Sport as international development?

The Olympics have come.  The Olympics have gone.  The athleticism blew my mind – especially that of Ameircan Gymnast Gabby Douglas (who trains in my hometown)!  Whoa, she’s amazing.

With stars in my eyes, I recently noticed two Masters programs that focus on sport and international development.  The first is an MA in Sport and International Development from the University of Brighton’s Chelsea School of Sport and Service Management.  The second is in Barcelona at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) in Sport for social coexistence and conflict reduction.  And yes, the UOC degree is supported by FC Barcelona’s Foundation.

The programs’ websites raised many questions:  Who enrolls in these programs?  Is it safe to assume that the students are more sporting fans than development workers?  Do many graduates work directly in the field of development?  More interesting (to me), do students from developing countries attend the program in hopes of returning home and implementing change?

I found myself pretty critical of these two initiatives, but perhaps it’s unfair.  What it comes to is this: I don’t really buy the “sport as international development” argument.

On the one hand, many consider sport and play as part of a human rights agenda.  I can understand why it would be smart – as a way to recruit participants – to couple a sporting event and education session.  Following a humanitarian emergency, a sporting event could be an easy way to restore “a sense of normality.”  In fact, I remember the eerily quiet streets of Port-au-Prince during the World Cup in 2010.  Moreover, sport seems like a much better idea than having two bellicose groups fight it out.  (Perhaps I get this idea from my brother, who suggested the Falklands struggle of 2007 be decided as a football match; his is the last letter to The Economist at this link.)

On the other hand, the potential of sport as effective development practice seems incredibly narrow.  First, any worthwhile sporting activity must be done to scale – having large groups participate and watch.  Sport must be done in partnership with another development activity – a campaign, educational programs, or construction of new facilities, for example.  And even among communities where a single game is popular (e.g. cricket or football/soccer), sporting events attract only a tiny slice of the population.

To me, sport-as-conflict-resolution has validity.  But more than that?  I’d be pressed to say that sport is more than an amplifier for other development initiatives.

I’d like to hear others’ thoughts on this, as I’m definitely no expert.  Some folks are really keen on the partnership.  Notably, the UN has an office on Sport for Development and Peace, and they even offer a toolkit on how to do it right.  Yet even the UN admits, “Sport is not a cure-all for development problems.  As a cultural phenomenon, it is a mirror of society and is just as complex and contradictory.”

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