The contribution sport can make towards peace-building efforts has generally been considered at the grassroots and nation state levels.

At the grassroots or community level, sport can be seen to provide a useful way of creating an environment in which people can come together to: work towards the same goal, show respect for others and share space and equipment. All these aspects are crucial to peace-building processes and are exemplified in findings from a Peace Players International programme.

The programme ‘bridging divides’ in South Africa uses basketball to bring children and communities together. An assessment of the programme shows that the majority of participants expressed fewer racial stereotypes and less racism compared to children who were not part of the programme. Many participants were in favour of racial integration and further inter-racial socialisation than other children.

A study on the role of sport in fostering social integration among different ethnic groups in South African schools showed that several factors contributed to the use of sport being successful in bringing about exchange and building relationships between different groups, including sport’s non-verbal means of communication; sport as a means to engage in collective experience and establish direct physical contact; and sport’s ability to transcend class divisions.

The Open Fun Football Schools

The Open Fun Football Schools were initiated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, using grassroots football as a means to provide a site for interaction and to build relationships between young people and coaches.

Since then, the initiative has expanded to being areconciliation tool to encourage understanding and tolerance in FYR of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Moldova, Georgia and various other countries in the Balkans, the Caucasus and in the Middle East. 

The Open Fun Football Schools implemented in eastern Europe and the Middle East organised street events for the wider community, which have sometimes acted as the first significant post-war contact between communities that were formerly close but are now deeply hostile to one another.

Sport and national identity

The United Nations Report on the International Year of Sport and Physical Education 2005 highlights the benefits that sport can bring in building national identity, especially at the level of elite sport.

Sport can provide a positive image of the nation to the international community. Studies on specific cases have shown that sport, especially football, can positively contribute to strengthening national pride and forming a cohesive national identity.

For example, a study on the case of football in Liberia shows that football is considered ‘a “neutral” pursuit – a common cultural property unspoiled by war’. During the civil conflict, football tournaments were considered the only occasions that produced a sense of national unity.

On the other hand, sport can produce nationalist expressions that are detrimental to peace. For example, the 1956 Olympic water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union that took place after the Soviet invasion of Budapest led to violent clashes between the athletes.

In addition, many scholars associate the importing of modern sport into former colonies as an explicit strategy of imperialism and conquest. In this sense, it is necessary to consider both the potential dangers and benefits of sport in forming national identity.

Image by Mariana Fernandes