#08 sport
Thomas F. Carter

The Point of Sport

Sport for Development can be a great tool – if it is targeted. But organisations and programmes tend to overrate or, even worse, misjudge their influence on the communities they work with. On a larger scale, sporting events like the Olympic Games simply disregard the impact organizers have on, for example, the (fair and ecological) production of branded goods. But there are other ways, as the example of Cuba shows. The Cuban government began breaking new ground decades ago.

The Olympic Games will be celebrated in London this summer. But exactly who and what are being celebrated? The Olympics bring top athletes from around the world together to compete on a global stage under the warm glow of the international media spotlight. The Games are hailed as the apex of sporting prowess, but that is not the entirety of the celebration. Boosters also celebrate the Olympics as a vehicle for urban regeneration, economic development, and international goodwill. Advocates for the Olympic Games see more than just the inherent value of sport; they also perceive the extrinsic values of sport, and they are not alone. Celebrating sport for more than just who wins and who loses, extolling its other purposes, is all well and good, but what are those purposes? What is the point of sport?

The point – the purpose

As much as sport is celebrated, the answers to that basic question depend on the purposes to which sport is put. With metronomic regularity, Olympic boosters vow the Games will result in an economic payday for the host city, a financial boom that will benefit all. As the London 2012 Games approached, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised "great sport, great culture, great business and a great legacy for Britain." To make this happen, Olympic organizers rely on optimistic economic impact studies carried out by carefully selected consultants to conjure up large sums of public money to pay for the Games. While dipping into taxpayers' pockets, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) trumpets its universal humanism, loudly proclaiming how the Olympic movement betters the human condition. Such claims are rather specious, though, when one considers the labour conditions of the young women and children in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and elsewhere who make the Olympic branded goods sold at all the Games. Labour advocate groups, like PlayFair, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Maquila Solidarity Network, and other international NGOs, work towards bettering factory workers' conditions by attempting to get the IOC to acknowledge that the Olympic spectacle and celebrations are built upon a hidden base of suffering, degradation, and exploitation.

The sweeping power of sport's ability to transform

In addition to the IOC, other global bodies have also turned to sport in an effort to address the conditions of poverty and raise the human condition, albeit not necessarily in the factories. The General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution in November 2003 affirming its commitment to sport as a means of promoting education, health, development, and peace. Sport's potential contribution to social cohesion and community building reflects changes in the broader international aid paradigm. The 2005 UN inter-agency report, Sport as a Tool for Development and Peace, recognizes the sweeping power of sport's ability to transform.

Sport as a powerful vehicle

That report declares that sport brings individuals and communities together, highlighting commonalities and bridging cultural or ethnic divides. It provides a forum in which to learn skills such as discipline, confidence and leadership and it teaches core principles such as tolerance, cooperation and respect. "Sport teaches the value of effort and how to manage victory, as well as defeat. When these positive aspects of sport are emphasized, sport becomes a powerful vehicle through which the United Nations can work towards achieving its goals."

Agent of change

Various UN bodies now use sport in their development goals for universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, combating HIV/AIDS and addressing issues of environmental sustainability. In such programs the assumption is that sport can be part of a development process in a range of circumstances and contexts. International development programs have been around for decades. But sport as a vehicle for effecting social change has only recently been incorporated into neoliberal modernizing projects, where it allegedly helps to sustain the gap in resources between different parts of the world. Sport is understood as a potential conduit for traditional socioeconomic development but also as an agent of change in its own right. Finally, sport is seen as a means for bypassing the bureaucratic red tape of bilateral agreements between states by providing broader, global forms of intervention in the world. These assumptions exist based on an additional assumption of the presumed extrinsic capacity of sport.

Widespread lack of evidence of effectiveness

The harnessing of sport as a tool of internationalism, reconciliation and international development is not that remarkable, but the proliferation of sport-for-development programs over the past two decades is striking. Aid-based development programs are nothing new, but the application of sport as a vehicle for social change in poverty stricken parts of the world is. Critics of aid in general, though, point out that aid itself is the problem when the pre-exiting conditions of poverty result from established international trade relations. Situated within neoliberal global contexts, sport-for-development projects often do not address underpinning social inequities.

