How Sports can be a Tool for Social Change

Written by Sara Rahim

Sara Rahim

Sara Rahim

Time and time again, sports-based programs have shown to be central to promoting inclusion and creating opportunities for individuals as a means to establish mutual trust and create healthier communities.

Most recently, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro showed the world the power of sports diplomacy. Beyond the athletic competitions themselves, individuals of all ages interacted with one another and formed unlikely friendships. During an artistic practice session, the night before the opening ceremonies, South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-Ju and North Korea’s Hong Un-Jong took a moment to take a selfie together, which has since gone viral over social media.

Sports diplomacy programs is an important tool to not only advancing foreign policy goals, but to connect with audiences in which “traditional” diplomacy might be challenging. This includes women, religious and racial minorities, people with disabilities, and at-risk youth. Sports-based exchanges can also be a powerful tool to help connect non-English speakers and to build leadership, teamwork, healthy living, and self-discipline.

In recent years, developing nations have experienced large political and social transformation, resulting in dismantled governments and uncertain security environments. Young people have played a catalytic role in this upheaval, demanding access to improved education, economic opportunities, and political participation. Country leaders have recognized that young people must be positively engaged with avenues to contribute and participate in civil society. Through my work in international development and exchange, I have seen that lack of opportunities for young people to positively contribute to their communities and country has created a sense of hopelessness and frustration. In an effort to tackle this ongoing issue, local governments and civil society leaders have called for the creation of a “common purpose” society. It has been universally agreed upon that there is an increased need to create opportunities to engage young people in activities that promote cross-cultural understanding, teamwork, and trust.

The Olympics also served as an opportunity for international communities to come together in solidarity. In March 2016, the International Olympic Committee declared the creation of the Olympic Refugee Team, in which 10 promising young athletes, also United Nations-verified refugees, would compete in Rio. This team was created in response to the worldwide refugee crisis, and the team consisted of individuals representing South Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria, and Democratic Republic of Congo. To see the first-ever Refugee Team marching in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies was a moment of global solidarity, a powerful moment of unity during a time of unrest. The 10 competing athletes not only represented their home countries, but the potential of sports for creating opportunities of leadership and perseverance.

Seeing young people from around the world compete at the Olympics is proof that sports can serve as a tool for social change. Governments, both at a local, state, and national level, need to create opportunities in which youth can tap into the power of teambuilding and leadership development. Sports programs can create stable and inclusive communities, and they are an alternative to anti-social behavior. When an at-risk youth is taught the power of conflict resolution through sports discipline, they are more likely to stay engaged and healthy throughout their life. Sports programs contributes significantly to the physical and psychological health of people with disabilities. Young girls, who may often face sexual harassment and gender inequality, have built-in safe spaces within the realm of sports teams where they are able to build self-confidence. My own experiences both domestically and overseas have taught me that a shared activity can overcome linguistic and cultural barriers. During my time in the Middle East, I have seen the power soccer ball can have when a group of young people from various countries are unable to communicate.

The most effective way to teach conflict resolution and teambuilding is to instill those qualities in a tangible way - by placing otherwise ‘conflicting’ identities on the same sports team and training them to work together. Two-way exchange programs equip a new, more inclusive generation of athletes and sports professionals with the skills and knowledge to utilize sports as a medium for building enhanced cooperation and respect for people from different backgrounds and countries.

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