From basketball tournaments for children in South Africa, to grassroots soccer schools in Bosnia Herzegovenia, sport—and the social interactions it entails — have been used as successful tools to promote peace in divided communities. To what extent can sport be used as a tool to foster peace in a divided society? What intrinsic characteristics associated to sport help forge a peaceful community?
From basketball tournaments for children in South Africa, to grassroots soccer schools in Bosnia Herzegovenia, sport—and the social interactions it entails — have been used as successful tools to promote peace in divided communities. Sport is not limited to mere physical activity. Rather, it should be defined more holistically as it also encompasses a mental state of well-being and is grounded in social interactions between different people. The productive force of this social phenomenon rests on the fact that many of its values and practices such as fair-play, respect and cooperation, correspond to the prerequisites for peace. In the context of entrenched hostility, the role of sport in bridging the division, enhancing indirect communication and “highlighting commonalities” (1) can help create ties between opposing parties as it acts as an international language. The idiosyncratic benefits of sport raise several questions. To what extent can the latter be used as a tool to foster peace in a divided society? What intrinsic characteristics associated to sport help forge a peaceful community?
Sport has long been used as an apolitical and popular tool to help attenuate tensions within a community. Its instrumentalization can be drawn back to Ancient Greece when the Olympic truce was used to establish temporary peace between states at war. The truce allowed for a temporary safe haven for the competition between the athletes to unfold (2). Starting the 1920’s, sport has been used in an ad hoc fashion to promote development-oriented goals (3). The first official collaboration dates back to 1922 when the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Olympic Committee signed an agreement to collaborate. However, the value of sport as a useful tool for humanitarian programs and with regard to peace has largely been ignored until recently (4). Only at the start of the 21st century did the UN, under Secretary General Kofi-Annan, nominate a Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace. This shift of approach is also reflected in the increasing number of organizations that use sport to complement their reconciliation initiatives by collaborating with sports associations.
However, history provides illustrations of the limitations of sport as it has proven to not always be synonymous with a peaceful tool. Indeed, behind sport competition often lies nationalist endeavors and strong patriotic feelings. For instance, in 1956, the Olympic water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union, which followed the Soviet invasion of Budapest led to violent clashes between the athletes to the extent of being renamed the “blood in the water match” (5). It is also undeniable that numerous sport competitions have unleashed excessive passions amongst the different actors which have led to acts of aggression, vandalism and riots. In any case, the productive impact of sport is contingent upon the context it is embedded in and the way sport activities or competitions are being provided. Before delving into the issue of the adequate context, why can sport be considered a powerful tool to foster peace in the first place?
Sport and its inherent value for peace
Sport isa social phenomenon insofar as it attracts and involves people all around the world regardless of their ethnic, cultural or social background. The massive appeal of soccer (football), which is practiced in over 270 countries, reflects the social dimension of sport and its appeal. Indeed, it is not only limited to the players and the fans but reaches exterior actors as it creates a “complex network of relations between different levels of society” (6). Sport does not only manifest itself in international events such as the World Cup but is very anchored at the grassroots level by directly involving people in its practices. In divided and conflicted community, sport can be source of a peaceful environment by bringing people together from different backgrounds. Indeed, sport activities encourages individuals to “work towards the same goal, show respect for others and share space and equipment”, these are the ethics necessary for the building of “positive peace”.
Moreover, sports can be used as a social platform for social interactions and as a genuine communication device. As Dr A. Cardenas stated at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy during a discussion on the topic: “sport can serve as an important ice-breaker between clashing sides and as a venue to lead to dialogue” (7) as conversations can be built on understanding rather than hatred. More than its symbolic virtue of a neutral tool for dialogue and exchange, sport is grounded in practice in communities where the soccer field of the local village brings enthusiastic people to play together in impromptu games.
