By Haley Barbour
Seeing sport as a force of social change is not something that I heard for the first time when meeting with Bryan Kopeck at Special Olympics. However, hearing about the innovative ways that Special Olympics uses sports to engage with communities around the world reminded me of other examples that I have come across of sports being able to connect people in ways that politics has not been able to.
At Special Olympics the philosophy is that sports can be a vehicle to living a fulfilling and productive life. Not only do sports teach players team work, leadership, and problem solving, they work around the world to improve the lives of their athletes and their families.
Special Olympics works with athletes all over the world, and organizes sport leagues into regions. No two regions are the same. For example, Kopeck explained that the Africa program is focused much more on services to provide healthcare, education, and nutrition to athletes than programs in more developed countries like the United States. They are able to incorporate these programs because a person cannot do sports if they are not healthy or lack skills they would learn in the classroom.
In the United States, Special Olympics works with their athletes on job readiness as they transition from school into the workplace. Kopeck expressed hope that these programs will be expanded further to include job placement and training when necessary. One of the most surprising things that I learned about Special Olympics was the fact their sport competitions are not limited to people with intellectual disabilities. In fact, Special Olympics is dedicated to bringing together all people through sport. Kopeck noted that the experience of playing alongside a partner with an intellectual disability is often more rewarding for the person without an intellectual disability.
There are many examples of sports connecting people in ways that politics have not been able to. Currently, more countries belong to the International governing association of football (FIFA) than belong to the United Nations. There are 211 national associations recognized by FIFA, while the UN only has 193 member states. The UN as a body has recognized the importance of sports in promoting international peace. Before every winter and summer Olympic Games, the UN General Assembly passes a resolution supporting the ideals of the games. The resolution in support of the 2012 London Games was titled “Sport for Peace and Development: Building a Peaceful and Better World through Sport and the Olympic Ideal.”
Sport is also being utilized in some of the world’s most complex conflicts to bring the sides together. For example, there are many NGOs working in Israel/Palestine to bring together Jewish and Palestinian kids to compete together is soccer, basketball, fencing, and all other sports. One organization in particular, PeacePlayers International, bring kids from ages six to 15 together to play sports.
Similarly to Special Olympics, PeacePlayers International combined sports with additional services. The kids take classes to learn life skills as well as learn about each other’s culture. There are more advanced classes in resolution training and foreign languages. These programs are building relationships among the kids that will hopefully result in their participation in bringing the conflict to a peaceful end as adults. PeacePlayers international also has programs in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, and South Africa.
Sport alone is not the answer to achieving world peace, but its ability to bring people together across conflict and ability lines is certainly a tool that can be used to achieve the goals of peace and inclusion. Special Olympics, alongside so many other notable organizations, continues to work through sport to create social change.