- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

With the Olympics in full swing, our eyes are riveted on Athens, where the world’s best athletes dazzle us with feats of sporting performance and endurance in the cradle of the ancient Olympic Games.

These modern games have more athletes competing from more countries than ever. We marvel at the athletes’ physical gifts and the toil and determination they represent. And beyond understandable displays of national pride, we witness sport as a way to transcend boundaries and foster dialogue between peoples in this great coming together.

As we mere mortals revel in the Olympians’ exploits, we may be well advised to remember sport is much more than exhilarating entertainment. It can generate good will and cross every fault line, regardless of nationality, race, religion, ethnicity or class.

In an era when the biggest names in sports can earn more in a day than many do in a lifetime, the real value of sport is its practical power to daily improve the lives of millions.

Sport promotes good health. Yet its other assets often are overlooked. Sport advances education, provides jobs, supports economic development, fights intolerance, tackles drug abuse, reduces crime and helps advance peace. It teaches teamwork and leadership, the art of losing gracefully, victory’s ephemeral nature, and the importance of discipline and hard work.

Soccer has been called the world sport and leads the way in innovatively enhancing peoples’ lives. In Guinea, for example, where fewer than 3 in 10 secondary school students are girls, a national girls’ league has been set up to provide a strong incentive to stay in school. More than 50 teams are competing, and the finals will be televised live in October.

In Somalia, often viewed as a failed state, four teenage boys just returned from a two-week training camp in Spain with Real Madrid, one of soccer’s biggest clubs. The boys were selected from hundreds to take part in the camp, developing skills and meeting counterparts from countries at peace.

This week, in Port-au-Prince, the five-time World Champion Brazilian national team, was to play Haiti in a friendly match known as “the game of peace.” The game is played under the sign of reconciliation and re-establishment of national dialogue, an important symbol in a land beset by violence.

It’s not just in football that measurable advances are made. In India, cricket is a national obsession. Leading players taken part in TV commercials and events publicizing a drive by health officials to eradicate polio. In Rwanda, HIV/AIDS prevention and peace education are taught through sport for orphans and other vulnerable children.

The United Nations recognizes that, in harnessing sport’s enormous potential as a development tool, it is essential to partner with governments, private companies, sporting organizations and anyone with the means and will to help. In 2001, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan created the post of special adviser to help build such links. And the United Nations designated 2005 as the International Year of Sport and Physical Education to spread the broader message that sport can be a catalyst for peace and development.

Last year, in the Swiss village of Magglingen, hundreds of delegates from governments, sports organizations, U.N. agencies and elsewhere signed a declaration accepting sport as a human right and the ideal learning ground for life’s most important skills.

The U.N. commitment to those principles took center stage Aug. 14 when many senior officials attended a roundtable discussion with heads of state, government ministers and experts in Athens organized by the aid agency Right to Play.

The Athens meeting confronted two challenges: using sport to teach AIDS prevention and to promote peace and tolerance while bridging social and cultural divides. You may see the latter goal at work during this Olympics: The world’s warring parties have again been asked to observe the Olympic truce, a tradition dating the ancient Hellenic Games of Olympia.

On a recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, I saw young children from both sides played together on soccer and basketball teams. Ali passed to Aron and Rachel dribbled to Fatimah, and no one found that abnormal.

By itself, a sports event will never end war or bring peace. But in its joys and triumphs, pains and defeats, its unexpected characters and stories, it is an almost unrivaled way to take the first step — by showing that in our pursuit of humanity’s betterment, there is more that unites than divides us.

Adolf Ogi is special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on sport for development and peace.

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