On September 15, 2000, Cathy Freeman, an aboriginal Australian track star, was given the honor of lighting the Olympic Torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games as a symbol of the desire for social reconciliation between whites and the island’s native populations. That night, a seed was planted in the heart and mind of this young fan about the power that sport can have beyond the field of play.
Nine years later, on October 19, 2009, the United Nations officially recognized the role that the International Olympic Committee and the entire Olympic movement could play in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the UN’s roadmap for significantly reducing global poverty between 2000 and 2015. This was a momentous occasion that both acknowledged the power that sport can have when addressing crucial challenges like conflict, unemployment, gender equality and health, and endorsed the viability of sports-based development for future activities from the highest level.
This field has been growing and changing rapidly in the last several decades and especially in the last several years. With the creation of international working groups, communication platforms and conferences, it is much easier for groups to get the word out about what they are doing as well as for interested parties to learn about how they might be able to get involved. As implementers begin to move beyond the sentimental and theoretical value of sport to more rigorously measuring the impact of activities, there is a growing base of evidence to show that these kinds of interventions really have tangible benefits for people of all different ages, genders, ethnicities, and social backgrounds. Sport is, after all, such a simple and beautiful tool because it is so universal.
As we at the Foundation are starting the New Year off with discussions about where we are heading with our own activities, it is also important for us to take a step back and look at how we fit into the broader picture of this field. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of examples of other groups that are doing or promoting this kind of work both in the United States and around the world.
For example, this past November our President & CEO, Ed Foster-Simeon, had the chance to travel halfway around the world to Doha, Qatar to speak about the Foundation’s work at the Doha GOALS Forum – an event that brings practitioners from all of over the world together to promote sport as a catalyst for social change. Our friends at Street Soccer USA are using the beautiful game in urban areas to help disadvantaged adults achieve better health, education and employment outcomes, and international networks like StreetFootballWorld and the Homeless World Cup are among many other groups utilizing the power of soccer to improve social outcomes among underserved populations. And this is just the tip of the sport-for-development iceberg that includes all kinds of activities ranging from skateboarding in Cambodia to capoeira in refugee camps around the Middle East.
I wanted to work here at the Foundation because that seed planted long ago has grown into a strong belief that I share with many of my colleagues – that sport has the power to transform lives beyond the field of play. As someone who has benefited firsthand from the welcoming reception of a grassy pitch in a foreign place, supporting Soccer for Success and our other programs that extend that same invitation to thousands of children is such a pleasure. And being a part of this broader community that is making such a profound difference in contexts and situations where so many other methods and attempts have failed is an even greater honor.
So while the curtain closes on the Millennium Development Goals this year and the world considers how to frame the fight against poverty and inequality moving forward, it is encouraging to know that sport is firmly present in the conversation. And as programs like Soccer for Success continue to demonstrate impressive results on the ground, we will be motivated to continue growing our reach and impact – as one piece of the intricate puzzle of improving lives and underserved communities.