Spend five minutes watching children argue over their favourite football player and it’s difficult to see sport as a unifying force or a means for peace.
But continue to watch these children as they leave their bickering behind and start to play for themselves, and the story is very different.
In seconds they’ve picked teams, agreed makeshift goals, and got the game underway. And everyone plays; from the new kid looking to make friends to the show-boater who gets brought down a peg or two by his peers.
Without a referee, they adjudicate on fouls, award goals, and sort out restarts. They share responsibility for managing the game and develop attitudes of respect, tolerance and fair play.
These are overarching values that transcend age, gender and/or ethnicity. They’re cornerstones of decency that shape the kind of people we become and the way we treat others and resolve disagreements in later life.
Of course, there are flashpoints and disagreements can flair up quickly, but by and large they’re remedied quickly. Playing the game is more important than settling scores.
And it’s not just in parks and playgrounds where sport makes its mark. The FIFA World Cup attracts entries from 211 countries, culminating in the 32-team finals that are contested every four years in the world’s finest stadiums.
Countries in conflict go up against each other. Players of every colour, creed, religion and belief take part. The rules apply to everyone, equally and the world watches.
Similarly, The Olympic Games brings together 206 competing nations, and has become a truly global event.
Sport at every level creates a platform for shared experience and endeavour. It proves that teammates from different backgrounds can work together towards a common goal. It gives competitors and supporters an identity beyond their religious and/or political beliefs.
By bringing people together, sport fosters communication, understanding and interaction. It promotes dialogue, breaks down barriers, and focuses attention on shared pleasures rather than contentious disputes.
In the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970) a two-day truce was called so both sides could watch Pele and his touring Santos team play. Sport didn’t end the war, but it brought about a ceasefire.
But many have hijacked sport and the shared platform it creates. Adolf Hitler tried to use the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a propaganda vehicle for Aryan supremacy. Jesse Owens proved otherwise by winning four gold medals.
In 1969, three World Cup qualifying matches between El Salvador and Honduras stoked an already charged atmosphere between these quarrelling neighbours, culminating in the outbreak of war days after the final match.
Sporting events also create targets and terrorists murdered 11 Israelis and one policeman at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Two people died and dozens were injured by a bomb at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In 2009, gunman attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team as they made their way to a match against Pakistan, resulting in eight fatalities and again proving the unwelcome attention sport attracts.
Cancel sporting spectacles and lives would be saved. But would terrorists simply find other targets? Without sport, would we lose a powerful platform to improve collaboration, understanding and peaceful dialogue? Would the next generation be less tolerant than the last?
Sport has brought the world together since the dawn of the Olympics!
Sport can be understood and break down boundaries between cultures.
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