Grant Jarvie: A sporting chance to resolve key conflicts

Relations between the US and Russia have improved since the Cold War, helped perhaps by sporting occasions such as this friendly in 2000. Picture: Reuters
Relations between the US and Russia have improved since the Cold War, helped perhaps by sporting occasions such as this friendly in 2000. Picture: Reuters
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Utilised properly, sport can help to reduce dependency on international development, writes Grant Jarvie

As A form of soft power the contribution that sport and physical education can make to developing resilience and promoting reconciliation has often been overlooked. There are lessons here for Scottish Government, universities and Non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In January 2013, a UN special adviser visited Syrian refugee camps in Zaatari and sports clubs in Northern Jordan to raise awareness about the severity of the Syrian refugee crisis and the role of sport in rehabilitation and building resilience amongst refugee communities.

The use of sport and physical education as soft power, or a war without weapons, is not new. It is more than 50 years since academics Chataway and Goodhart attempted to chart the place of international sport in society. In their book A War without Weapons they described the place of sport in the Cold War, in South Africa, in the American Civil Rights struggle and in brokering diplomatic relations between the USA and China.

At its worst, sport can divide and heighten national tensions. It has failed politically in the fight against racism. Europol figures provided by police investigators in the Hague suggest that gambling and corruption in sport could be a growing problem. This was recognised by IOC president Jacques Rogge, who was quoted in the New York Times as fearing for the effect that illegal betting might have “on a sports industry now reckoned to turn over $140 billion a year”.

And yet at its best sport can reduce tensions and promote reconstruction. Sport and physical education programmes have been used to promote peace-making work in the Balkans, the Middle East, West Africa, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Students of sport and physical education in Scottish universities should set the skills and competencies they acquire within a broad understanding of the social and international value of their work. Sport and physical education can be valuable soft diplomatic tools and they should understand their role in working not only with health and educational agendas but also international agendas.

The historical ideals of sport and physical education being cathartic wars without weapons have been thoroughly modernised. Orwell’s famous statement that “sport is war minus the shooting” has been replaced by a more realist body of evidence which recognises that sport and physical education can play key roles in a holistic package of resources at the disposal of foreign ministries, diplomats or local communities.

One powerful example of this is the film documentary of The boxing girls of Kabul released by the Film Board of Canada. It tells the story of three girls who take up professional boxing, fight their way on to the international stage and in so doing challenge Taleban beliefs about sport and women.

We need to grasp the potential of sport and physical education. Yet the contribution of sport and physical education programmes to improving life chances needs to be more than a just cause or a UN resolution. This requires harnessing a strong political action plan that is built from within local communities and is realistic about what sport and physical education can and cannot deliver.

Students as well as diplomats need to know how to develop legitimacy from the ground up. Sport and physical education as a language crosses borders, but students, diplomats and teachers need to know much more than the fact that sport and physical education can help people talk to one another.

To be fair, this is something that UN secretary-generals have recognised. Sport and physical activity is an acknowledged human right. Between 2003-11, the UN General Assembly passed 23 resolutions advocating a greater role for sport within international peacekeeping efforts.

The Peace beyond Borders organisation utilised sport as a tool to assist the brokerage of peace and conflict resolution in the borderlands around Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda. Didier Drogba (Drogba Diplomacy) used his fame as an international footballer to talk about conflict involving the Ivory Coast. Football 4 peace international is a sports based project for Jewish and Arab children in northern Galilee that uses football as a basis for conflict resolution training.

The UN exists for not just its member states but also the needs of individuals and communities; a point emphasised by former secretary-general Kofi Annan. Sport and physical education interventions should serve not only states, but also individuals and communities.

The modern soft power of contemporary sport and physical education rejects the imperialist values associated with muscular Christianity. The historical practice of Scottish churches and missionaries use of athleticism, captured in part by David Putnam in the film Chariots of Fire is not the answer. Sport and physical education has a role to play in building resilience and reconstruction, but the object of sport and physical education should be to reduce dependency on international development as a form of humanitarian aid.

The ultimate goal of aid should be to make itself redundant, having helped local communities create tools and resources they need to be their own architects of change and development.

Sport is not a universal solution, but one that needs to be crafted through the use of targeted interventions, in specific places and at specific times.

• Professor Grant Jarvie is with the University of Edinburgh School of Education and Academy of Government.