Sport: Just a game or a tool for development?

Sport serves multiple purposes: it is a wonderful proxy for a controlled conflict, an "us and them" situation where people or groups can measure forces symbolically, it serves for exercise, it serves for the fun of playing and... can be a useful tool for development, bringing people together. In fact, it has the hallmarks of a geopolitical colossus.

The United Nations celebrated the second International Day of Sport for Development and Peace this week (April 6), in which the power of sport as a means to achieve sustainable progress and change of attitudes was highlighted. For UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, sport can eliminate gender barriers "and build bridges across lines that might otherwise divide" and creates "cultures where fundamental values such as equality, the acceptance of rules, mutual respect and fairness are appreciated".

Sport to empower the handicapped

Sport is also an excellent tool to empower those with disabilities, and here the Paralympic Games are to be highlighted, and an avenue to follow on the path towards inclusion, combating marginalization, and motivating participants to study. So it comes as no surprise to find the UNO pushing sport as a modality to promote environmental awareness and economically sustainable practices.

True, sport is an industry as well as a game, and the budget of organizations such as FIFA is astronomical (over a billion USD per year). Brazil's budget for the 2014 World Cup was over 13 billion USD and the budget for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 will be a further 18 billion USD while the budget for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 was over 50 billion USD.

Place sport at the heart of policy

The UNO has called on stakeholders to place sport inside health, education, development, peace and consolidation programs, hosting activities to raise awareness about important local, regional and global issues, using sport to teach and to bring communities together.

Some try to use sport as a political tool, like the group of US Senators including chief hatemonger John McCain (who else?), who requested FIFA to take the 2018 World Cup away from Russia, a request that will fall on deaf ears because FIFA is not a political organization and what these senators (from both the Republicans and Democrats) requested goes against the grain of what sport is about.

The King of sport - soccer

King at the High Table of sport is soccer, a great communicator in many parts of the world (not so much so in the USA, where American Football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey are far more popular, although many kids go to soccer school on a Saturday morning for a run-around; not so much so in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, where cricket is more popular).

The origins of soccer, from AsSOCiation Football (as opposed to Rugby football and other versions of the game played in private schools, called "public schools" because they were open to the fee-paying public), named after the first Association of football (soccer) clubs in the UK is often attributed to England, where from the ninth century communities would engage in a game, sometimes a brawl, kicking the bladder of a pig from one landmark to another. It frequently ended in a pitched battle and was banned for many years for being "a public nuisance".

While the first formal Association of clubs appeared in Great Britain in 1863, games using a ball were common in ancient times: The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Greeks and Romans all had games in which balls were kicked or handled, the Greek version being called Episkyros and the Roman, Harpastum. However, it was not only the classical civilizations who played games with balls - other games, using the feet more than the hands, have been discovered among the Australian indigenous peoples "Marn Grook", also among the native Americans, "Pahsaherman".

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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey