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Let the Games Begin

August 7, 2012

When one thinks of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), sport is not the first subject that comes to mind. But, according to the UN, sports can play a crucial role in a country’s development, not just for Olympic glory. In fact, some argue that athletic involvement within a country could make the MDGs more attainable.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

On July 27, 2012 Ban Ki-moon, Secretary- General of the UN, called on  “all Governments and sport organizations to provide opportunities for sport, physical activity and play.” He stated that sport “is not a luxury. It is an investment in better health, education and skills for coming generations—critical for building inclusive societies grounded in mutual tolerance and respect….when you see the magic that a ball can create among children in a shantytown or refugee camp, you see the potential that we must harness.”

The UN’s Sports for Development and Peace platform has appointed celebrity athletes as spokespersons for the causes. These individuals help the UN relay important messages about diseases, children’s rights and other issues to the greater population. Some Olympic athletes have suffered from poverty and can relate to individuals in countries attempting to reach MDGs. Paul Terget, a Kenyan marathon runner, remembers going to bed hungry often until his school adopted a school meals program. Dayron Robles, a champion hurdler from Cuba, suffered from anemia as a child due to malnutrition. These athletes, and many others, who know the value of good food and nutrition, help to bring attention to these issues and gain support for the individuals who live in poverty.

The Millennium Development goals aim to end poverty and hunger, to encourage child and maternal health, combat disease and to precipitate education, gender equality, sound environmental practices and global partnership by 2015. Many countries, including Sierra Leone, and Uganda, have made athletics part of their Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers which include information on annual progress and structural and social policies within the member country that will lift the country out of poverty.

According to the UN, Sport Development and Peace, is a “cross- cutting” tool that can help developing countries achieve each of the MDGs. In order to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, sports offer people the opportunity to learn new skills that can be used in employment, and the manufacturing of sporting goods can necessitate labor and create jobs. One case study, conducted by SportandDev.org, observes the work of the organization Alive & Kicking , a UK organization that has helped to address the lack of sporting materials and a shortage of jobs in Kenya, Zambia and South Africa by manufacturing sports balls and employing locally. The program has made high-quality, low-cost balls more accessible to children in the program areas and created 220 manufacturing jobs. Alive and Kicking has also and supported roadshows that have educated 30,000 students about HIV. Sports have been proven to mitigate behaviors that contribute to HIV infection. A community interested in sport is more likely to unite and increase the effectiveness of  malaria, tuberculosis and other health efforts. Sport can even help to promote gender equality, as athletics improve female health and help women gain experience in leadership positions.

The UN has used sport to assuage other international quandaries in the past. For example, sport has been used in post-conflict circumstances, peace-keeping operations, and in the re-integration of child soldiers and ex-combatants into communities.  Peace Players International is one organization that has specifically relied on the belief that “children who play together can learn to live together” to encourage greater peace in conflict communities. The organization’s programs operate in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel and the West Bank and Cyprus and offer an opportunity children from opposing backgrounds to come together and learn the values of respect, peace and teamwork through sports.

Ban Ki-moon believes that sport has and will continue to encourage development and peace. “By including sport in development and peace programs in a more systematic way, the United nations can make full use of this cost-efficient tool to help us create a better world.”  The competition and athletic camaraderie displayed in this year’s Olympics only further proves the power of sports in bringing the world together.

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