Written by Julio Herrera Estrada
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” -Nelson Mandela
One can’t help but grin and gasp when watching those close Olympic races where the winner came from behind in the last few seconds, or those brief moments when gymnasts are in the air before they land (amongst countless other remarkable instances across sports). The Olympics is one of the few events that brings together people from almost every nation around the world, and though the main objective is to compete against each other, one can often see good camaraderie between athletes and fans of different countries.
But sports are much more than entertainment and a career path – they can contribute to the integral development of whoever practices it, and they can help unite communities. This is why sports have been recognized by organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development as powerful tools to build peace and contribute to countries’ social development.
Helping One Grow as an Individual
I did Tae-Kwon-Do when I was a kid and then swimming as a teenager. Thanks to these sports I made friends, travelled to new places, and managed to win a few medals to display in my room. However, it was not until I left home to go to college that I fully appreciated all that I was bringing with me thanks to these two sports.
First, I learned discipline: to listen and follow the directions of my coach, to respect my teammates and opponents, and to behave with integrity both when winning and losing. Martial arts also teaches self-control since having the ability to cause serious harm to someone means that you have to be very mindful of when and how you use them (“Fighting not good. But if must fight… win.” – Mr. Miyagi, The Next Karate Kid). I reinforced these skills and values when I started swimming, and I mastered one more: perseverance. As I focused on long-distance swimming, I had to learn to keep going, one stroke at a time, through the pain that you feel after you have been swimming continuously for close to an hour.
Knowing that you are good at something, and even more, that you are getting better at it, helps build your self-esteem. This is arguably easier to do with sports and other physical activities, because the pain and fatigue you are fighting to overcome at each practice, each game, and each competition is very tangible. This self-esteem came very handy as a teenager, when I resisted peer-pressure to smoke, since I would not do anything that would harm my swimming.
I was not an amazing athlete and I was not close to being able to qualify for my college swimming team, but I still carry all these things that I gained from sports, and I recognize that they made me stronger mentally, even more so than physically. My experience is not an exception but a common trend for whoever practices a sport regularly, from amateurs to professionals.
Integrating Communities, Healing Wounds, and Keeping the Youth Safe
The European Union has recognized the power of sports in helping integrate immigrants and asylum seekers, and last June the Council of Europe’s Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport met in Vienna, Austria to discuss policies to aid the integration of refugees through sports. The International Olympic Committee also contributed by creating the first Refugee Olympic Team. The expected outcome of this decision is summarized best by the words of Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who was forced to flee from Syria and now lives in Germany, and who competed last week in the Olympics: “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go.”
Popular team sports, including soccer and basketball are being used to help integrate people across communities and countries following conflict – i.e. Sports Diplomacy. For example, the World Bank organized The Great Lakes Peace Cup in 2012 between the countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda to help bring their people together after years of wars in the region. Each team was purposefully made up by an equal mix of civilians and former combatants. Events like these bring former opponents together, allowing them to meet and realize that they are not so different from each other, hopefully making future conflicts less likely.
Sports can improve young children’s motor skills and coordination (which are critical for their development), and teenagers’ hygiene and dietary habits. Practicing sports can also help them stay away from danger and bad influences. In Brazil, the land of soccer, a man created an interesting initiative in the favela (i.e. a Brazilian slum) of Chacrinha in Rio de Janeiro that is known for its crime and poverty. He introduced the youth to badminton by building a training center in the middle of the favela with funding help from NGOs and philanthropists. Even better, he mixes Samba dancing into practice to teach the players rhythm and coordination. Projects like this benefit the kids in the community by keeping them away from drugs and gangs, and by helping them develop self-esteem and values such as respect and integrity. It also gives them a chance to dream of one day becoming a gold medalist who comes from a favela.
Sports can bring many benefits to individuals and their communities that can translate to improvements in public health (Sustainable Development Goal, SDG #3), reduced violence (SDG #16), and increased community cohesion. A company even leveraged the popularity of soccer to create a ball that harnesses the energy from kicking it around to later be used as a lamp, helping improve access to electricity in remote communities (SDG #7). Thus, it is essential to invest seriously on projects that introduce the youth to sports and allow them to practice them throughout their life.
Moreover, it is key that such initiatives include both girls and boys so that everybody benefits from their rewards, helping us bridge gender inequality along the way (SDG #5). Often times girls are not allowed or discouraged from practicing sports, but they can be a critical pathway to help girls develop confidence in themselves, and break gender roles and stereotypes. It is vital that this divide is also bridged in professional sports, so that young girls have more role models to whom they can relate better, and who can inspire them to pursue their own goals and dreams.
The closing ceremonies of this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will start the countdown for Tokyo, Japan in 2020. As the athletes return to their countries, many young children will surely be inspired to pursue a sport, though many in the poorest communities of the world will find this challenging. Much needs to be done to increase their access to sports. While the most formidable and entertaining matches and competitions happen in large and fancy stadiums, the most important for countries’ development happen in empty fields and at local swimming pools and gyms.
Julio Herrera Estrada is a 5th year PhD Candidate in the Environmental Engineering and Water Resources Program, and the Editor-in-Chief of Highwire Earth. His research focuses on the mechanisms and human impacts of droughts, and the policies that can help make our resource management sustainable and resilient. Follow him on Twitter @JulioSustDev.