More than just fun and games? Sport as a tool of empowerment

From downtown New York to remote corners of India, sport is being used to break social barriers and address issues from homelessness to addiction

In July, the Homeless World Cup saw more than 500 footballers – men and women from 52 countries – compete in the centre of Glasgow. In October, the annual Beyond Sport Summit brought together more than 1,000 people from the worlds of sport, business and government
to discuss how sport can trigger positive change.

The United Nations even recognises sport as a relatively low cost, high impact tool in humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts. UN special adviser Wilfried Lemke says: “Sport builds bridges between individuals and across communities, providing a fertile ground for sowing the seeds of development and peace.”

We explore four projects that demonstrate how sport can be much more than just a game.

Figure skating
Harlem, US


The Harlem team at the 2015 Terry Conners Synchronized Skating Competition

When competitive figure skater Sharon Cohen started working with girls in Harlem 20 years ago, she never dreamed she would eventually have 60 staff at her not-for-profit organisation in New York and Detroit. Together, they train and mentor 275 girls between the ages of six and 18 each week. When the girls take part in competitions, they are often the only non-white team there.

“Skating was a country club sport for most of its existence,” reflects Cohen. “You had to become a member to skate. We’ve brought it to communities that don’t have access to the sport.”

Cohen believes the sport’s novelty, grace and toughness help shape its appeal for the girls, most of whom have never set foot on ice before. “Figure skating is a sport and an art. There is a great deal of creativity involved, as well as athleticism. It is also difficult, not like picking up a baseball. You can’t learn skating quickly; you have to work at it. It’s about perseverance and overcoming hurdles. Our girls really like that challenge.”

It’s about perseverance and overcoming hurdles. Our girls really like that challenge

Figure Skating in Harlem combines two or three weekly sessions on the ice with an afterschool programme that covers academic subjects as well as leadership and life skills. Places are worth thousands of dollars each year but are offered to the girls for free. There is one requirement: they must keep their grades up. The approach seems to work. A third of the students achieve straight As and 80 per cent maintain a B+ grade or higher.

“I think that is is because our students learn how to dedicate themselves to something and to be disciplined,” says Cohen. “At a recent reunion one of our alumni told me: ‘What I learned most was how to fall fearlessly.’ I think that is a wonderful lesson in life: don’t be afraid to take risks.”

Street soccer

Swiss goalkeeper Ruedi Kalin, 58, was the fourth oldest player at the 2016 Homeless World Cup. Image: Alexander Walker

“The impact is absolutely huge. Life-changing. If I hadn’t found the Street Soccer Scotland programme, I would probably be dead, another suicide statistic.” Robert Hare, 46, first made contact with the organisation at a drop-in session for people experiencing homelessness or social exclusion.

Through contact with prison services, rehabilitation centres, homeless shelters and mental health institutions, Street Soccer Scotland offers free training throughout the country. Anyone – men and women – can join in the weekly sessions, regardless of background, age or fitness level. Current players are aged between 16 and 60.

Five years after being on the winning Scottish side for the 2011 Homeless World Cup in Paris, Hare now works as programme co-ordinator for the social enterprise. At this summer’s tournament in his home city of Glasgow, he coached a team of refugees from Eritrea, Iran, Senegal and the Congo. They didn’t speak each other’s language but they found a common one in ‘the beautiful game’.

He saw a change in the players from the moment they became involved. “They bonded as a team. They still come to sessions and arrive first every time, asking to get started. They ask about our educational courses too; they’re so determined.”

He believes the sport holds the same appeal to all players, whether native Glaswegians or asylum seekers. “Street soccer offers somewhere to go to, release everything and get away from the dark place you’re in.”

Street soccer offers somewhere to go to, release everything and get away from the dark place you’re in

An estimated 100,000 players are involved in grassroots street soccer programmes around the world. The Homeless World Cup sees teams from around the world, from Brazilian favelas to Norwegian suburbs, take part each year. The tournament makes use of football’s global popularity, team spirit and easy entry level to get things started. Once the ball starts rolling, personal development, healing, rehabilitation, and character and confidence building begin.

Waves for Change
Cape Town, South Africa


‘Surf therapy for violent communities’ is the tagline of Waves for Change, an organisation supporting young people from some of South Africa’s poorest and most dangerous townships. In Cape Town, where 45 per cent of children have witnessed a killing and 56 per cent have been victims of violence, the need is overwhelming. Waves for Change works with 250 children from volatile backgrounds, and seeing them undergo profound change is what keeps founder Tim Conibear going.

“We usually recruit kids who are attracted to really difficult activities,” he explains. “They tend to have higher levels of prejudice and reject authority more. “Surfing is a really good tool for attracting kids who head off on high-risk paths.”

Lessons encourage an appreciation of surfing’s reflective qualities, says Conibear. “Surfing is all about your journey through the ocean and how you engage with the waves. Taking part in an activity that is all about you makes you more aware of the benefits of different behaviours,” he explains.

Waves for Change works with children aged between 11-14 with the aim of building their self awareness. Conibear and his team help them build coping mechanisms, heal their ability to trust and support them in making positive life choices. “The kids who choose gangs are the ones who want to stand out,” he says. “We offer the same social structure that a gang might. The kids say surfing is cool and different and it elevates them above their peers.”

We offer the same social structure that a gang might. The kids say surfing is cool and different

The charity worked with the University of Cape Town to measure the project’s impact. Over the course of a year, those in the programme fought less and teachers and parents found they were better behaved and more engaged. “We’re mediating the kids’ ‘fight or flight’ responses. That leads to fighting less, choosing better friends and staying away from drugs.”

Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa

'First ride' – a young Skateistan skater in Phnom Penh

First ride – a young Skateistan skater in Phnom Penh

With more than half the population under the age of 24 and a quarter of all children engaged in child labour, Afghanistan’s social challenges are huge. In 2009, Unicef singled out the country as the ‘worst place’ to be born in the world. Girls face a particularly steep challenge: their lack of education means the female literacy rate is just 13 per cent.

Australian Oliver Percovich didn’t know any of this when he first rode his skateboard in Kabul in 2007. But he soon realised that the children he encountered working on the streets were curious in what he was doing. He let them have a go and quickly realised skateboarding’s potential as a ‘hook’ to get them interested in education too.

About half of the 1,000 youngsters in the Afghanistan programme are girls, which makes skateboarding the largest organised sport for girls in the country. The charity puts extra resources into the girls’ programme, funding transport and extra female instructors. Crucially, the newness of the sport there meant it was relatively free of gender stereotypes. Today, it is still considered inappropriate for girls to cycle, but riding a skateboard is generally accepted.

Percovich believes that skateboarding’s popularity could be attributed to its focus on individual battles. “In Afghanistan, people really like shows of strength. Fighting sports are very popular here, and skateboarding is sort of fighting with yourself. You overcome your fears to jump down ten stairs. With skateboarding, you’re up against yourself and what you think you can do.”

Skateistan has now expanded to Cambodia and South Africa and Percovich hopes the global connection will promote dialogue and understanding. “There is a community of skateboarders around the world who help each other. Young people need to understand that they are one and the same.”

Main image: ‘The Bulgarian team huddle at the 2016 Homeless World Cup, Glasgow’. Image by Alexander Walker

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