As the PyeongChang Olympic Games open in South Korea, Free to Run Board Member Connie Schneider reminds us of the important link between sports and international efforts to promote peace and social change.
The theme of the opening ceremony in PyeongChang is ‘Peace’ and this gives us the opportunity to reflect on the spirit of Ekecheiria in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Ekecheiria dates back to ancient Greece; it was the official agreement that ensured competition could take place under conditions of fairness. It was a truce during which all competitors could be considered safe from conflict so they could participate in their chosen sports.
Today when we participate in sports or watch our favorite athletes, we don’t normally think about how this will advance a cause like world peace. However, the field of sports is playing a vital and increasingly recognized role in promoting peace as well as furthering development. In fact, conflict prevention and sustainable development are generally considered mutually reinforcing concepts.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) refers to 17 goals defined by the global community that tackle the world’s three largest challenges of our time: extreme poverty, climate change, and inequality. Overcoming them will help us collectively not only to survive but to prosper. The SDGs provide a roadmap to get there and will guide the decisions taken by policymakers all over the world over the next thirteen years. The SDGs cover all aspects of the development spectrum, ranging from poverty, health and education to clean water and energy, to peace and justice and infrastructure. Each of the 17 goals focuses on a specific objective, although they are all interconnected and indivisible.
In 2015, when all 193 member states of the United Nations got together to discuss the, “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” they not only approved 17 ambitious goals, they also took the opportunity to explain how they might be achieved. One of the factors they highlighted was the importance of sports as an agent of social change:
“Sport is also an important enabler of sustainable development. We recognize the growing contribution of sport to the realization of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect and the contributions it makes to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.”
At the time of this United Nations Declaration, Free to Run was exactly nine months old. At Free to Run, we believe there is an overwhelming need to create more sports opportunities for women and girls who are living in regions affected by conflict. Access to sports is not just a luxury; it’s increasingly being recognized as a basic human right. Our programs tap into the power of sports and outdoor adventure to help women and girls overcome the harmful effects of gender, religious and ethnic discrimination. We’re proudly at the forefront of an accelerating movement surrounding the concept of Sports for Development and Peace. In the words of Lakshmi Puri, the Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women:
“Sport has huge potential to empower women and girls. In many countries, it has been recognized that sport can be a force to amplify women's voices and tear down gender barriers and discrimination. Women in sport defy the misperception that they are weak or incapable. Every time they clear a hurdle or kick a ball, demonstrating not only physical strength, but also leadership and strategic thinking, they take a step towards gender equality.”
We can’t pretend that all of these issues can be solved through sports, but we do know that sports are highly effective in producing tangible, positive change in individuals and societies - improving physical and mental health, offering opportunities for social interaction and friendship, increasing self-esteem and self-confidence, and providing access to leadership opportunities. Female participation in fitness activities may also help to challenge harmful stereotypes about gender roles, thereby leading to longer-term peace and stability within communities.
So as we watch the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, let’s remember that sports can serve as an important means to advance social development processes and bring about social change. Let the Games begin!