Sports and Peace – Bridge-builder or Oxymoron?
Peace educator and nuclear disarmament expert from New Zealand
"Sport alone cannot enforce or maintain peace. But it has a vital role to play in building a better and more peaceful world."
Dr Jacques Rogge, IOC President, October 2007
In 9th century BC Greece, a treaty between three kings established the Olympic Truce – a period when fighting ceased so that athletes and ordinary pilgrims could travel in total safety to the Olympic Games. As the opening of the Games approached, the sacred truce was proclaimed and announced by citizens of Elis who travelled throughout Greece to pass on the message.
When modern Olympics were established in 1894, the idea of sport as being able to bridge nations and bring about peace was revived in the Charter – "The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of 'man', with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." The Olympic torch is carried around the world prior to the games as a proclamation of peace.
Indeed the contact made between sportspeople and spectators of differing nations at the Olympics has most likely helped significantly in building bridges between nations.
On the other hand, the very nature of inter-national competition, which forms the basis of the Olympic Games, has led them to also be used to exacerbate conflict – including the attempt by Hitler to use the 1936 Olympics to demonstrate Aryan superiority, the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the propaganda used by Soviet and Western blocs equating numbers of gold medals with the superiority of their political systems, and the Western boycott of the 1980 Olympics protesting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Other sports have equally checkered records in terms of either bridge-building or increasing conflicts between nations. The territorial and social conflicts between El Salvador and Honduras in the 1960s, for example, lapsed into “La Guerra del Fútbol” (the Football War) in 1969 following a riot between supporters of the two national football teams. Extreme competition between American football teams was also blamed for the 1994 assassination of Andres Escobar, the Colombian defender who scored an own-goal in a World Cup match against the USA.
On the other hand, sports matches between conflicting nations and groups have often been used to break down barriers and build peaceful relationships. Indian and Pakistani leaders have often used “cricket diplomacy” in this way. Recent football matches between Palestinians and Israelis have also been used to build peace between youth of both groups (See Football for Peace).
Sports definitely have a high profile – prompting many sports stars with consciences to use their fame to advance social causes. In New Zealand, for example, rugby league legend Ruben Wiki is one of the front people for White Ribbon Day – the national day of men calling for an end to domestic violence against women and children. The New Zealand Peace Foundation this year is utilizing the sports-fever surrounding the rugby world cup to encourage schools to undertake sports-and-peace related activities during the annual Schools Peace Week. Internationally, the organization Sports and Peace facilitates a range of sports-oriented peace-building programmes supported by sports stars.
The World Scholar Games bring together student athletes from around the world – and attempts to transform the competitive antagonism surrounding nationalism by forming mixed teams rather than nationally based teams. The Games also ensure that participants gain a greater understanding of peace by inviting them to participate in the World Youth Peace Summit, which is held just prior to the games.
Some peace educators go even further, arguing that competitive sports – even those that are organized with mixed teams – reinforce an us-versus-them, win-lose framework which is antithetical to the win-win framework required for conflict resolution and peace-making. In addition, competitive sports are exclusionary – favoring the able-bodied, well coordinated and physically fit over others. A new body of cooperative games and sports has thus been developed. Dale de Fevre, author of New Games, notes that “Everyone can play New Games regardless of age, ability, size, or gender. Ultimately, by cooperating in play, we learn to live together better.”
I have found cooperative sports – including those with a large 6ft earth-ball – to be an incredibly effective way in shifting a socially competitive and aggressive ethos in teenagers into a much more cooperative and community-building ethos. Teenage boys, in particular, initially try to ‘win’ in cooperative games through competition. When they fail, and switch instead to cooperative methods, it becomes a real eye-opener and transformative experience for them.
I have also found cooperative games are incredibly effective in conflict resolution workshops with diplomats - as long as the games are appropriately adapted to suit the themes of the workshop and conflicts being negotiated (see Juggling and the Kashmir/Jammu conflict).
Noam Chomsky may be correct in Manufacturing Consent, where he argues that sport is often used, especially in mass media, to distract the populace from challenging oppressive political structures. However, sport has an equally powerful possibility for being used to support positive inter-personal and social change including peacebuilding. It’s up to us as educators and social-change advocates to ensure that it is used more for the latter than the former.
Alyn Ware is a peace educator and nuclear disarmament expert from New Zealand. He has founded (or co-founded) a number of peace education projects including the Mobile Peace Van which travelled around rural schools in New Zealand teaching peace education, Our Planet in Every Classroom which distributed global education materials to schools, Cool Schools Peer Mediation Programme which trains students to be mediators and the UN Decade for a Culture of Peace Schools Outreach programme. He has served on a number of government advisory boards including one that established the Peace Studies Guidelines for schools and the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control. He has received the UN Year for Peace Award, Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Award and the Right Livelihood (‘Alternate Nobel Peace Prize’) for his peace education and disarmament work.