Give peace a sporting chance

Professor Tom Woodhouse

In much the same way as music, sport has a level of influence and reach in our increasingly interconnected world that politicians and diplomats can only dream of. More and more, its power to bridge social and political divides is being used to help support peacemaking efforts across the globe 

The 30th Olympiad begins in London in July of this year, bringing together athletes from over 200 nations in what will be one of the largest sporting spectacles ever held. The previous games in Beijing in 2008 attracted an audience of 4.7 billion people – 70 percent of the world’s population – and the largest ever global TV audience. The World Cup in South Africa two years later, centred on the single sport of football, was covered in every territory and country on the planet and was the first major sport event to be distributed across all media platforms, including TV, radio, mobile phones, the Internet and 3D TV. Given its global power and reach, sport can provide important spaces for peacemaking. 

Today, most strands of popular culture have projects and programmes for peace networked globally through websites; for example, Playing for Change, Art for Peace, Theatre without Borders, Dance 4 Peace, Sport for Development and Peace, Global Peace Film Festival and many more. In art, there are numerous images that have deepened revulsion against war, from Goya’s The Disasters of War to Picasso’s Guernica and Robert Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War. In the cinema, Invictus told the story of how Nelson Mandela used rugby to unify post-apartheid South Africa under his leadership. 

Sport – alongside music – is one of the most universally followed genres of popular culture. Of course, sport in all its forms can also breed nationalistic and aggressively competitive behaviour. On one occasion at least, football has been the cause of open warfare between two states – the so-called Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. Despite these concerns, sport also has the potential to unite and inspire cooperation. Above all, sport has convening power, the power to bring people together, as TV figures show. 

Although the Olympic Games are more popularly associated with heightened national passions, as countries compete to outdo each other in the medals tables, the peace ethic in the Olympic Charter and Olympic history is often underestimated. Yet the Olympic Charter explicitly recognises peace as a cardinal tenet and objective of ‘Olympism’. The second of six fundamental principles from the Charter states that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” 

While these statements signify noble aspirations, they have been given more substance in the past ten years by the commitment of the International Olympic Committee to revive the idea of the Olympic Truce – in ancient Greece, a truce was announced before and during each of the Olympic festivals so visitors could travel in safety to Olympia – and to strengthen and stimulate initiatives in support of peace, conflict resolution and reconciliation. In July 2000, the International Olympic Committee launched the International Olympic Truce Foundation and International Olympic Truce Centre “to promote its peaceful principles into concrete action.” 

Advocates of the Olympic Truce do not of course see the idea as a panacea, but they do argue that it can use the power of sport to be both a “peace-inspiring tool for our age” and to exploit opportunities afforded by the Olympic Movement and its resources. The Olympic Truce has invited partnership arrangements with civil society organisations and NGOs to pursue peacemaking across a range of practical projects, including humanitarian support to countries in conflict, the organisation of sport and symbolic truce activities in areas of tension, and the promotion of peace values through sporting events, youth camps and roundtables on sport and a culture of peace. 

In the same way that the Olympic Games are often associated with nationalism rather than peace, football is often seen as a global business with grossly, and even obscenely, overpaid star players.

Yet there are some surprising ways and places where football has been used potently to support peace and internationalism. In Spain, the Open University of Catalonia has signed a unique partnership agreement with the city’s world famous football club, FC Barcelona – which itself served as a symbol of resistance to the oppression of the Catalan people under the rule of Franco. As part of the deal, the club has made its support network available to promote the university’s peace and development education programmes. In 2006, the then president of FC Barcelona, Joan Laporta, announced that the players would wear the UNICEF logo on their shirts, foregoing the normal practice for top clubs to carry a commercial sponsor’s logo. The FC Barcelona Foundation pays €1.5 million annually to UNICEF to support its programmes. Furthermore, it has recently sponsored a university chair named the UNESCO Chair in Sport and Peacebuilding, and as part of this initiative is running a Master’s degree in Sport, Social Inclusion and Conflict Resolution. 

Another remarkable case is that of the Ivorian football player Didier Drogba and his intervention in the civil war in Ivory Coast. Drogba plays in England but also represents his home nation in international tournaments. In September 2002, following a mutiny of elements of the army, tensions between Muslims in the north of the country and the government-controlled south erupted into a full-scale civil war. Drogba issued a call to halt the fighting, a call that led to a five-year ceasefire agreement. The footballer was also instrumental in moving the venue for a match in the African Nations Cup to the city of Bouaké, a rebel stronghold, a gesture that strengthened sentiments of national unity and reinforced support for the peace process. Stability was restored and a peace process initiated, monitored and supported by the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). 

The UNOCI has promoted a very active sports-based peacebuilding programme, including activities during the 2006 football World Cup when it provided opportunities for viewing of matches on wide screens throughout the country, during which peace messages and information about the mandate of the peacekeeping mission were delivered. In April 2010, Drogba was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world because of his mediation. He continues his peace and humanitarian work through the Didier Drogba Foundation, and in September 2011 was appointed to the Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission representing the country’s diaspora in the post-war reunification process. 

Perhaps, on reflection, we should not be so surprised about the relationship between football and peace. When Gandhi worked in South Africa in the early 1900s, one of the first things he did was to form football teams in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg – the Passive Resisters Soccer Club. This was an early step in the emergence of his satyagraha movement, based on peaceful, non-violent resistance to colonial rule. 

While peacemaking at the elite level will no doubt remain the job of politicians and diplomats, sport is a powerful forum for engaging the passion and imagination of millions in pursuit of the ideal of a global culture of peace. 

About the author:

Tom Woodhouse is Professor of Conflict Resolution at the University of Bradford


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