Sports speaks a language of its own that can be translated seamlessly from one culture to another, but often its impact is difficult to measure, said panelists at the United States Institute of Peace Sports and Peacebuilding Symposium.

Sports speaks a language of its own that can be translated seamlessly from one culture to another, but often its impact is difficult to measure, said panelists at the United States Institute of Peace Sports and Peacebuilding Symposium.

“The Sports and Peacebuilding Symposium was a successful event in that it brought together a diverse community of sports stakeholders and experts in conflict management, and provided them with the opportunity to have a focused dialogue on the field's challenges and successes,“ said the symposium’s organizer Soolmaz Abooali.

Participants at the final panel of the symposium, “Evaluation: Scoring Peacebuilding through Sports,” discussed the challenges for measuring the success of sports and peacemaking initiatives. Panelists included Sarah Hillyer, a Generations for Peace post-doctoral fellow at Georgetown University; Peter Donnelly, a professor of sports policy at the University of Toronto and co-editor of “Inside Sports”; and  Michael Shipler, a senior program adviser for the Search for Common Ground. Diana Chigas, a professor of conflict resolution from The Fletcher School at Tufts University, moderated the panel.

Chigas said discussions throughout the symposium examined sports as a tool for social support, for bridging relations between cultural groups, as well as the ways sports can unify people. With this in mind, she asked panelists to talk about the impact that sports activities are having, their short or long-term influence, and the changes they can have on people, their attitudes and their behavior.

“In some ways at the micro-level, sports are what you put into them,” Chigas said.

Many of the panelists at the symposium presented how their organizations, including Peace Players International and UNICEF, are using sports to build trust, teamwork and social cohesion on the international and community level.

Shipler talked about how sports can be a metaphor for many things. He stated that several specific sporting events throughout history have been representative of social and political movements—including Jackie Robinson stealing home base which was followed by the Civil Rights movement, and the South African Rugby World Cup which followed Nelson Mandela’s presidential victory and the end to Apartheid. He said through these situations and others he sees sports as a “transformative message” which helps people to relate across cultural lines. 

“The solution is not just in design,” Shipler said. “The conflict dynamics are diverse.”

Shipler said that because of the dynamics involved in sports and peacemaking projects, it is difficult to measure their impact: often no direct correlation can be drawn between sports and peaceful outcomes. He said peace projects that involve sports should be part of broader peace efforts, and one tool in the “grand peace plan.”

Shipler is involved in a movie based peacemaking project, “The Team,” which consists of mini-television programs about 19 different sports teams around the world. The shows use sports as a way to get people involved in peace efforts in their own communities. The shows will air on television and be played in community cinemas.

Donnelly said peacemakers need to be careful of the expectations of sports programs. Sports cannot accomplish peace on their own, but rather, peacemakers should be mindful of how sports can use models that have been successful in other peacemaking programs, he said. He said not all people enjoy sports or are good at sports, and so sports can cause some people to feel left out or inadequate. For that reason sports, themselves, may not always be the ideal approach to peacebuilding. To avoid this close-minded “Black Box” approach, he said, sports should integrate other peace programs and volunteers should be trained to understand the culture, and not just the sport.

“You cannot separate sport—often it is working in combination with other things,” Donnelly said.  He added that regardless of how much fun children have in sports programs, they still have to go back to the challenges of their cultures and homes at the end of the day. He said sadly that some sports programs do not give these children the skills to deal with those challenges on their own.

Hillyer said despite the challenges that sports present, she has seen that sports can be a potent tool. While she was a softball coach at a small college in Kentucky, she founded Sports for Peace.  Her organization got the opportunity to go to Iran and teach women how to play softball.

“That program became a tool for creating dialogue between American women and women in Iran,” Hillyer said.

She said her organization faces many obstacles; including the ability to explain the program’s impact to donors. Her answer to this challenge was to go to graduate school and get the skills to do academic research and evaluate her sports program. She said her hope is that by validating her practical program with academic research she can show donors and other peacebuilders the impact sports programs are making. Her goal for 2010 is to create a toolkit for grassroots peacebuilders—who use sports programs as a means to dialogue—will be able to come together and discuss the best ways to use sports in peace work.

Abooali agreed that the day’s discussions compensation concerning peace and sports was positive and creative.

“In a day full of rich discussion, I’d just highlight that the panelists and other participants seemed to agree that in order for sports to create positive, sustainable social change as a basis for peace, institutions need to combine research, as well as monitoring and evaluation, together with action on the ground,” Abooali said after the event concluded.

Following the panel, Dean of Students and Acting dean of Institutional Outreach of the USIP Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, Theodore Feifer, made closing comments.

Feifer summed up the event, and thanked Abooali for her role in organizing the event. He said several questions and new ideas were presented at the symposium that deserve deeper examination. Those ideas include: what happens with sports on the “meta” level and whether sports can be successful in peacebuilding on multiple levels; the long-term sustainability of sports programs; what type of training is needed for those working in this field; and what is the importance of linking the sports peace movement to theories that have been applied in other peacebuilding initiatives.


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