Re-gluing sport for development and peace, sport for all and high-performance sport back together in the era of COVID-19 and the SDGs
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the sustainable development goals
Is it finally time for all sport stakeholders to reconceptualise ‘sport’ as not fractured, but consisting of several forms, along a single united continuum?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were eight international development goals to achieve by the year 2015 and established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations (UN) in 2000. The aim of the MDGs was clear – to unravel some of the most fundamental development issues facing society, including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, and combating HIV/AIDS (United Nations, 2015a). Initially, sport did not form a major part of the discussions when conceptualising the MDGs. While the UN was supportive of the role of sport in development, they admitted, “sport does not have the capacity to tackle solely the MDGs” (United Nations, 2010).

Several events helped sport to gain traction in the development world. Most noteworthy of these was the establishment of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) in 2001. Its mandate was to coordinate the efforts of promoting sport to facilitate development and peace (United Nations, 2010). In the post-MDG era, global development efforts continued through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 global goals set by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

The SDGs signalled a more holistic approach to development, covering issues as varied as economic development, sustainability, reduced inequalities and peace and justice, alongside more traditional goals such as reduced poverty (United Nations, 2015b). Due to the wide-ranging outcomes that sport can contribute, it was termed an ‘enabler’ of the SDGs, and the holistic approach better positioned sport to contribute to the goals (Eime, Young, Harvey, Charity, & Payne, 2013; Schulenkorf, Sherry, & Rowe, 2016).

Sport for development and peace (SDP) is the intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to contribute to specific development objectives in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), and disadvantaged communities in high-income settings (Richards et al., 2013). This definition separates SDP from high-performance sport, with the latter encapsulating any athlete or team that competes at a regional, national or international level (Sotiriadou & De Bosscher, 2018). While effective SDP policy, strategy and delivery is centred on development goals, many actors in the broader development sector remain cautious that SDP is geared as much to the promotion of high-performance sport as it is to contributing to development goals (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2014).

The distinction between the two helped address the issue of limited resources in SDP, which suffered from the perception among some development actors that the sport sector had access to substantial corporate resources and revenue from high-performance major events (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2014). In this sense, SDP is part of, but distinguishable from, high-performance sport (Kidd, 2008). However, these distinctions between high-performance sport and SDP are often blurred in rhetoric and practice. While programming employs the language of development, the bulk of the SDP funding continues to be invested in high-performance sport (Kidd, 2008). In short, SDP is about contributing to the SDGs, while high-performance sport is the promotion of athletes and representatives, with the two often in direct competition for the same funding.

Adding to the complexity of the separation of these two concepts is ‘sport for all’. ‘Sport for all’ has been used in recent times to refer to “a comprehensive sport system implemented that includes the adaption of sports to provide a range of activities to match the interests of men and women, girls and boys of all ages” (Barker, Saffery, Saipe, Sutton, & Miles, 2004; GAPA, 2012; Trost, Blair, & Khan, 2014). In short, ‘sport for all’ is mass participation in sport for positive societal outcomes by everyday citizens.

In the era of the SDGs, have we got this all wrong? By defining SDP as distinct from high-performance sport, and ‘sport for all’ as something different again, have we diluted the ability of sport as one entity to contribute to the SDGs? Further to this, the sport sector itself shows signs of confusion relating to what actually constitutes SDP, ‘sport for all’ and/or high-performance sport. SDP programming led by sporting federations has often inadvertently masqueraded ‘sport for all’ as SDP but focussed on sport-outcomes rather than development outcomes.

If these organisations involved in ‘sport for all’ programming had focussed on development outcomes, with sport outcomes as secondary, they may be more respected as international development stakeholders. Further to this, by branding sport’s contribution to more readily associated areas of development (e.g. social inclusion, health, equality) as SDP, have we alienated enormous parts of sport (i.e. high-performance sport and ‘sport for all’), which also contribute to the SDGs, albeit likely to different goals (Lindsey & Chapman, 2017; Lindsey & Darby, 2018)?

For example, SDG 8 prioritises ‘decent work for all’, an aspiration for which there has been a lack of progress since the MDGs (Lindsey & Chapman, 2017). In fact, globally, the proportion of the working-age population who are employed has fallen, with this figure negatively exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 pandemic (Lindsey & Chapman, 2017). Now consider, for example, the systematic funding of a high-performance sport system in an LMIC, which would likely employ local staff, contributing to SDG 8. However, under previous definitions of what constitutes ‘sport for development and peace’, this likely would not be defined as such, and its contribution to the SDGs not recognised.

In another example, consider that two rugby union players from the Pacific island nation of Tonga are signed by a Japanese club. The players move to Japan, live for several years and earn an annual income. In 2016, Tonga’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was just USD $3,689, consisting of 30 percent remittances (MPI, 2011), that is, money sent home from Tongans (like our rugby players) living abroad. With this money, a player’s family can purchase food, invest in farming practices, and pay school fees. However, again, it is unlikely that this contribution of sport to human development would be either seen or respected among the international development community.

As far back as 2002, the International Olympic Committee’s 9th World Sport for All Congress was titled, “Sport for all and elite sport: rivals or partners?” (International Olympic Committee, 2002). One of 10 actionable items from the congress was “to consider sport for all and elite sport as a single entity, since both can benefit from each other” (International Olympic Committee, 2002). Yet, according to the literature (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2014; Kidd, 2008; Sanders, 2016), this is yet to happen. Is it finally time in the era of the SDGs and COVID-19 for all sport stakeholders to reconceptualise ‘sport’ as not fractured, but consisting of several forms, along a single united continuum?

By uniting the various ‘factions’ of the sporting landscape, and showcasing the full range of contributions that sport makes to the SDGs, can we overcome the common issues of competition for funding (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2014), the perception that sport has access to large corporate/event funding (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2014), concerns that elite sport diverts funds away from development (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2014), causing the marginalisation of sport in development priorities (Banda, 2017)?

The impact of COVID-19 is likely to transform the funding landscape of sport from grassroots to elite. The inevitable requirement to re-map priorities and funding streams could be the ideal opportunity to integrate, rather than leave separated, these different ‘factions’. Is COVID-19 the trigger we have been waiting for to ‘re-glue’ the concept of sport back together, as a cultural phenomenon that as one can contribute strongly to a full range of the SDGs?

Dr Lewis Keane is a sport for development and peace ‘pracademic’ and policy maker from Australia. He is currently the Policy and Research Focal Point in the Commonwealth Youth Sport for Development and Peace (CYSDP) network.


Research Officer / PhD Candidate


All Sports
Sustainable Development Goals
8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
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