Its rehabilitation role in post conflict situations
The interlinkages between sport and the building of “positive peace” are made palatable in the recent pro-reconciliation sport initiatives in post-conflict countries. For instance, with the abolishment of Apartheid and the re-admittance of South Africa in 1992 to the international sport scene came the end of the official segregation of sports in the country. As specialized scholars recall, “during apartheid the sport codes had separate controlling boards, one such board for the white population and other boards for the other population groups” (8) which led to discrepancies due to “vast divides in terms of athletic quality between white and other groups”. Since 1994, the government has embraced the powers of sport in its Reconstruction and Development Program as a complementary tool to encourage reconciliation in a divided society. Many reconciliation initiatives have taken the shape of either inter-communal or intra-communal reconciliation (9). For instance, Hoops for Hope uses basketball as a platform to attract youth in schools and “incorporates an aspect of social integration and reconciliation through games and tournaments between school teams, which are often from communities with different levels of mixed race participants”.The use of basketball is particularly interesting and powerful as a reconciliation device as it is viewed as a “colorless” sport insofar as “basketball did not ‘belong’ to either of the racial categories during apartheid” (10).
In addition to fostering social cohesion, the interaction in sport can help to dismantle stereotypes and alter negative pre-conceived ideas about the “other”. For example, Play31 is an NGO in Sierra Leone which organizes soccer tournaments in villages based on their motto: “football for reconciliation”. It also recognizes the unique opportunity for interaction in such events and “hosts workshops about human rights, conflict resolution and trauma healing” to promote dialogue between the different parties (11). Sports offer a unique chance to empower communities to deal differently with their deeply-rooted divisions.
Sports and trauma healing
Individuals living in war-torn or post-conflict countries are prone to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as a myriad of other mental health issues related to their traumatic experience. Not only can sport bring a sense of normality in their daily lives, it can also allow them to transform their anger from aggression or self-destruction into a source of self-development. Indeed, “the psychosocial benefits from the practice of sport help to address the trauma of flight and the distress resulting from displacement”(12).As such, sport has proven to be a useful tool in the reintegration of child soldiers.
It is estimated that there are around 300 000 childreninvolved in armed groups around the world (13); children that have lost their innocence in war face a myriad of barriers to be reintegrated into society and are prone to be recruited again into fighting groups. As Hoglund and Sundberg point out, one problem with the demobilisation of child soldiers in Burundi in 2006, for example, “is the vast amount of time that becomes available to ex-combatants” (14). Thus, sport activities hold the prospect of being crucial conflict prevention tools. Moreover, in order to address their stress or trauma, well developed sports initiatives
can provide the psychosocial help needed. Given their non-verbal and non-intrusive characteristics, sports activities can assist
youth to “express and solve the myriad issues they face, by giving them a less confrontational means to address issues that they
often do not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to deal with otherwise”(15) . Hence, sport activities provide an
alternative outlet for self-development and the skills to handle conflict in a non-violent manner (16). It is important to note that the success of such reintegration activities rests on many conditions such a sufficient number of well-trained staff and coaches, no language barrier, a cooperation with specialized medical workers and a genuine willingness of the participants to be involved in such projects.
The United Nation’s point of view
In 2001, the UN created the first Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace to “enhance the network of relations between UN organizations and the sports sector”. Since then, the UN has put sport on the international agenda to promote peace and now considers it as a genuine tool to achieve the MDGs. In fact, according to the UN, sport is not only a vehicle to promote peace but a sought-after result; an end in itself. As the specialized task force on Sport for Development and Peace stipulates: “the opportunity to participate in and enjoy sport and play is a human right that must be promoted and supported” (17). Moreover, the fact that sport is tantamount to a genuine human right is explicitly stated by Art.1 of the Charter of Physical Education and Sport adopted by UNESCO in 1978 which stresses that the practice of physical education and sport is a fundamental human right for all”. It is also recognized by the Convention on the Rights of the Child with “the right of the child to (…) engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child”. These legal obligations place responsibility on states and the UN to uphold such rights and promote opportunities for sport activities and more venues “both virtual and physical, to connect more effectively the diverse stakeholders active in sport and peace”(18).
Although sport cannot be considered as a magic solution for peace building, its intrinsic benefits make it a useful, cost-effective and inclusive tool to foster peaceful communities. Not only does, sport activities promote dialogue, social cohesion and non-violence, it also provides an alternative avenue for self-development and mental health. Given its importance, sport—as a human right—ought to be considered as a valuable contributive instrument to peace building. Indeed, as Nelson Mandela said “sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people 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 government in breaking down racial barriers”.
By G. Dorey
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