrade on the most recent New Year’s Honors Roll. That has to change in the near future.
But it may be an imperfect metric a petition on change.org The Knighting of Kevin Sinfield initiative has garnered over 42,000 signatures and Mel Handforth, the petition’s creator, wrote: “We need to show public appreciation for people like Kevin. He embodies teamwork, not just on the Leeds Rhinos pitch but even more off the pitch with his absolute dedication to raising awareness and funds for Rob Burrow and others affected by MND.”
He has used his platform to bring about real change, comments show, after he and Burrow were honored at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards late last year. Lamenting the Government’s delay in delivering the promised £50m to fund MND research, Sinfield said: “MND is not incurable, it is just underfunded. There are people dying – families being devastated and that’s just not right. I can’t.” “I don’t see any good reason, there’s no reason this money is being withheld.”
In the months that followed, the money began to be released.
Aside from the vast amounts of money and MND awareness they have raised, Sinfield and Burrow have also set a commendable example of male friendship. Two men from the hypermasculine alpha world of a sport like rugby league talking so openly about their camaraderie and love for one another is an important and unfortunately all too rare sight to see.
The aim of the Leeds Marathon was to raise funds for the Rob Burrow Center for Motor Neurone Disease Appeal and Leeds Hospitals Charity, as well as a range of other causes. Before the race, Sinfield thanked those involved for “creating something so incredible on Rob’s behalf.” “. He also described the event as “a celebration of friendship”.
In fact, friendship was the focus of the entire event. “I ran the London marathon three weeks ago and everyone wants to know how much time you ran,” Sinfield explained. “But it doesn’t matter how long it takes. The longer it takes, the more time I can spend with Rob.”
It is not for me to comment on the worthiness of all those currently applying for the Order of Knights and Dames, but in a world that cries out for commendable public role models, I can say with certainty that there will be few who more right than the man from Oldham who is officially dubbed Sir Kevin Sinfield.