The Other Side of Sport

We see it every day.

Championships. Contracts. Controversy.

Sport serves as one of the world's strongest headlines, capturing the world's attention. It often dominates the narrative on the key question we ask ourselves in the face of high-end player swaps, federation corruption scandals, and mega events: What is sport in the end?

Beyond the headlines and offline chatter, in some of the toughest-to-reach corners of the world, sport and the right to play has continuously proven to be two of the most effective tools to achieve what the United Nations, national governments, and the global community has committed to do under the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals: break down barriers to full equity and inclusion. And no one has benefitted from these simple yet profound tools more than one of the most marginalized, isolated and discriminated against population segments in the world today: individuals with disabilities, especially children and youth.

This week the global community asks us to consider a different, deeper narrative around sport. The world asks us to consider a storyline that has far less financial contracts, and more human compacts. The United Nations asks us to position sport not as a marketing right, but as a human right. Perhaps more than anything, the most marginalized groups across the world rely on this week to consistently reiterate that sport is so much more than kicking a ball, running a race, or scoring a basket.

Special Olympics, together with key partners like UNICEF, take the play of sport very seriously. For children and youth with disabilities, it is the electrical current that has the power to shed light on what is otherwise a life shadowed in darkness. It is, for many Special Olympics athletes, the single opportunity to shed their labels and simply serve as a teammate, a position, an accepted part of the whole. It is this electricity of sorts that has brought nearly 5,000,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities to the field, to the court, and to the sports complex. It is this current that has inspired over 1,000,000 youth and adults without disabilities to play unified sports--no labels, no preconceived notions--just play.

Sports is a classroom of skill development. Where a teacher works the classroom, so too does a coach and referee work the pitch. Just as rules govern mathematics and social sciences, so too does they govern football strategies, basketball line-ups, and cricket teams.

Sports is also a key convener to bring communities together under apolitical, non-religious and non controversial ways. In a world riddled with division and exclusion, sports offers a ready-made solution to forge true inclusion and unity.

Sports is also an effective, community- based platform to disseminate key messages on the importance of health, reconciliation, and public awareness. Through innovative approaches to sport such as the UNICEF Safeguards for Children in Sport, the United Nations lead agency for children effectively uses the power of sport to ensure full social protection through participation. It is a positive deviation from the core messages that the world receives from the dominant sports industry.

This is the other side of sport.

On the surface, the global sports industry is not designed to promote itself as a social protection measure, an access point for primary health care, an introduction to an education system. UNICEF and Special Olympics understand this well--and they leverage it to benefit some of the world's most at-risk children.

But most of all, sport is the universal forum of expression. Whether a single sport or a team sport, and whatever the level of play, sports empowers us all to give it our best. At its core, sport focuses not on winning or losing, but most of all, on effort.

Kester Edwards, a former Special Olympics Trinidad and Tobago star swimmer, summed up the power of sport during a recent interview in Washington, DC:

"In sport, I found a place where I could belong. That's really what I needed more than anything when I was a child with an intellectual disability- a place where I could belong. When I swam, I belonged."

While Kester is quite unique, his story is one that we hear more and more: Sport offers a chance to develop physically, but also socially, emotionally, spiritually.

"If it was not for sport, I am not sure what would have come of me. There was so little available to me back then given my condition. I think back once in a while, and realize that if it was not for sport--my life had the chance to take so many different turns for the worst," Edwards said. "Crime, delinquency, and so on. They were all distinct possibilities. Sport kept me straight. It kept me focused when all I could see were distractions. It saved me, really."

In the face of entrenched stigma and prejudice, children and youth with and without disabilities alike are bravely challenging the status quo by joining forces on and off the pitch--unified in their commitment to rewrite society's perceptions, and using sport as the means to change the channel. How fortunate we are as a global community that we can rely on the determination, courage and focus of today's youth to get right what has been wrong for far too long.

This week, as we celebrate International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, look for ways to support local sports programs in your community, especially for marginalized youth. Promote the right to play for all children, of all abilities, so that everyone can share in its benefits. Be a Special Olympics Unified Sports teammate, donate to a local league that gives children a chance to shine- celebrate and promote the myriad of ways that sport is contributing to human development, social development, and peace in our world.

And as we celebrate, it is important to keep Kester's storyline as a strong example of the transformative, and saving, power of sport. Equally important is to ensure that the global community empowers athletes, of all ability levels, to achieve their best--independent of marketing rights and contract bonuses.

By providing children with disabilities a place on the field, we are using sport metaphorically to ensure a place in life's arena as well--where they rightfully belong.