Sport: strong identity, soft power

Sport has a far more powerful effect than business and money; it can change nations, says Kevin Roberts

Few people understand the power of sport better than Johann Olav Koss, the Toronto-based Norwegian Olympian whose Right To Play organisation ensures that 1 million children around the world are both exercising and learning each week.

This is the other side of the power of sport. It is not about marketing, jockeying for geo-political position  or big business but about changing attitudes, opening minds and building a brighter future for kids  through engagement with what Koss describes as "the joy of sport"

“Sport in its multiple forms teaches skills which are essential to build successful lives," he says. "For us it is about using playing sport to learn about setting goals, overcoming challenges and understanding rules and ethics.”

Koss set up Right to Play in 2000 and the organisation now has 640 staff and 14,400 volunteer coaches globally. As a four-time Olympic Gold medal winning speed skater, he has an athlete’s unswerving focus on results and points to a clear upswing in academic results as evidence that Right to Play’s brand of  sports-based learning is paying dividends.

“Around the world there are 250 children in the fourth year of school who can’t read or write. The United Nations Millennium Goals focused on getting kids into school but in the next 15 years we have to ensure they stay in school and are learning. Play-based methodology not only increases attendance but we see better results."

According to Koss, the ‘soft’ power of sport harnessed by Right to Play delivers a range of other positive social benefits.

“We will never have enough money in the world to treat all the non-communicable diseases we face and sport and exercises is important in getting kids to exercise and appreciate the fun and excitement of sport and the healthy lifestyle which is part of it,” he said.

“It is also a great way to break down divisions which develop in communities where there is a high level of mistrust between different ethnic and religious backgrounds. We fund that plaguing together in teams builds respect and understanding. It gives us the ability to recreate safe and strong societies.”

Johann Olav Koss is not alone in his firm belief in sport’s power. As South Africa emerged from the apartheid era, Nelson Mandela risked the wrath of many of his own supporters by realising that sport – in this case rugby union – could help turn a racially divided people in a ‘rainbow nation.’ Rugby was, after all, the white man’s game and the image of Mandela, dressed in his national team’s shirt, presenting the Rugby World Cup to South Africa’s white captain Francois Pienaar,  became one of the most enduring and emotive of the 20th century.

“Sport has the power to change the world. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers,” he said.

It’s a belief shared by Joel Bouzou, a French former athlete whose Peace and Sport organisation is backed by HRH Prince Albert of Monaco and operates programmes in some of the most divided and under-privileged parts of the world including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Haiti and Palestine.

While the style and specific objectives of the operation may be different from Right to Play, the spirit is the same. In an age where leading soccer players change clubs for $100m fees and top sports stars earn salaries beyond the imagination of those in the developing world, they are united in an understanding that sport has a power beyond finance and influence, the power to address conflict and positively change lives.