The World Cup of hope
It’s easy to dismiss sport as a distracting, dysfunctional pastime of the people. We’re constantly flooded with stories of misbehavior, ridiculous prejudice, cheating and even criminal behavior, most of which seem sexual in nature.
As the CEO of a sports-based NGO, I am constantly faced with questions steeped in disapproval and dismissal of the value of sport in “real” society. I hear that we spend too much time, too much money, too much effort on sports in this country, in detriment to our social values. Indeed I have even been told we would be better off with less sport in Australia. Jessica Watson felt the brunt of this type of thinking not long ago. Dangerous, narcissistic indulgence, anyone?
Better off? Are we really spending too much time, money, effort on our sports? During the 12 months prior to the last Australian Bureau of Statistics research in 2006, 66% of Australians aged 15 years and over participated in physical activities for recreation, exercise or sport, yet our spending on sports equated to only some 2% of our weekly expenses.
For such a high participation rate at such low individual cost, do the social and health benefits of sport not outweigh potential negatives? If the negative aspect of sport seems only to be the actions of our so-called “stars”, shouldn’t we be more critical of the leeway we give our athletes more so than the sports themselves?
I argue we need sport now more than ever. The reason is simple.
Exhausted from a heavy workload and freezing in Canberra’s winter embrace, we came from all corners of the Territory, gathering around a heater and a television at 4.30 in the morning to cheer on our Socceroos.
Granted, perhaps not the greatest moment in Australian sporting history. The result, however, is not the important part of this moment.
We gathered together, as so very many Aussies did that morning, not necessarily from a passion for the game itself, but rather through an affinity, a bond, a sense of ownership of our national team.
Therein lies but a glance of the power sport holds over us. In our group there were few real football fans; we came from rugby, cricket, basketball and AFL backgrounds. Hardly the most knowledgeable group of World Cup supporters. Yet we gathered nonetheless, braving the elements and the miserable predictions for the game ahead, because sports have that extraordinary ability to unite us.
Sports break down social, cultural, religious and political barriers, in ways traditional methods seem to constantly struggle with. Look at the crowd at any World Cup game; every ethnicity, every nationality is cheering and waving flags and enjoying the experience, together. Every time an Olympics or World Cup comes around we can see for ourselves the fervor with which our respective patriotisms and allegiances take shape, regardless of previous social tensions; South Africa during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, as portrayed in the movie Invictus, comes to mind.
One can even argue sports offer that rarest of commodities, hope.
As a force for good in the world, sport has proven to be as creative as it is powerful; the values of sport, fitness, fair play, teamwork, the pursuit of excellence, are universal. Sport is a global language, and when coupled with development, it can work as a powerful force for good to help improve the health, education and well-being of those in need; Skateistan, Afghanistan’s—and the world’s—first co-educational skateboarding school, brings together Afghan youth from all ethnicities, equipping young men and women with the skills to lead their communities toward social change and development.
My own organization, Big Bangs, uses the game of basketball to fight youth poverty and social disadvantage in 10 countries around the world. Even the World Cup has an affiliated NGO, 1Goal, which is a campaign to ensure that every child worldwide has the opportunity to go to school and gain an education. These are just a few of the very many sports-based organizations out there who are doing their part to make a difference.
As for Jessica, hats off to you Ms Watson. We need dreamers, we need young people with great ambitions that have nothing to do with trampling over others, in a figurative sense of course, in order to achieve great things. If sports can do so much good for others, imagine the amazing things it can do for the individual. In a society where young people are obsessed with and addicted to information and technology and continuous social interaction to survive, Jessica took to the seas by herself in a physical and mental challenge which only serves to illustrate what is possible through sport.
If that isn’t a wonderful story of inspiration, I don’t know what is. If that isn’t an extraordinary example of taking responsibility for oneself, showing inner strength and rising to the occasion, I don’t know what is.
We all remember Eric the Eel, our own Socceroos at the previous World Cup, Usain Bolt’s jubilation at the last Olympics. Tell me these didn’t get you a little teary, a little proud, a little fired up, no matter whether or not you follow sport.
So I sit here, sniffling through my scarf, cheering on any and all teams currently playing, because I know how powerful these games can be for people, how motivating and inspirational and wonderful and yes, hopeful, these sporting moments can be.
And yes, I’m even cheering for New Zealand.
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