As sports policy director for League of Fans, a primary objective is to work toward mitigating the ills in sport. However, at the same time, my intent is to help enhance the positives of sport as well. I admittedly spend more time on the former goal than I do the latter. I think that’s a natural part of being a sports issues analyst in general, and of this job in particular. League of Fans is a sports reform project. We want to make sport better because we believe it has the potential to be a powerful socio-cultural force for good — if the win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) ethos can be stripped away. That said, perhaps we should focus a little more on the positives in sport today, and a little less on the ugliness we too often see in SportsWorld. At the very least, we need to be diligent about bringing attention to the positives when we find them.

To that end, I think it’s important to note a fine piece of journalism turned in by Alexander Wolff in the current (9/26/11) issue of Sports Illustrated. The article, “Sports Saves the World,” looks at grassroots sports programs around the world that are addressing pressing social problems and making a positive impact. The piece also highlights some of our great sports humanitarians. Using sport for good is part of a growing global movement called Sport for Development and Peace (SDP). According to former Olympic champion Johann Olav Koss, the SDP effort is about nothing less than trying to save the world. A bit grandiose to be sure, but as the article points out, sport is doing a lot of good in all corners of the globe — from using soccer to educate Africans about HIV to using basketball to build bridges among young people in divided communities in the Middle East.

Koss has been the face of the SDP movement since donating his Olympic bonus money to Olympic Aid after winning three gold medals and setting three world records at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. He has become a humanitarian hero, not just a sports hero. In fact, Koss has helped Right to Play — the organization that succeeded Olympic Aid — reach 700,000 children in 20 countries during any given week. Koss’ instinct has long been that sport “is more than a diversion.” The fact Koss had the courage to trust and follow his instinct has made a positive difference in the lives of a lot of young people.

For example, relief workers at civil war refugee camps in Sierra Leone described the Right to Play sports programs they helped manage as “the engines of life.” According to Wolff, the Right to Play programs brought “purpose and structure to daily life in the refugee camps, among boys who’d served as child soldiers and girls who’d been subject to violence and exploitation.”

“The boys had a physical outlet for their aggression,” says Koss. “The girls developed respect for their bodies.”

Perhaps the most well-known example of using sport for good is the story of how Nelson Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to rally citizens of all races around the national team, the Springboks, helping to unite his country in the process. The story was dramatically told in the popular film Invictus.

Mandela once said, “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down barriers. Sport has the power to change the world.”

Wolff effectively ends the article with a quote from Dikembe Mutombo that speaks to the heart of what the SDP movement is all about. Mutombo, a former NBA star who became a bigger star on the humanitarian front due to his tremendous work in his native Africa — including building a hospital in his hometown of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo — told the attendees at a Beyond Sport Summit quoting a proverb of his people, “When you take the elevator to the top, please remember to send it back down so someone else might use it.”

For those of us who have been blessed in many ways, including by sport, I cannot think of a better description of what the SDP movement is all about.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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