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Goal-oriented: How sport can make the world a better place

A friendly volleyball match was held in Juba, South Sudan to celebrate last year's International Day of Sports for Development and Peace (photo by United Nations Mission in South Sudan via Flickr)

U of T symposium to bring together researchers to discuss the role sport in promoting sustainable global development

The University of Toronto's Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education is bringing together scholars from a diverse range of disciplines for a symposium called Sport and sustainable development: setting a research agenda.

The June 8 event will focus on the ability of sport to address social issues from poverty and illiteracy to health care, particularly in marginalized communities. David Miller, president and CEO of WWF-Canada and former mayor of Toronto, will deliver the keynote address.

Writer Jelena Damjanovic spoke to KPE Assistant Professor Simon Darnell about the growing research field.

Why is sport such a promising tool for development?

I think sport represents a novel approach to the ongoing challenges of development inequalities. The record of success of international development over the past 50 years is not particularly good, at least not in terms of making the world more fair and equitable. So in that sense, sport may offer a method or framework in which to approach development differently. On top of that, sport is generally seen as a fun and engaging activity that has both wide appeal and a range of benefits, from physical fitness to socialization.

What kind of positive outcome can sport for development produce at community and national levels?

The outcomes vary, and we should be honest in recognizing that not everyone derives positive outcomes from sport participation or from sport-for-development programs. But in the field of sport for development, the most promising results have been as follows: individuals may learn healthy practices via sport that make it more likely that they will, for example, practice safe sex or reproductive health; community members can become more familiar with each other through sport, which can be very important in post-conflict situations or contexts of ethnic or political violence; and, on an international scale, sport for development (particularly when led by high profile organizations or celebrities) might draw more attention to the importance of development and the plight of those who suffer.

How can sport affect the environment specifically?

Specifically in relation to the environment, what is promising is the recognition that sport has had a rather poor environmental track record to date, and that things need to improve. So, for example, sustainability is now an important element of any city’s bid to host a sports mega-event like the Olympic Games. This doesn’t mean that environmental promises are always met, but the issue of the environment is more important than ever within sport. In turn, if high-profile, global sport organizations like the International Olympic Committee take environmental issues seriously, this can help to continue to make the case that things need to change in response to the threat posed by climate change.  

How does sport connect with marginalized people in a way that government policies do not?

One thing I’ve found in my fieldwork is that people living in sustained or generational poverty and/or violence are often skeptical of the government and don’t trust the ability or willingness of their elected officials to make a positive contribution to their lives. In the midst of this mistrust and various policy failures, civil society organizations have become important leaders in the field of sport for development. It is within this context, I would say, that sport has really taken more of a hold within the field of international development.

What evidence is there of long-term impact of sport for development initiatives?

The long term benefits of these programs are hard to measure, for a number of reasons. So we certainly could use more data that helps us to understand the answers to such questions. But I would say that the best long-term impact is that many young people who come up through sport-for-development initiatives eventually become program leaders and officials themselves. This ‘train the trainers’ approach - or cascading model - has proven effective in the field of sport for development for supporting the sustainability of such programs.