Guest Column: The global influence of sport has never been greater

Guest Column by Brendan Tuohey with Julie Younes 

The social, political and economic reach of sport has never been greater than it is today. Over the past month, approximately 3 billion people worldwide have tuned into World Cup matches being played in Russia. The tournament has generated an estimated 100,000 jobs and spurred a 71 percent increase in tourism in the Russian host cities, according to FIFA.

This past January, the world watched in anticipation as North and South Korea marched together in the opening ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games under a unified Korean flag. South Korean President Moon Jae-in openly espoused the power of the Olympics to help bring about a thawing of relations between the neighboring nations.

Like many cultural institutions, sport also has the capacity to trigger antagonistic attitudes and behaviors. For decades, soccer has struggled to combat the rise of hooliganism among fans. Following Sweden’s June 23 loss to Germany in World Cup group play, midfielder Jimmy Durmaz, who was born in Sweden to parents of Assyrian descent, was subjected to racist abuse and death threats after committing the foul that led to Germany’s winning goal.

Nevertheless, the unparalleled global influence of sport has given rise to the idea of harnessing this phenomenon for good. This concept is not entirely new. In ancient Greece, a “laying down of arms” was announced before each Olympic games so that athletes and spectators could travel to and from the games site without fear of attack.

South Africa’s championship run in the 1995 Rugby World Cup served as a major unifying event for a country recently emerging from decades of apartheid. One of the iconic moments of the tournament was Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok rugby jersey and baseball cap, presenting the winning trophy to Francois Pienaar, the Afrikaans captain of the South African national rugby team.

During the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss pledged his winnings
to Eritrea following a humanitarian trip to the country. His promise developed into a national campaign in Norway that raised over $18 million in aid used primarily for sports equipment and infrastructure. This led to the rise of the “Olympic Aid” movement, one of the first large-scale, multinational organizations dedicated to “sport for development and peace.”

This newly formed sector gained further international credibility at the creation of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000. Sport was highlighted in literature surrounding the release of the MDGs as an effective strategy for achieving global targets. The eld has grown exponentially since then, with hundreds of organizations of varying types using sport to achieve social good.

Established in 2001, PeacePlayers uses sport to unite divided communities impacted by conflict. Our organization first began operations in Durban, South Africa, followed by expansion to Northern Ireland, Israel and the West Bank and Cyprus. In 2017, PeacePlayers launched programming in the United States to help address the seemingly growing divides that we face here at home.

PeacePlayers’ founding premise that “children who play together can learn to live together” highlights the importance of positive relationships to peacebuilding. Following the cessation of violent conflict, relations between competing groups often remain frayed. In this state of tension and segregation, described as “negative peace” by Johan Galtung, it is easy for violence to flare.

Thus, the absence of violence is not enough — societies must get to “positive peace,” where groups are able to collaborate and constructively manage disputes. Sport provides a unique platform for this to happen.

In the context of team sport in particular, making a basket or winning a game typically cannot be accomplished without the cooperation and contributions of all players. In his foundational book The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport  described these common or “super-ordinate” goals as a necessity for successful relationship-building.

PeacePlayers’ program in Israel includes several integrated Israeli and Palestinian “All-Star” teams that compete in Israel’s National Basketball League, the highest level of youth basketball in the country. In 2014, a PeacePlayers’ team won the national league championship with a buzzer-beating basket. A pivotal moment for the program, this further solidified relationships among players as well as their families.

Once during that season, a Palestinian team member was being verbally harassed by an Israeli spectator. One of the Israeli parents in the stands stood up for the Palestinian player, saying, “These are our girls, leave our girls alone.” In Jerusalem and elsewhere, the experience of PeacePlayers has shown that sport not only supports individual attitude and relationship change, but it also acts as a relational hub: as players form friendships, they invite the participation of their parents, families and friends.

In more than two decades of work in sport and peacebuilding, PeacePlayers has learned several valuable lessons, including the importance of developing local leadership, sustaining long-term integration, maintaining a balance between peace education and strong sports programming, and providing pathways for children to develop as leaders.

Ultimately, discussions of “sport for peace” as a field unto itself, while necessary and helpful, neglect the most relevant question: how can sport-based interventions be most effectively incorporated into comprehensive efforts for peacebuilding and conflict transformation?

Though no one intervention can meet every need of a community, a growing body of evidence suggests that sport can serve as a useful and reliable means of preventing, mitigating and transforming conflict worldwide. However, it is only in the mapping of the various strengths and weaknesses of sport — just as any coach must learn how to best employ the various talents at the disposal of his or her team — that peacebuilders can ultimately maximize the potential of this tool to help build safer and shared futures for us all.

Brendan Tuohey is the co-founder and executive director of PeacePlayers, and Julie Younes is the PeacePlayers’ director of monitoring and evaluation. Tuohey will deliver the morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. Thursday, July 12, in the Amphitheater.

Tags : 2018 Week ThreeBrendan Tuoheyguest columnJulie YounesPeacePlayersThe Art of Play

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