Reflecting on empowering disadvantaged communities within sport events
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Two months after global lockdown, sport organisations and sport for development actors reflect: is this time for profound change in sport?

This year global sport events such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games as well as the  European championships have been postponed until 2021, while competitions in developing countries, much to their consternation, might never happen: Copa America and the African Nations Championships. But, what about those communities having their livelihoods tied to these large-scale sport events: impacting their capacity to work; participating in community activities; and providing for their families. These international sporting events underline the contradictions that exist within sport: bringing wealth to the elite and neglecting the poor. Might we tailor sport events that would bridge the gap in the future?

In 2013, Japan won their bid to host Tokyo the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and created the sport for development programme called “sport for tomorrow”, building around three pillars: international cooperation and exchange through sport; international sport academy; play true 2020.

On paper the sport for tomorrow initiative seems to embody the principles of sport for development. But, the development of these initiatives shows us otherwise. Under the international cooperation and exchange through sport initiative coaches and athletes’ volunteer teams have been sent to developing countries to foster the development of Olympic and Japanese sports, a clear attempt to gain strategic influence in cultural diplomacy. While the international sport academy has allowed the Japanese elite to benefit from universities structure. A support that has not been provided to diverse communities such as those affected by the 2011 earthquake, the homeless, disabled, the elderly people, and the youth at risk. Lastly, the play true 2020 programme, used embassies and consulates networks to develop global networks (e.g. international conferences, social science research programmes) and values-based education in developing countries, showing us that Japan main aim was to gain soft power.

The design and aims of the sport for tomorrow program are symptomatic of how the global north is using its power over the global south. A study showed that instead of using the knowledge and expertise of local volunteers, Japan sough to increase their diplomatic power, an approach that has been criticised by several sport for development actors and identified has a neo-colonialist approach. Local communities need to have the power, it is time to switch from the implementation of programme for the top to the bottom and empower local communities by creating a systematic bottom-up approach. Disadvantaged and minority local communities have been left out of the sport for tomorrow programme, leaving the Japanese elite benefiting from educational and sport structures. This is a massive issue, and one which needs to be tackled by the sport for development sector, hosting nations, and sport governing bodies alike.

The lack of presence from sport for development practitioners in the creation of the sport for tomorrow programme, has led to a misguided implementation. To ensure sustainable legacy for hosting countries and their local communities, sport for development stakeholders have to push for the International Olympic Committee to incorporate new policies in their candidature process:

  1. The creation and development of a sport for development and peace programme is mandatory for bidding candidates
  2. A consortium of sport for development stakeholders must be incorporated, working hand in hand with the hosting nation committees
  3.  The selection of a sport for development framework involving communities

By using International Olympic Committee structure and sport for development’s expertise, these policies have the power to create long-lasting legacies for local communities, the sustainable development of sport for development in hosting nation, and an enhanced global recognition. Advancing the argument of disadvantaged communities being left out of sport events, threatening their social and cultural positive legacy, has intensely been researched and reported by the academic community.

The example of Japan using sport as a tool to gain power and develop the elites instead of the disadvantaged should be the last. The tailoring of future sport events whether local, national or international will be crucial for the sport for development sector, and in a broader sense, to see wealth being distributed from bottom-up using educational and sport structures. It’s time to redistribute power and money, to offer a time of speech, actions and legitimacy to all people or athletes working or participating in sport for development actions.

Niels Lengrand is a ‘sport for development’ passionate, aspiring to become a large-scale events and gender equality specialist, being freshly graduated from a master’s degree in cultural diplomacy and international events from the University of the West of Scotland. He is working on a platform that would inform the general public about “what is sport for development” and his planning a world tour in 2021 to understand better how sport for development associations are working.


United Kingdom
Football (Soccer)
Sustainable Development Goals
Does not apply
Target Group
Does not apply

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