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Can sport be meaningful without medals?

Children on a sports field
Copyrights: United Play International

Can sport be meaningful without medals?

How the absence of elite sport highlights the societal benefits of sport.

All those in the field of sport for development know the famous words of Nelson Mandela: “Sport has the power to change the world”. We ourselves believe this to be true and advocate for sport both on a personal and professional level. However, we are also aware that sport for development as a movement does not often receive the recognition it deserves.

There are several reasons as to why this occurs, but we have elected to address one in particular. Which is, the inherent contradiction in the importance placed on sport results. Almost every sport manager, team, coach, and athlete in the world is measured by the sporting results of their competitions and events. While this possesses its own importance, very rarely do we seek to fully measure and understand the impact that sport has in society. The questions we propose are simple: can sport be meaningful without our dependence on results? And how can the temporary absence of elite sport highlight the societal benefits of sport?  

The vast majority of top medal winners in the Olympic Games are first world countries, which emphasises the correlation between sport, and factors such as: quality education, strong economies, developed health care systems, etc. 

Why then, have developing countries chosen to target sport from an elite athlete, top down approach? Maybe the best way to utilise the benefits of sport, is for countries to invest in sport for development at the ground level, thus focusing resources on teaching and developing life skills and values through sport. Which in time, and under the right conditions, would most likely yield the athletic results desired in the first place. This requires a large paradigm shift away from a result driven sport mentality, but for developing countries, shouldn’t importance be placed on societal development, before medal achievement to begin with?

Going forward, we believe that there is one critical change to the field of sport that is absolutely necessary to challenge the longstanding dependence on a result driven sport model. To change this mentality, we believe that an increased investment into the research and impact that sport for development has on a widespread societal level is needed. Now more than ever, we are seeing that it is not reliance on elite sport which keeps people physically fit, but rather the desire to be active and healthy. If we are able to gather and provide more information of the positive effects of sport at the ground level, we may be able to create this cultural shift away from result driven sport, and focus sport resources on enhancing quality of life and societal development.

At United Play, we are committed to providing free and easily accessible resources to sport advocates (teachers, coaches, community activists) working to achieve change at the ground level. In order to help create the culture shift we speak of, we have created an Impact Assessment Tool to help organisations measure the impact of the sport for development workshops they do.

One of the main parts of our Impact Assessment Tool is the the 'Games and Emotions E-scale' developed by Lavega Burgués, P., March Llanes, J., & Filella Guiu, G. (2013).This E-scale is specifically designed to measure the impact that our workshops have on participating youth, and provides a simple emotional analysis of each participant focusing on 13 different emotions (positive or negative), in relation to the activities they have completed. It is a small step forward, but if everyone in the field is able to produce meaningful results from sport initiatives at the ground level, it can help provide the field of sport for development with the much-needed validation it deserves, and show government bodies why it is a worthy investment.

After the current global crisis has passed, it will be important to evaluate the ways things have been previously conducted and adapt to the changes that are happening now. The world is becoming more socially active, and we are able to see how care and compassion for one another can be extended beyond borders; even amidst global shutdowns.

Now more than ever, we have been given an opportunity to highlight the results of our work, and promote sport for development to people who may not have previously been as socially aware. Through online mediums, we can start working together with more organizations, communities, stakeholders, and individuals to bring about the change we wish to see. It is time to bring focus to the hard work we do for the betterment of society, that often goes unnoticed. Hopefully with the absence of elite sport blocking their view, people may be able to see all of what sport for development has to offer.     

Juan Diego Blas is currently the Head of Sport for Social Development in the Guatemalan Olympic Committee and Co-Founder of United Play International with a Masters degree in Sport Organizations Management. Athlete of Basque Pelota and United Nations Youth Leader.

Tyler Collymore is currently the Co-Founder of  United Play International and PowerSoccer Coach and Teacher with a Masters degree in Physical Education and United Nations Youth Leader. 


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Juan Diego Blas, Tyler Collymore


Monday, May 18, 2020 - 16:44