How Sports Can Break Down Barriers of Exclusion

"There's no such thing as individual success, there's only shared achievement." Those aren't words you would expect to hear from someone who has won nine gold medals, five silver and one bronze as a competitive swimmer. But Lord Christopher Holmes isn't quite what you'd expect. He's blind, and his medals were won as a Paralympian. His example helps redefine what a real sports hero looks like.

I had the privilege of joining Lord Holmes on a panel at the 2015 Doha GOALS Forum, which was held in conjunction with the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles. We were gathered to discuss the question, "Can sports lead in creating a more tolerant society?"

Through my work on how to combat social isolation, and my strong support of Special Olympics, I've long been convinced that sports is a key tool for breaking down the barriers of exclusion. To succeed, however, we need to agree on what the opposite of exclusion means. "A more tolerant society" is not enough: If shared achievement is our goal, we must do more than let people be; we have to let people in.

True inclusion embraces difference without imposing judgment. And sports is a pathway that gives everyone a chance to contribute and support one another.

Exclusion often stems from people being perceived as "less-than": too poor, too disabled, too uneducated, or otherwise too different to amount to anything. In the words of my co-panelist and fellow Canadian, Paralympian Rick Hansen, "Our preoccupation on the loss, the 'lack of,' versus the ability and the potential, is one of the greatest isolating forces on the planet."

But, by the same token, if we can flip the narrative, and shine the spotlight on stories of achievement, we can shift from what Hansen called "a preoccupation on loss" to the "inspiration of possibilities." Perceptions can change, not only how others perceive us, but how we perceive ourselves. That is where respect -- and self-respect -- can take root, and connectedness can flourish.

Hansen's own story is a great example. Paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 15, he worked through a lengthy rehabilitation to become an internationally recognized wheelchair athlete and the first person with a disability to earn a degree in Physical Education from his university. In 1985, he embarked on his two-year, 40,000 kilometer, 34-country "Man in Motion World Tour," changing people's perceptions about what "ability" looks like and means. Today, he is one of the best-known advocates for people with disabilities, calling on the media, corporate, and academic communities to do their part in raising awareness, promoting accessibility, and measuring success.

Another panelist, Dallas Oberholzer, shared the transformative experience of simply giving young people a chance to express themselves through sports and play. Oberholzer is a South African skateboarder whose Indigo Youth Movement works with disadvantaged youth in the Zulu community and greater Cape Town neighborhoods. Learning to skateboard is not only exciting and empowering for village children, but it can strengthen their communities too. Oberholzer described the pride of a Zulu village that came together to build a skate-park facility -- one that could attract other people, connect them to society more broadly, and make them all feel part of the "skateboarding family."

Just as sports can create and reinforce a sense of belonging and purpose, so too it can be a pathway for recognition among peoples, and for breaking down the walls of preconception that prevent us from truly seeing one another.

Lord Holmes, who now serves in the UK Parliament, recalled a wonderful image from the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games in Vancouver. A woman had sent in a picture of the children in her neighborhood, playing in the street. Apparently, after the Winter Olympics, all the kids had been playing ice hockey, but now, having been inspired by what they'd seen in the Paralympics, they were trying to mimic sledge hockey on their skateboards. What does that tell us about who is "able" and "dis-abled"? Skill takes many forms, and the more we recognize one another's gifts, the richer society becomes.

Finally, sports is a natural vehicle for fostering reciprocity -- a mutual exchange that recognizes the equality of both parties, and that underscores the value of shared interest.

Special Olympics is one of the best examples of this I know. Through Unified Sports, Special Olympics brings people of all abilities together to play as teammates, learn more about each other, build friendships, and have fun.

Already, half a million people worldwide are playing on unified teams. While I was in Los Angeles, I addressed 120 international youth leaders from the Generation Unified movement -- young people, some with intellectual disabilities and some without -- who are joining together to raise awareness and promote inclusion in all the places they call home.

A unified team can become a unified school, a unified community, and a unified world. To end where I began, with the words of Lord Holmes, we must "Connect, collaborate, champion whatever [we're] trying to achieve, and make it a reality."