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From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue
How Have Sports Transformed Your World?
Each day, millions of men and women play games, as sports has become a force for linking people across cultures and continents—bringing often remarkable changes to societies. Today, we have asked our panel of global experts to weigh in on how sport has transformed their world.
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How Has Sport Transformed Your World?
Usha Selvaraju: Post-Conflict Sports
The role of sport in helping to change and develop post-conflict countries has been suggested both by George Orwell in his description of sport as “war minus the shooting” and the former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace, Adolf Ogi, who observed, “The fundamental principles of sport—respect for opponents and rules, teamwork, and fair play—are consistent with the principles of the UN Charter and reflect the basic rules of a well functioning society living in peace.”
The common denominator among several projects involving sports in post-conflict countries suggest it’s the people—not the sport—who make the difference in producing positive change. The Open Fun Football Schools (OFFS) initiative in Bosnia was created to encourage reconciliation among young people through soccer. A recent evaluation highlights the limitations of OFFS leaders, who often focus too much on football and not enough on reconciliation. The Swiss Academy for Development’s experiences in the area of intercultural dialogue and conflict resolution through sport also demonstrate the central role of coaches, who take on functions that go well beyond teaching sports. These mentors provide crucial social support and assume the responsibility to be seen as positive role models.
Usha Selvaraju is project manager of the International Platform on Sport and Development in Biel, Switzerland.
Parhat Ablat: Xinjiang Baseball
Little did I know that the Xinjiang University baseball team, which I led, would have such an unexpected impact. When I took charge, my only intention was to share my love of baseball with the community. But it went beyond that, giving people a chance to interact with someone from a different ethnic background for the first time and create lasting bonds of camaraderie.
The players all come from different towns and various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, China. They come from rural and urban locales—some are Uighur, some are Han—while others are Kazakh and other smaller ethnic minorities. For many, it was the first time they had ever talked to someone whose life experience was radically different from their own. The team became a platform where bonds of friendship are built not just on the field, but off the field as well. If there is one way sports made this possible, it’s by serving as a unifier and giving a group of people a common goal, which in our case was the China National College Baseball Tournament championship.
When given the chance to work together, people learn to understand one another. In its own small way, sports can build a more harmonious society. As baseball did in our case, sports in other countries and regions can help build bridges between different groups of people within one country.
Parhat Ablat organized a joint Han-Uighur baseball team at Xinjiang University, China.
Devon Harris: The Jamaica Bobsled Team
Millions around the world scratched their heads and pondered with incredulity the idea that Jamaica was about to have its own bobsled team. Our team was started to test the popular belief in Jamaica that we had some of the best athletes in the world. What better way to do this than to see how well they could learn and become competitive in a brand new sport? Four short months of training resulted in an Olympic berth. And after less than one week of practice with the four-man sled, we achieved the seventh fastest start time, demonstrating that Jamaica indeed is blessed with some of the best athletes in the world, while simultaneously transforming the world’s disbelief into amazement, then appreciation, and finally enchantment.
Beating bobsled powerhouses like the United States, Russia, Italy, and France in 1994, setting the two-man start record in Salt Lake City, and winning the World Push Championships for men and women gained us genuine respect. In Jamaica, the impact of our team’s performance in the Olympic Winter Games goes way beyond sports and speaks directly to something we strongly believe—wi lickle but wi tallawah (we may be small, but we are powerful). It’s a mantra that lives in the heart of every proud Jamaican, thanks to a cornucopia of world-class athletes—from the sprinters of the 1948 London Olympics and every decade since, to the bobsled teams, the Reggae Boyz of the 1998 soccer world cup, and today’s “Bolt-mania.” That mantra for Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, is now top of mind for millions worldwide.
Devon Harris is a former member of the Jamaican bobsled team.
Isobel Coleman: Women in Sports
For decades in Iran, women’s sports have been as much about politics as athletics. The Shah explicitly promoted women’s participation in sports as part of his modernization efforts. Starting in the 1960s, Iranian women gained access to new sports and facilities and played a prominent role when Iran hosted the Asian Games in 1974, the first time the event was held in the Middle East. But after the Iranian revolution in 1979, women’s participation in sports suffered a backlash. Islamic conservatives denigrated women’s sports as a Western notion and initially banned women from all sports on the grounds that men might see them exercising. Once the hijab became mandatory in 1981, the mullahs grudgingly allowed women to participate in sports again, as long as they were in separate facilities. A few women-only clubs emerged, but the pickings were slim. Moreover, women were banned from the country’s national pastime—attending soccer matches in stadiums.
Over the years, women have pushed back on many of the restrictions imposed on them in the name of Islamic piety and have fought to regain ground in athletics. In the 1990s, Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, became a prominent advocate for women’s sports during her father’s tenure as president. She even championed women’s cycling despite the fact that traditionalists were particularly bothered by the idea of women riding bicycles. Today, it is common to see women jogging and exercising in Iran’s public parks, though women’s sports still remain contested. Women’s teams struggle to find and retain coaches because of laws forbidding the mixing of unrelated men and women. Female athletes who aspire to international competition face serious obstacles—from a lack of facilities to restrictive dress codes—and women still cannot attend soccer matches. It is likely that women’s sports will remain a battleground between reformists and conservatives for years to come.
