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What happens when sport goes wrong?

A group of girls playing a traditional sporting game in Lesotho
Copyrights: Ekain Zubizarreta

What happens when sport goes wrong?

Ekain Zubizarreta on the importance of choosing the right sporting activity when implementing sport for development programmes.

Everybody knows that sport is not a living being, that it is just a tool at our service that we can employ to try to achieve our goals. However, I have rarely read papers describing meticulously these trials, focusing instead on the processes themselves. We try and sometimes we succeed completely, sometimes only partially, sometimes we do not. But the reason behind these different outcomes are not some negative qualities that would be inherent to sport. Sport is just an abstract concept that we have invented to refer to a set of activities that we, humans, have invented, and can be used for different purposes. The key is to make a proper use of this tool: of sports.

Let’s focus on them: on which particular sports we use in each of the projects (I will use “activities” in order to refer more generally to sport and physical activities). It is not common to come across papers or reports that describe the activities that were used and how they were used. Detailed descriptions of the activities used in different phases or sessions are rare.

Just to make it clear, it must be said that I have found really interesting and relevant papers, but most focus only on the managerial aspects of these projects. The sportanddev website also illustrates this fact. The toolkit section focuses mainly on offering evaluation procedures, or other toolkits useful for the elaboration and development of sport programmes, but only from a managerial point of view.

The same thing happens in academia. As an academic focusing on sport, I have been in contact with three university programmes (as a researcher in “Mediation through sport” programme in Paris Nanterre University; as an invited PhD student in the ICESSD in the University of Western Cape; as an external consultant in the elaboration of the study programme “Social studies of community level sport” at UNAD university in Bogotá). All these projects focus primarily, and almost exclusively, on management (only the French university offers some contents about the activities themselves).

This managerial part is of course necessary and vital for the success of the programmes, but we need to keep in mind that plans need to be implemented in the field, and this means having to deal with unexpected situations and challenges, to direct a group of practitioners and the participants, etc. As political scientists Wildavsky and Pressman argued in 1973, implementation is never a straightforward process of application of the planned actions and achieving the objectives defined beforehand can be more complicated than expected. However, in the sport for development field, implementation tends to figure as a secondary element and is rarely taken seriously into consideration by project managers.

The exact same thing happens on the field, as several practitioners seem to neglect the importance of the activities that they use in their programmes. As a practitioner, I have collaborated with the organisations Oasis (Cape Town, South Africa) and Hands of Life (Mafeteng, Lesotho), visited other similar associations and exchanged with several practitioners. I could observe that many of them have a professional career in competitive sports and extensive knowledge about their discipline but mostly related to performance. To my surprise, many lacked knowledge about other disciplines and especially about other activities such as traditional games, cooperative games or adapted variations of sports.

In general, both for practitioners and stakeholders, theories based on the characteristics of physical activities and sports, like the one developed by Parlebas (called praxeology), are unknown. This can result in using activities with “core” characteristics, which can be inappropriate for the purpose sought, to a greater or lesser degree. Many examples could illustrate this inadequacy between the objectives of the programme and the activities used: a programme aiming to foster cohesion among excluded adolescents in Canada by running marathons (even if it is possible to run in groups, it is an individual activity with few interaction among participants compared to other activities); a football league created to bring ex-guerrilla members and local farmers closer in Colombia by playing against each other (the rivalry will hardly be diminished unless the activity itself or the organisation of the league does not change); a street football organisation aiming at the inclusion of people with disabilities in France (competition is a key characteristic of modern sports like football; although it can be partly controlled, other activities with more inclusive characteristics exist and could be used instead).

When hyper-competitiveness, aggression, violence, cheating or any other undesirable phenomena is observed, instead of giving up or blaming someone else, we should question our methods and ask ourselves whether we are not trying to construct a building as complex as a cathedral using only a hammer, 9-inch nails and a saw as tools.

Ekain Zubizarreta Zuzuarregi is a PhD candidate at Paris Nanterre University, and co-creator and practitioner of a sports for re-inclusion programme in the Juvenile Prison of Ibaiondo (Zumárraga, Spain).


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Thursday, March 5, 2020 - 11:22