This is a longer version of an article published on SportandDev.org
With the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace closed down by the global body, there is undoubtedly a void in this space in which many of us here work.
But, for all the high profile oomph the UNOSDP added to the world of sport for good, it’s passing need not be seen as devastating.
For one, the work the UNOSDP has already done in its 16 years of life has laid a platform for the development of sport for social justice. While many of us knew for years that sport had a wider purpose beyond mere business or entertainment, the UNOSDP has provided a base of credibility that may have otherwise taken much longer to establish.
While much of the work is, in many ways, still to be done, the UNOSDP has left a positive legacy on which we can all build.
More problematic is the shifting of the UNOSDP’s brief to the IOC.
Obliging the IOC to administer to the peace and development facets of modern sport raises three questions.
IS WINNING ALL?
The IOC, despite the glow of the Olympic Oath, is part of the global obsession with equating sport with victory.
The Olympic Games is a case in point. The Games themselves have become centred on medal counts and national pride.
Competitiveness in itself is not, of course, problematic. But, when winning becomes the central goal of sport - to the point where organisations and individuals will cheat to do so - then, well, ‘Houston, we have a problem’
When this drive becomes the focus of the media as well, the risk is that sport becomes something different to what many of us see it as.
The IOC has a relatively limited range of sports under its wing. Many of these are chosen not based on the ability of these sports to contribute to peace and development, but on marketing and/or political considerations.
As a result, sports which are popular in major markets, say basketball, are included in the Games, while sports which are less known in big markets, say kabaddi, are not.
Many of these sports are traditional or have a long history. Athletics, famously, reaches back to Ancient Greece. This means that many have not been invented or developed with more contemporary visions of social justice issues in mind. Most, for instance, are not designed to cater to different cultural standards of gender participation or for disability.
GRASSROOTS OR WEEDS?
The IOC is very much about elite sport. This is reflected in the fact that medal counts and world records is seen as the major achievements of any Olympic Games.
Olympic committees in member countries are generally about identifying top level athletes and providing them with the means to compete on the quadrennial Big Show.
Yet, those of us who know and follow sports at the grassroots level understand that elite sports, while often exciting and even inspirational, is not where the future of sport is written.
There is, of course, no elite sport without grassroots.
Further, the vast majority of athletes are amatuer, will never reach even close to elite level, and play sport simply for the pure joy of it. As for my 13 year-old netball playing daughter, losing every week is not the point: it’s about being with friends, getting exercise and confidence and about trying to improve and learn in the school of sport.
Without a dedicated grassroots focus, can the IOC develop sport as a social justice tool?
Such questions need answering and, on the surface, the current situation appears concerning. But, there are also opportunities.
For an organisation like SportandDev, for instance, there is a chance to become a concentration point for the use of sport for peace and development.
In areas mentioned above, the SportandDev community is well versed. Our work in the margins of sport, among the disaffected and the disadvantaged, on dusty fields and in grimy neighbourhoods, gives us all a collective experience and skill set which would be hard to match elsewhere.
In short, this community can pick up where the UNOSDP left off and in areas where, as suggested above, the IOC is unlikely to go.
TAKE THE CHANCE
How might this be done?
Firstly, it is clear we need to develop greater capacity to provide the kind of infrastructure sport for peace and development needs. Perhaps regional centres or committees for specific sports are needed, for instance.
We also need to devise a means to better share our experiences. While online can work well and is cost effective, we need more face to face time to truly communicate among ourselves and to lay an abundant landscape for ourselves and future generations.
Finally, we need to find ways to work together, and to not operate in functional silos that oblige us to compete on funding and profiling. Making our space more collegiate and network-based will work to ensure we are not wasting the resources we should be using for our stakeholders.
All of these measures can help raise the funds needed to fulfil this vision.
Finally, we perhaps should consider special sport for peace and development events. While our sector may never compete with the Olympics or with the FIFA World Cup, we can still, nevertheless create places for our work in these areas to show the real power of sport, in the margins of global society.
In football, the Homeless World Cup or the CONIFA stateless world cup tournament are great examples of how sports can be utilised to not only provide opportunities for those in need, but to highlight their plight and the role sport can play in alleviating it.
My organisation is working on an idea we call the Better World Cup (that is, for a better world) which is based on adapting football to value self-responsibility in following the rules and on awarding points for fair play and attitude.
Such events can become focal points for donors and sponsors and can have significant ripple effects throughout our communities and beyond.
The world of sport for development and peace is at an exciting time. We are at an interesting place in our development where a platform has been laid, and we now need to build upon it.
There is no better time than now to get started.
James Rose is founder of The Kick Project, based in Australia. www.facebook.com/thekickproject