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Repurposing sport for community in Belize

Two images showing sports facilities being used for different purposes
Copyrights: Benjamin Lee (Photo)

Repurposing sport for community in Belize

Perhaps the future of sport will be focused more on utilising its resources, both tangible and intangible, to better communities by addressing current needs.

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, organisations across the world have been forced to pivot and redefine their missions with a new focus on addressing different physical, social, and economic needs of people within their communities. Sport organisations are not immune to this new reality. In fact, in some ways, they are the entities that are most affected with little to no clarity on when or how sports will be able to resume.

Major sporting events and leagues like the Olympic Games, National Basketball Association, and English Premier League have been cancelled or postponed. Spring sport seasons in both schools and youth leagues have ended abruptly. Adapting to this “new normal,” sports fans and players alike have shifted their workouts to their homes, backyards, and sidewalks.

But just like sport has already survived past worldwide conflict, social problems, and even other global health crises, there is hope that it can survive this “new normal” too. The question that remains though, is how, and in what way can sport continue to fulfil its social purpose during this pandemic? How can it uphold its role in society as an important entity that connects us when every aspect of our world is now focused on distancing ourselves from one another? No matter the situation, context, or location, sport always holds the potential to build community. One way this can be accomplished is by utilising existing facilities or resources to address community needs. Even during a global pandemic, sport organisations can make use of what they already have at their disposal to impact their community, albeit in different manifestations.

This is seen in how sport is being used to respond to the pandemic in the close knit, Caribbean country of Belize. In mid-March of 2020, youth sport coaches from across Belize gathered in the country’s largest city to participate in the BAE (Belizean’s Advocating for Equity) Sports Summit 2020. Hosted by The Belize National Sports Council (NSC), Belize’s Department of Youth Services, and Northern Illinois University from the U.S., the summit focused on inspiring an open dialogue that prompted individuals and communities to take action to empower women and girls through sport.

Some of the summit sessions were held in the outdoor lobby of the Marion Jones Sports Complex, a government-funded, state of the art, multi-purpose facility built for the use of the local community. The outdoor lobby sessions were discussion-based, with sport coordinators sitting on the ground in circles, sharing their personal struggles, successes, opinions, and viewpoints on gender equity in Belize. The BAE Sports Summit generated strong momentum at both the governmental and grassroots levels, as over twenty attendees formed a sub-committee centered around drafting a more inclusive, development-focused, sports policy to present in the future. Numerous coaches also left the summit with drafted action plans to initiate programs in their respective communities to increase girls’ participation on their school teams.

But now with the recent Coronavirus pandemic, the country has declared a State of Emergency, and the sport organisations spearheading the action plans from the summit have had to alter their initial gameplan to focus on addressing more pressing needs of its country’s citizens. Despite relatively small numbers of COVID-19 cases (18 according to the Ministry of Health), large sporting leagues like the National Elite Basketball League and annual events that draw competitors and fans from all over the Caribbean region, like the Holy Saturday Cross Country Cycling Classic, have had to be cancelled. Belize’s economy has been virtually decimated as a result of missing out on the tourist season due to their borders being closed. Consequently, many families are now in extreme poverty, and paying for necessities like food and water have become a greater challenge for many.  

However, just as was discussed at the summit, the impact of sport surpasses the court, pitch, or racetrack and can foster positive change that directly responds to community needs. Recently, that looked like the very same outdoor lobby at the Marion Jones Sports Complex - that was used just weeks before for the women’s sports summit - being used for a food pantry site spearheaded by the Belizean Ministry of Youth, Education, and Sports. Sport coordinators at the NSC, who would normally be packing bags with balls, cones, and water pouches for youth events were now packing bags with flour, sugar, and water for community members who were out of a job and in dire need. The same sport organisation was bettering the same community, at the same facility, but they were now addressing a different and more dire societal need: health, safety, and livelihood.

Regardless of circumstance, sport programs can always use their resources to better society. The Belize NSC's involvement in the BAE Sports Summit and food pantry project is just one example of this. Perhaps the future of sport will be focused more on utilising its resources, both tangible and intangible, to better communities by addressing current needs.  Instead of serving itself or those directly involved in it, the focus of sport could shift to broadening the impact of its resources to all members of a community. While the resources at sport’s disposal as well as a community’s needs may change, the chief role of sport will always be constant: to build stronger, thriving communities.

Ben Lee is an assistant basketball coach at Schaumburg Christian School and a first year doctoral physiotherapy student at Northern Illinois University (NIU). He has been to Belize twice to run a coach’s training program and a women’s sports summit with NIU and the National Sports Council.

Dr. Jenn Jacobs is an assistant professor of sport psychology at Northern Illinois University and has been involved in a variety of sport for development programs at schools, juvenile detention centers, and summer camps. Her work in Belize spans a six-year partnership advocating for the use of sport as a youth development tool.

Kaya Cattouse is a deputy sports coordinator at the National Sports Council in Belize. She is also a professional cyclist and advocate for gender equity through sport in her country.


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Ben Lee, Dr. Jenn Jacobs, Kaya Cattouse


Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 15:00