The Olympics: The Power of Play in Action

As I watched the Olympics come to an end, I was inspired by the crowds that gathered, both in Rio and in individual communities around the globe. People of every age, gender, culture and creed collected to wave their flags. They cheered together, celebrated together, sometimes cursed or cried together.

The Olympics have given our global community a spectacular platform to revel in each other's triumphs, admire strength in defeat and unite in common passions at a time when it's sorely needed, reminding us that sports are more than just fun and games - they are a part of our local, national and global identity. As an avid sports fan, I've witnessed first-hand the ability of sports to inspire pride and unite people within communities, across countries and even on a global scale.

Today, we live in an era where divisions often feel highly pronounced. Current news headlines shed light on political sparring, racial unrest and growing tensions. In our own cities and towns, community engagement and volunteerism is dwindling, an issue I've personally spoken up about. In a climate where it's easy to feel separated from one another, sports - rooted in the values of teamwork, collaboration and mutual respect - can remind us how interconnected we truly are.

For me, it was running track in school that taught me the value of being a team player. I loved the individual races but relays were my favorite; passing the baton was a powerful gesture that symbolized a commitment to working together toward a common goal. But whether a high school track in America, a cricket field in India, a tennis court in Australia, or an Olympic pool in Brazil, these places all provide a common ground to unite and inspire people of all origins.

A Vehicle for Change
Sports have historically served as a vehicle for change, driving awareness and sparking global conversation. Eighty years ago, 13 athletes of Jewish descent and 10 African Americans went on to win medals in the 1936 Olympic Games, in the heart of Nazi Germany(1). In Brooklyn in 1947, Jackie Robinson blurred color lines with his Major League Baseball debut in the World Series; in Texas in 1973, women's tennis star Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the notorious "Battle of the Sexes" match, often credited for sparking a boom in women's sports. And today in Rio, the Refugee Olympic team is bringing global awareness to a crisis affecting 19 million displaced people around the world. By providing an avenue for oppressed groups to positively express and represent themselves, sports have helped bridge deeply entrenched cultural divides, redefining both the American identity and the makeup of our global community.

A Pillar of Community Engagement

The importance of sports is not only evident at the Olympics, but in local communities across the country where sports encourage community building and enrich character, skill development and social bonds. Through participation in sports, young people are given "fertile ground for adolescent self-esteem development," and being part of a team allows them to "engage with adults and peers to achieve collective goals.(2)." Furthermore, studies have shown that youth who play sports have greater attachment to their communities, and are more likely to exhibit social skills that contribute to healthy communities.2 One need not be an Olympian or living legend to have a positive influence - we can all help advance the character building principles of respect, cooperation and collaboration in our own arenas.

Sports cannot solve the problems stemming from fundamental issues of intolerance, inequality or lack of engagement in our local communities, nation and world. However, they can provide a common currency and universal language that speaks to people, irrespective of age, race, gender, religion or political affiliation. Within the confines of the game, the differences among us hold no bearing. Olympic athletes work together for the good of the team. And for the onlookers cheering from the sidelines, sports offer an unparalleled sense of camaraderie, pride and belonging.

And while we are not all Olympic athletes, the same benefits ring true across other acts of playing. For me, it was track - but individuals can also express their creativity, learn persistence and problem solving, and build relationships through other channels such as art, music or simply playing outside. This is why through initiatives like Places to Play, U.S. Bank has donated over $4 million in grants to encourage play of all kinds, and provide communities with access to safe recreational spaces.

For others like me who tuned into the Olympics this month - or maybe just attended a concert of your favorite band, or a child's ballet recital - know that you are not just spectators. You are participants in a powerful cultural phenomenon; part of a global community that has historically transcended the boundaries that divide us, and helped open the doors for change. Today, I've never been more proud to be a sports fan, or more excited about the possibilities that play brings.