Isobel Coleman is director of the Council on Foreign Relation’s Women and Foreign Policy Program and a CFR senior fellow.
Till Schauder: Dunking the Hoops
Kevin Sheppard, an American basketball player who played in Iran, did indeed change the perception of Iranians vis-a-vis America—but not necessarily as expected. By dispelling the notion that America is a land of limitless opportunity and riches, [the six-foot tall 32-year-old] may have actually crushed some Iranians’ illusions about America. While he often stressed there is more business opportunity in America, and more personal freedom, he also has made it clear to Iranians that life in America can be just as hard as anywhere else. He spoke candidly about being African-American and how that factors into his own personal experience. And he surprised some Iranians by arguing that more is not always more. For example, he would argue that while women certainly have more freedom to express themselves and dress the way they choose to in America, this freedom can have a considerable flip-side—the sexualizing of women—often at a very young age.
By virtue of his easygoing personality Kevin didn’t so much transform Iranians’ opinion of Americans as reinforce it. Iranians actually have a very high opinion of Americans. Approval ratings for Americans are consistently high among Iranians, at times in the 70 percent range. This is a stark contrast to most of the region. It’s even difficult to find those approval numbers in Europe, much less in neighboring Afghanistan or Iraq, where approval hovers nearer 20 percent. Even in Turkey, an ally of the United States and fellow NATO member, public opinion of Americans is not nearly as high as among Iranians. Indeed, Kevin often marveled over the widespread perception in the United States that an American wouldn’t survive a single day in Iran. This was exactly the opposite of his own personal experience with Iranians, who treated him with hospitality, respect, and friendship.
In many ways, the most important aspect of Kevin’s experience in Iran is not how much he changed Iranians’ perception of Americans, but how significantly Iranians changed his own perception of them. At the same time he is very careful not to confuse his positive experience of Iranians with the Iranian government, keenly aware of the considerable gap that exists between the two.
Till Schauder is director of The Iran Job (theiranjob.com), a documentary about U.S. basketball player Kevin Sheppard, who played in Iran.
Arvydas Sabonis: Lithuania’s Second Religion
In Lithuania, basketball has transcended the term “sport.” Basketball is Lithuania’s second religion. Since 1937, when Lithuania won its first European championship, this sport has inspired a sense of national pride among Lithuanians. After any large international victory, returning athletes are swarmed by crowds of adoring fans. When the Lithuanian national team plays away, the country seems to grind to a halt as everyone’s attention is turned to the game. During the Soviets’ occupation of Lithuania, every victory won by the city of Kaunas’ “Žalgirio” team against the CSKA—the Soviet Army’s athletic club—symbolized the fight against Soviet occupation. Every victory helped the people believe that a small nation could indeed topple an empire. Just as the Lithuanian team managed to outmaneuver a team with superior training resources and recruitment clout, the Lithuanian people could perhaps slip out of the USSR’s vice-like grip. At that time, the Moscow club had access to the best players from across the Soviet Union.
The bronze medal the Lithuanian basketball team won at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was worth its weight in gold. Until then, we had been forced to celebrate our victories under another nation’s flag. On the road to the bronze medal, the Lithuanian team had to face the Unified Team, which represented Russia and the rest of the former Soviet republics. We will never forget the newly independent and victorious Lithuanian basketball team watching our flag rise in the Olympic stadium for the first time. The Unified Team’s defeat, 82-78, represented nothing less than Lithuania’s newfound independence and sense of national identity. It’s clear that basketball has taken on a very special meaning for the Lithuanian people.
Arvydas Sabonis, a retired NBA and Lithuanian national team basketball player, helped the Lithuanian team take bronze medals in 1992 and 1996. He also led the Soviet team to gold in 1988.
Matilda Mwaba: Widening Platforms
Politics has been influenced by sports—an expansion of the voice of civil society to the political space. Traditionally sports were distanced from politics, yet lauded as political. Still, sports’ claims on resources and power distribution are all a part of politics—a linkage that has over the last few years become increasingly visible.
By engaging development issues, sports become part of the political space. So the allocation of resources within sports and the regulation of sports and related organizations have been known to precipitate legal reform at a national level to accommodate such emerging phenomenon as “sport for development.” Sports as leverage for political leaders and as delivering value to the people raises questions about investment in stadiums and high profile sports events. Some see such resource allocations as a priority worth the investment, while others argue that it is wrong.
Added to the rhetoric of politics and sports is the question of its use as a platform for nation building and establishing a national identity, especially in the case of soccer. Politicians raise this point frequently in their speeches. But the extent to which this actually plays a role in promoting feelings, of national pride remains difficult to quantify. Still, to date, sport has had a limited influence over changing the nature of politics. Power relations between genders and the classes remain unequal. This is not because sports are incapable of providing this level of influence, but because in most cases they are not designed to do so.
Matilda Mwaba is executive director of Zambia’s National Organization for Women in Sport, Physical Activity, and Recreation.
Compiled by Dovilas Bukauskas, Janek Kubik, and José Martínez-Flores.
[Photo: Beat Küng]