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Looking back and looking forward – 11 years of IDSDP
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The 11th International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP) presents a critical opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future, with many more hills left to climb. 

This commentary is dedicated to Eli Wolff, a true champion who passed away suddenly on 4 April 2023. Eli was organising an event to look back and look forward on the 10th anniversary of IDSDP. Eli was an advocate for inclusion and equity in sport. He helped establish IDSDP in the first place, among many other achievements. He is sorely missed and will always be an inspiration to us and many others. We honour his legacy in the best way we can - continuing to promote and use sport for development and peace, particularly seeking to serve the most vulnerable in society. 

On behalf of the International Platform on Sport and Development (sportanddev), I welcome you to share your thoughts on IDSDP at 11 years, the future of our sector and how we can work together for greater impact.  

Reflecting on the past, present and future 

Given that many crises face people and the planet, it has never been more critical to consider how sport can most significantly contribute to development and peace. Today we can celebrate how far we have come over the two decades since sport for development and peace (SDP) began to emerge on the global radar. And we should celebrate and heed lessons from these experiences.  

But as my countryman and advocate of SDP himself the late Nelson Mandela said: “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, there are many more hills left to climb.” The real work lies ahead, and this is the greatest game of our lives.  

It is not only the 11th IDSDP, it is also 21 years since the first Magglingen conference in Switzerland in 2003, setting the stage for sport to play a greater role in society. At this meeting, the first UN Special Adviser on SDP, Mr Adolf Ogi (Mr Lemke’s predecessor) and others called for a global database of organisations in SDP to ensure greater collaboration and impact. This led to the birth of many milestones and initiatives, including sportanddev which has now grown to become a leading global hub for those using sport to achieve social, economic, and environmental objectives.  

So yes, we have come a long way – and we must recognise the great work done by a wide range of actors using sport to address issues of health, gender equality, youth empowerment, conflict resolution, violence prevention, peace building, social inclusion and more. That is inspiring. 

How can sport better serve society? 

As we look forward, we need to critically consider the ways sport can better serve society.  

We need to ask some hard questions of ourselves, such as:  

  • How can we use sport to address existing inequities which are exacerbated by recent crises? 

  • How can we scale and/or replicate promising results from many SDP programmes?  

  • Does the sport ecosystem need to change? How can we address the inequities within sport? 

  • How can we reshape sport and development to be more inclusive, accessible and impactful? 

The struggle for universal access to sport 

Crucially, we need to better recognise and advocate for access to sport as a fundamental human right. This is enshrined in many conventions and commitments, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely ratified human rights treaty ever – the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport, the Olympic Charter, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, even the Geneva Conventions on the rights of prisoners.  

This has been referred to as a ‘forgotten right’ by the United Nations. There has been progress in both protecting and promoting human rights in and through sport - and this is welcome. Yet still too many people, especially marginalised groups, cannot access their right to sport and physical activity -and remain heavily discriminated against based on characteristics including (but not limited to): 

  1. Gender and sexual orientation 

  1. Race, ethnicity and migratory status 

  1. Disability 

  1. Age, income and socio-economic status 

Furthermore, even if the groups highlighted above are able to access sport, the opportunities they receive and the experiences they have be markedly different to more privileged groups. 

These are just some of the layers of discrimination that prevent equal access to sport. Of course, these issues are intersectional – and access to sport is an intersectional and complex issue. 

How do we move forward? 

There are some potential solutions and ways forward. 

  1. Reset funding priorities 

Firstly, we can change the way sport is funded. For too long, excessive investment has been plunged into elite sport – which by nature is elitist and does not always best serve all of society. Grassroots sport, sport for all, school sport and SDP initiatives remain grossly underfunded. 

If we are serious about leaving no-one behind and ensuring that everyone can access their right to sport, then we need to increase investment in sport for all and related initiatives. Sport and physical education need to be prioritised within school systems. Public investment should focus on these areas rather than the staging of mega-events or investments in elite sport, especially in developing countries where it has been shown that elite sport events only exacerbate existing inequities. 

This will not be easy and requires challenging vested interests. 

  1. Prioritise sport for all 

It also requires many of us to change the way we view and celebrate sport. For too long, we have tended to celebrate sport when the sport is serious (i.e. elite, competitive, organised). Children are pushed into performing at a young age, resulting in many stopping sport altogether – with long-term impact on their health and well-being. Instead, can we take grassroots sport more seriously? Can we focus more on participation rather than performance, inclusion more than exclusion, and so on? 

We also need increased investment in/for girls and women, LGBTQ+ people, refugees and migrants, ethnic minorities, people of lower socio-economic status and those with disabilities. 

This is not just about participation. It cannot be token gestures. It also requires changes in leadership and administration. The mantra of ‘nothing about us without us’ needs to be firmly adhered to. 

  1. Recognise the limitations and potential risks of sport 

If we want to maximise the contribution of sport to society, we need to recognise that sport is not automatically positive. It may even cause harm. We need to let go of the ‘Great Sport Myth’ that assumes sport is a panacea.  

Instead, we need to ensure that sport policies and programmes are carefully and intentionally designed (with the very people they are intended to benefit as central stakeholders) to enable positive outcomes. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. 

I would urge us to be less evangelical about sport and development, more evidence-informed, more targeted, balanced and realistic about the ways in which sport CAN (not automatically does) contribute to development and peace. We need to be critical because we can do better.  

Extra time 

Two final points. Firstly, we need to recognise that existing crises and conflicts have profoundly affected the state of play. While many SDP organisations are doing fantastic work in the relief, response and recovery efforts, sport may once again be relegated to a secondary need/concern. Further, funding is more limited than ever, raising the prospect of inequities increasing within SDP and the broader sport sector, and reversing previous gains. However, this also presents an opportunity to reimagine sport and development and reshape our movement

Finally, we also need to increase access to learning, information and capacity building tools and resources to SDP initiatives. In this regard, sportanddev, in partnership with the Commonwealth and Australian government, have launched our massive open online course (MOOC): Sport for Sustainable Development: Designing Effective Policies and Programmes in four United Nations languages. Over 7,000 learners are already engaged from over 191 countries and counting. We also launched the sportanddev website in these same languages to ensure greater access and equity. 

These are just some of the ways to ensure universal and equal access to sport. This is not exhaustive. These actions are necessary but not sufficient and need to be accompanied by other approaches. 

But it is not only time to reimagine the role of sport in society. If we are truly serious about creating equal access and ensuring sport plays a pivotal role in creating a better world, it is time for us to reshape, reform and I would add ultimately revolutionise, the role of sport in society.  

The time is now – and it will require a team effort.  

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PHOTO:©UNICEF/UN0156174/Martinez

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