Sport has set a precedent for supporting refugees
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a group of rural footballers compete for the ball
S4D organizations must consider how to break down the barriers for refugees through the use of language, understanding legal status and other management principles of socialization that can assist with individuals’ integration process.

John Kennedy once said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” When considering Kennedy’s quote during the recent war crisis in Ukraine, the danger to citizens is clear. The opportunity for sport to play a greater role in creating social and political change, while fostering the inclusion of people who have refugee status, is also plausible.

Research has supported that sport provides opportunity to positively contribute to various social outcomes (Bates & Hylton, 2021; Coakley, 2011). However, researchers have raised concerns with sport for development (S4D) programs. Research has noted that without an understanding of relationships and stakeholder capacity, cultural and organizational values, inclusion, and the non-state actors’ roles, programming can be misguided and detrimental (MacIntosh & Spence, 2012; Hayhurst & Kidd, 2012; Lindsey et al., 2020). In contrast, when programs are carefully developed from a community approach, managed, and deployed in various communities, many benefits can be realized (Jones et al., 2020; MacIntosh, Arellano & Forneris, 2016). 

The S4D movement has plenty of history to draw from, dating back to the 20th century when the UN started to focus on child inclusion in play and recreation. For instance, in 1959, the UN Declaration for the Rights of Child was adopted by the General Assembly, and in 1978 the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport was created by UNESCO. In 1989 the Convention of the Rights of the Child was signed and came into effect in September 1990. These declarations illustrate the role sport can (and should) play in creating positive environments for youth.

From the 1990s to early 2000s, S4D became a focus of international programming. In 1992 the UN, the International Labor Organization, and the International Olympic Committee, signed a partnership agreement that put sports in the center of international attention (Bencsik and Doczi, 2019). In 1993 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) accepted a Resolution about the Olympic Truce, and in 1994 during the winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Johann Koss, a speed-skater, set up the Olympic Aid that was later renamed “Right to Play,” the biggest and most well-known S4D organization.  

In 2000, UN recognized the contribution of S4D and was added in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aiming for unity, promotion of peace, teamwork, teaching, and skill transferability (Blom et al., 2014). In 2001, the UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, introduced the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace that used sports in a systematic and coherent way (van Luijk, 2013) to achieve development and peace, and find strategies to target the UN’s MDGs (Blom et al., 2014).

In 2003, the Magglingen Declaration was published as the proceedings of the first International Conference on S4D, stressing the importance of sport in conflict prevention and peace promotion (Bencsik & Doczi, 2019). Further, 2005 was declared as the UN International Year for Sports and Physical Education, increasing awareness of the utility of sport for positive social change. That same year, the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG) was established aiming to promote the integration of S4D policy in national and international agendas (Bencsik & Doczi, 2019). During this time, NGOs and associations in S4D included for example Football4Peace, the Integrated Teams Association, the Martisan Sports and Cultural foundation, Football Without Borders, to name a few. The S4D momentum continued to charge forward.

At the heart of many of these initiatives was the notion of community building, cooperation, and important health related outcomes from participating in sport programming (Kay et al., 2009; Spaij, 2012). Yet, while these ideals were a focus of outcomes, many barriers and challenges remain for potential S4D participants and refugees (UNHCR, 2022). Indeed, refugees struggle to have access to resources and opportunities to participate in sport overall, which may help them overcome some of the life difficulties associated with displacement (UNHCR, 2022). In this case, barriers are not only related to accessing resources, but often are structural, sociocultural, personal, and interpersonal (UNHCR, 2022).

As such, S4D organizations must consider how to break down these barriers through, for example, the use of language, understanding legal status and other management principles of socialization that can assist with individuals’ integration process.

Ultimately, we posit that sport organizations can do more to help displaced populations. Leaders of S4D organizations should consider that refugees might feel disconnected to new communities and that the development of sport programs will be important for them to feel a sense of belonging and connection, fundamentals to a person’s wellness. Recognizing that the order of priority to refugees is given to food, shelter, health, and sanitation, and not to sports and play, is important to the integration process.

However, a developed sport ecosystem (like that in Canada), can assist displaced populations through sport. Take the example of Commonwealth Sport Canada, who this year received funding from Canadian Heritage and Sport Canada to design and operate programs for youth from marginalized groups including newcomers to the country (Commonwealth sport Canada, 2022). This funding will be distributed to community organizations across the country (e.g., PEI Association for Newcomers in Charlottetown; Centre for Newcomers in Calgary, AB) with the objective to assist newcomers in sport participation. Hence, federal funding to a sport organization that allocates resources to specific communities aiming to assist people in participating in sport, is a great model of the sport ecosystem that can be replicated in other places around the globe and promote positive social change.

Displaced populations (like that from Ukraine, Afghanistan, etc.) need support to integrate in new communities and sport can play a critical role in the process. Achieving some of the MDGs can be realized through sport organizations’ (e.g., IOC, FIFA, Right to Play) efforts and partnerships with the UNHCR to develop programs for refugees across diverse communities where cultural practices are different. Cultural differences should help inform program design and the benefits of S4D programs should be further promoted.


Ioanna Maria Kantartzi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sport Management at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

Eric MacIntosh is a professor at the University of Ottawa.


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