Inspirational Stories from the “Sport for Development and Peace” Movement

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September 26, 2011; Source: Sports Illustrated | You have to read this stunning SI article written by Alexander Wolff. It is a beautifully written, intensely moving account of athletes and non-athletes alike who devote their working lives to the Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) movement. These aren’t PR stories cooked up by sports agents to burnish their clients’ reputations or make up for the paltry charitable giving of professional teams. Rather, they are true stories of individuals who have created, in poverty-stricken places around the world, programs that use sport as a bridge between antagonistic communities, as a tool for reaching distressed populations, as a vehicle for delivering critically needed resources, or as a mechanism for uplifting the human spirit. Some examples from Wolff’s astounding essay:

  • Johann Olav Koss, the gold-medal-winning speed skater from the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, convinced his fellow Norwegians to donate ten kroner apiece for every gold medal that Norway won during the Games. The campaign raised $18 million in a little over a week for a charity called Olympic Aid, which has since been renamed Right to Play and is now a mainstay of the SDP movement.
  • Luke Dowdney, a former British university boxer, founded Luta Pela Paz (“fight for peace” in Portuguese) in the Complexo da Mare favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (he has a second Fight for Peace center in London). The center teaches martial arts, computer skills, and conflict resolution to street kids who otherwise are involved with violent, drug-using street gangs.
  • Tommy Clark, a former soccer player in Zimbabwe, joined with “Survivor: Africa” winner Ethan Zohn to establish Grassroot Soccer, which uses soccer to reach and educate children and adults about HIV prevention in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. (The Clinton Global Initiative just made a $1 million commitment to Grassroot’s program for South African girls.)
  • Brendan Tuohey, a former basketball player at Colgate, joined with his brother Sean to found Peace Players International, which uses basketball to “twin” Jewish and Arab kids in Israel and the West Bank to play in mixed teams with paired Jewish and Arab coaches.

There are many more stories in this remarkable account. Despite occasional outpourings of support such as the recent CGI commitment to Grassroot Soccer, the SDP movement is “woefully underfunded and highly uncoordinated,” according to former Olympic distance runner Bruce Kidd, now a University of Toronto professor. SI quotes Kidd lamenting the fact that SDP is “completely unregulated and largely isolated from mainstream development efforts.” Granted, some observers might find this to be a positive development, contributing to the creative vibrancy of SDP. Kidd does say that Koss has redirected SDP away from “a top-down, we-know-what-you-need approach with First World volunteers.” Nonetheless, Kidd also noted a huge problem not just with resources, but with coordination: “In Zambia, I saw kids in slums who’d been trained five or more times by different NGOs, while just outside the city there was nothing.”

What’s hampering funding? Not surprisingly, funders are asking for demonstrated, measurable outcomes from programs that, as Kidd notes, are “sport plus education, sport plus health, sport plus peace-building.” SDP is caught between two legitimate concerns: the funders who Kidd says tell the NGOs, “Prove it! Prove that sport has benefits!” and the visionaries like Koss who Kidd says “continues to argue on the rights-based front.”

As a coda, we note Wolff’s separate blog posting on the SI website describing his year-long  SDP research and writing journey:

The assignment was by turns astonishing, humbling and inspiring. But the deeper I delved into the cause of Sport for Development and Peace, or SDP, the more persistently I was struck by the United States’ lack of leadership in the field. . . . Disproportionate amounts of money and muscle come from the governments of Great Britain, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as Canada, which last year gave $17 million to Norwegian Olympic hero Johann Olav Koss’ Toronto-based Right to Play to double RTP’s reach in five African countries. . . . Where in all this, it begs asking, are the Americans?

To us, the SDP movement encapsulates the ideal of sports philanthropy. More is needed.—Rick Cohen