Many of the desired outcomes of aid-related development derive from traditional and widespread ideologies that maintain the status quo of various international relations. Yet robust generic evidence for such claims by sport-for-development advocates is limited in this emerging international policy area, and there is a widespread lack of evidence for the effectiveness of most core sport-for-development because programs' self-evaluations affirm the "success" of the development program and do not measure actual, much less intended, social or economic change that supposedly underpins the implementation of such programs.

The Cuban Way

One of the best kept secrets is the alternative approach towards sport and international development Cuba has taken. Over the previous five decades, Cuba's development of its own sport infrastructure and the diplomatic uses of sport by its government have remained virtually invisible to those in the West. Taking a distinctly different moral stance, Cuba has used sport to foster international understanding. Cuban sports experts are not locked into Soviet bloc exchanges, and have been working throughout Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa for the past 40 years. These projects were conducted in solidarity with other countries marginalized by the West and not part of any bilateral trade agreement. Thousands of coaches have assisted in transformative community-based sports programs based on what local authorities inform the Cubans is needed, not what is dictated by the Cubans as to what they will provide. In other words, the Cuban presence is at the behest of local authorities and Cubans act under conditions set by local communities.

Fully trained professionals

Yet Cuban internationalism extends beyond sending its own experts overseas. Foreign students are also brought to Cuba specifically to train as coaches and physical educators at no cost to either the students or their governments. The only requirement is the expectation that the graduate will then return to his or her home country to practise where they are needed the most. Thousands have been brought to its Escuela Internacional de Educación Física y Deporte (EIEFD) where they study for five years before returning to their home countries as fully trained professionals. Aimed not just at poor countries but at marginalized populations within those countries, the school's principal mission is to train professionals who value solidarity and are willing and able to transform sport and physical education in their communities.

The point of sport depends on the ethos

Cuban sport programs focus solely on transformative change through the ethos of cooperation; they do not claim, as do other international sport-for-development programs, that sport will provide social and economic development in the countries where those programs are implemented. By training students with the requisite skills and ethics to provide much needed services, Cuban internationalism is building capacity on an enormous scale by giving the students the skills and ethics necessary for addressing human needs. Enacting the philosophy that it is better to teach a person to fish than to give that individual a fish since the person in question can then provide for himself or herself in the future, Cuba's sport-related internationalism demonstrates that the point of sport depends on the ethos underpinning any such physical activity.

Building a better world – but better for whom?

The point of sport is whatever we decide it is. There is no intrinsic meaning to running fast or jumping high. Throughout the history of the Olympic Games, critics have continuously questioned the logic of the Olympic movement, with all its attendant promises, and its practices for producing an Olympic spectacle. The IOC insists that its Olympic movement works to "build a better world through sport" although the question remains better for whom?

The UN programmes implementing sport as a vehicle for development claim that sport can transform societies, lift economically deprived areas out of poverty, and generally transform people's lives for the better. The evidence for such claims, though, is circumstantial and dubious. The ability of sport to transform societies depends on the ethos under which sport is practised. Those programs underpinned by an ethos of individual responsibility, achievement, and competitiveness all lend themselves well to neoliberal perspectives regarding the nature of the world and lend particular purpose to sport's existence.

Victory alone is not a justification

The Cuban emphasis on international cooperation and mutual benefit through capacity building demonstrates an alternative ethos of "how a country can grow to improve itself and how a government can build up humanist and fair models." Sport underpinned by cooperation, solidarity, and mutual respect proves to be a very different kind of game. This does not mean that Cubans dislike competition or winning. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, victory by any means necessary cannot and will not be accepted as suitable justification in sport. It is the dignity of participating in a humanistic endeavour that underpins Cuban sport.

Sport reveals the basic truths

Cuban aspirations articulate very different purposes and give sport a very distinct raison d'état. Those values create a very different agenda for sport. Whatever the values underpinning an organization and the playing of sport may be, sport does not so much build a people's character as reveal what they hold to be basic truths about themselves. What those values should be – those of Olympic corporatism, international development, or international solidarity – is a competition as hotly contested as any game found on any playing field anywhere in the world. The importance of sport is that it becomes an embodied spectacle affirming what we hold most dear. That is the point of sport.

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