By Meredith A. Whitley*
April 6th, 2017, celebrates the fourth International Day of Sport for Development and Peace with individuals, teams, and communities sharing how sport can improve the lives of participants and their communities all around the world. This date is particularly meaningful within the Olympic movement, as the first modern Olympics was held on April 6, 1896 in Athens, Greece.
While the Olympics have always stood for unity, with the five interlaced rings symbolically representing the five inhabited continents united by Olympism, this unity was on full display this past summer. At the 2016 Olympic Parade of Nations, a group of refugees without a common country to call home carried the banner of the Refugee Olympic Team, while at the Paralympic Games, another group of refugee athletes competed under the banner of the Independent Paralympic Athletes Team. During competition, the refugee team was not only recognized for the harrowing stories of their past, but who they are and what they’re capable of, changing the narrative and giving voice to those so often spoken for by others.
I’m familiar with the power of sport to change the lives of refugees, as I helped found the Refugee Sport Club in Lansing, Michigan a few years back. In partnership with the Refugee Development Center and the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, we brought refugee youth together to play sports and learn life skills, such as teamwork, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.
Why did sport work? My colleagues and I asked the refugee youth participants this exact question, with our findings published recently in the journal Leisure/Loisir. We found that the joy so many feel when playing sport was embraced by the refugee youth. They had so many stressors each day adjusting to an unfamiliar culture, language, and education. The Refugee Sport Club was one place where they could let down their guard, release the stress of the day, kick a ball, laugh, and have fun.
Sport is a common language that removes communication barriers. The refugee youth could connect, even when they couldn’t speak English. Sport was also a way to find commonality with each other. At the Olympic and Paralympic Games, sport served as a language we all understood to connect with people we may not interact with in everyday life.
The aspirational language of the Olympics, Paralympics, and the United Nations’ Olympic Truce calls for world peace and unity. The International Day of Sport for Development and Peace brings together the sport and development community to highlight ways in which we are working to achieve peace and unity through sport. While peace and unity are unlikely to be achieved in a short time span, especially given the political and global climate we are experiencing today, one step towards unity is recognizing and including all individuals in sport, regardless of their background, ability, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, religious beliefs, culture, and beyond. Today – and every day – we must join together to ensure that all feel they’re valued members of a team.
Likewise, at the Refugee Sport Club, the refugee youth felt like valued members of a team, which counteracted feelings of isolation, marginality, and exclusion that are so common for refugees when relocating to a new country. Simply put by one of the refugee youth: “it’s fun to have a team.”
It’s also fun to be good at something. For refugees who may feel insecure in their new homes, playing a sport that they played growing up can be both comforting and reaffirming. These teams highlighted the power of sport to bridge divides and create a sense of community, which can be transformational. Due to recent political and global events (e.g., Syrian refugee crisis, Brexit, United States’ travel bans), the climate in which many refugees find themselves during the flight and resettlement phases are quite tense, uncertain, and complex. This creates an even greater need to actualize the potential for sport to bridge divides and build unity amongst us all.
During the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the stadium erupted in applause when the Refugee Olympic Team and Independent Paralympic Athletes Team were announced, welcoming the athletes on the world stage. This inspirational moment of recognition and inclusion serves as a model for the rest of the world, calling on us all to embrace the Olympic values of friendship and respect in our everyday lives.
To create lasting change, we must have clear, actionable steps that are identified with specific goals and a timeline, and a real, honest dialogue about what needs to be done. This week, we can focus on the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, when we come together worldwide to celebrate the ways in which sport can bridge divides and create strong communities. Next week, we must continue our efforts within and outside of sport, working to ensure that all are included and celebrated at all sporting levels.
*Meredith A. Whitley, PhD, is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Sport-Based Youth Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. She oversees the Sport-Based Youth Development Specialization in both Garden City and Manhattan, along with the tuition-free Sport-Based Youth Development Fellowship for master’s degree students. Her research explores the complex and multi-faceted roles of sport and sport for development programs in the lives of youth from under-resourced communities, along with the interrelated systems impacting youth and community development. Her field-based experience in Sport for Development and Peace includes program development, implementation, and evaluation in under-resourced communities in the United States (e.g., Boston, Detroit, Queens, San Francisco) and Africa (e.g., Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda). She is currently the lead investigator on a comprehensive systematic review of the Sport for Development and Peace field, funded by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and also represents Adelphi University as a co-founder of the New York City Sport for Development Collaborative.