International Day of Sport for Development and Peace celebrates how sport can be a powerful force for good by improving health, education and social outcomes in communities.
The world will need sport’s power to drive positive change in society more than ever to recover from the coronavirus crisis, says James Middling, global sector leader for the built environment.
Whether we play it or just watch it, most of us are missing sport. We would miss it in the best of times.
The return of sport and its ability to bring joy to people will be a huge boost to the wellbeing of the post-pandemic world. During the recovery period, it will be critical for us to harness its full potential to improve public health and bring people together for the good of our communities.
This is in fact where most sports in most countries originate – the community.
In the UK, many of today’s leading football and rugby clubs were founded in the 19th century by communities in industrialised centres.
Miners and mill workers banded together to form local teams to play sport, later organising leagues so they could play against each other competitively.
Aside from the benefits of physical activity, playing and watching sport provided comfort and happiness to people who sought relief and respite from jobs with long hours and little pay.
But sport can do far more than contribute to good mental and physical health.
It can help to deliver positive social change, actively driving inclusion, empowerment and other social outcomes through its influence in the community.
In football, for example, clubs as big and as successful as Liverpool and Manchester United still have this sense of place despite the rapid commercialisation and globalisation of the game in recent decades.
They see themselves as businesses rooted in the local community and give a lot back, supporting social projects and events and building strong links with groups and charities in their town or city. In the current crisis, when their communities need help the most, clubs have been helping to run foodbanks.
And clubs are in a unique position to promote inclusion and reduce inequality through their players – they are role models and heroes to young people.
I know from my own experience, having grown up on a council estate in Stoke-on-Trent during the recession of the 1980s, that the biggest enemy to social mobility is lack of hope.
Without hope, children living in disadvantaged communities can easily make the wrong choices. Sport produces role models who can inspire them and teach them that if you work hard and apply yourself you can be successful in life.
Gillingham FC, which draws its support from an area of high deprivation in Kent, has shown what clubs with limited finances can achieve. It has launched its own school, based within the stadium, for students aged between 11 and 16, many of whom have been excluded from mainstream schools.
The GFC School is pioneering and provides a safe and supportive learning environment to students who find conventional education and social situations a challenge.
Lessons incorporate motivational talks from the club’s players but the education provision is not radically different.
The fact that the school is an extension of their local football team, and bears the club’s crest, helps to inspire young people. It has the highest success rate of any similar specialist education centre in the UK.
Another example of how football has been progressive and taken a lead on societal issues is its promotion of the women’s game. The success of women’s football, and the increasing profile of women footballers, is providing positive role models for young girls, helping to reduce gender inequality in society.
Breaking down barriers
Sport has already proven it can be a cost-effective and key enabler of promoting peace and social development objectives, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
It can address divisions within societies, bringing together disparate communities who wouldn’t normally talk to each other through their one commonality: a shared love of sport.
Where politics and diplomacy often fail, it has repeatedly shown it can break down barriers between countries, providing a neutral, unifying beacon that people will gather around.
The power of sport to do this was witnessed by millions of viewers around the world when athletes from North and South Korea marched together as one team at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
The Tokyo Olympics, now postponed until 2021, will have a pivotal part to play in renewing this spirt of unity.
Catalyst for change
Hosting a major sporting event represents a rare opportunity to masterplan infrastructure development that can spur a wide range of long-term socio-economic benefits.
The preparation for, and delivery of, an event will support a substantial amount of economic activity: urban regeneration, new businesses, direct job creation and skills training.
Events will create new opportunities for volunteering and engaging the public, strengthening people’s sense of citizenship and civic pride.
Hosting sporting events raises interest in sports participation and physical activity at the grassroots level, which will contribute to healthier lifestyles and improved wellbeing.
The event lifecycle also brings many different agencies and stakeholders to work together in a spirit of joint endeavour. Post-event many will continue to collaborate to tackle wider societal issues.
A sustainable legacy was one reason why London was awarded the 2012 Olympics. The games regenerated a vast area of contaminated land that had been left undeveloped since the Second World War. The legacy has been jobs, housing and the first major park to be built in London for 100 years.
If planned with foresight and staged successfully, major sports events can be a catalyst for transformative change that extends far beyond the arena to improve communities and the lives and livelihoods of the people who live in them.
Like many other elements of our every-day life, much of sport is now locked down.
Its absence from daily life has highlighted how much we need its health and healing qualities, the release and diversion it provides, and its positive reinforcement of community.
If we didn’t know it already, the coronavirus crisis has shown us that the transformative role of sport in society is something to celebrate.
For further information about International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, visit https://www.un.org/en/observances/sport-day