#08 sport
Gerhard Trosien

The Best Athletes Can Become Cultural Icons

Franz Beckenbauer was the face of the 2006 Football World Cup in Germany. In the application phase, he personally visited many countries to lobby for Germany's bid. Though it only won by a one vote, the German Football Association organised an exceptionally successful World Cup.

In 2006 millions of people either came directly to Germany to experience the games live, or experienced the amazing positive atmosphere in Germany on television. To the astonishment of many observers, sport, here emotions around football, changed Germany's image in the world. While Germans were known as experts in order and organisation, the warmth and colour with which they celebrated 'their' World Cup and involved their guests came as a surprise.

Sport cannot solve all the problems of this world, but we would be much poorer without it.

Coubertin was farsighted enough to implement a form of sport in the Olympic Games that could overcome social and international prejudices and, since it had that power, was even obligated to play this role. He ensured participation should be independent of race, skin colour, creed, social rank and political beliefs. All this is part of our cultural heritage: the Games must be held in a different city/country each time. This is how sport can reduce or even overcome a variety of boundaries. The range of examples where sports have introduced or been part of a new phase is wide and varied:

"Ping-pong diplomacy" helped China and the USA develop closer contact outside the realm of foreign policy issues: "US Americans were invited to play in Peking as depicted in the film Forrest Gump when the title character played by Tom Hanks travels to Peking as one of these table tennis players and then meets Nixon." (Wikipedia)

To speak of "nation building" may be saying too much, but the support of Nelson Mandela for the ultimately victorious South African National Rugby Team was unforgettable: "The 1995 Rugby Union World Championship plays a central role in the film Invictus which was released in the USA in 2009. Based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, the film describes how the President of South Africa at the time, Nelson Mandela, used the World Rugby Championship to transcend racial boundaries and unite his nation, just recently released from the divisive force of Apartheid, by supporting the white South African national team, the Springboks. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and starred Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as team captain Francois Pienaar." (Wikipedia)

Then there is the example of the German long-jumper Luz Long who helped Jesse Owens, an African American, at the qualifications for the 1936 Olympic Games (the propaganda games for the Nazis) who went on to win a gold medal in the long jump.

Never forgotten – presumably more in England than in Germany – is Bernhard "Bert" Trautmann who played 545 times in the goal for Manchester City between 1949 and 1964. "Trautmann", according to Wikipedia today "is perhaps the best-known example of a German who fought against the Brits in World War Two, then played his way into their hearts afterwards. In England Bert Trautmann is still considered one of the best goalies of all time." (Wikipedia, Bernd Trautmann). The "Courage Counts" friend's association collected donations to support football projects aimed at English-German reconciliation.

All these and many more examples serve to prove that individual and institutional decisions in sport have consequences that go well beyond the mere result. They are based on human and humanitarian actions that transcend the rules and compliance with those rules. They are infused with fairness and tolerance; they demonstrate respect and responsibility.

Projects aimed at ensuring fair participation for everyone needs to be viewed against this background. In 1981, for example, there was a substantial update of "Olympic Solidarity" based on forerunners when the IOC increased its market orientation. The United Nations set up "Sport for Development and Peace" designed to use sports for social progress. Willi Lemke from Germany is the current "One Euro Chairman" who travels tirelessly in his pursuit to convince states and win over cooperations to the idea that school and competitive sports can provide important impulses.

Athletes can act as credible ambassadors

Athletes can act as credible ambassadors in support of social reform. Happily there are a great number of athletes who – after retiring from their athletic careers – use their popularity and personal dedication to help reduce or prevent negative developments and participate in implementing reforms. Even after their boxing careers were over (or perhaps because they had left the ring), Max Schmeling from Germany and Joe Louis from the USA became good friends although both had been used in the name of system supremacy, from inside Nazi Germany in particular, in the 1930s. The Klitschkos – current world boxing champions – are active in their homeland, Ukraine. Filipino Manny Pacquiao is one of the best known boxers worldwide. He fought his way to a world championship in an amazing seven weight classes. His popularity helped him to win the congressional elections and he was made head of the government in the Sarangani Province in 2010.

Innumerable examples from many different types of sports confirm the value of sport and the potential for human development inherent in athletes. We need only think of Muhammad Ali, who won a gold medal for the USA in boxing under the name Cassius Clay in 1960, and the great gesture made by the US Olympic Committee to honour him, if somewhat belatedly, at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 where he lit the torch to officially open the games. In this context Pele should also be mentioned who, after finishing his career as an international football player, offered his services to his homeland Brazil as Minister of Sport. Brazil will not be in the spotlight of the international public for just two consecutive global sporting events – the Football World Cup 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

The list could go on and on to include so many famous athletes and their exceptional performance and exemplary behaviour. Not only has their performance in the annals of sports not been forgotten; their names are well remembered and praised as great examples for young people and coming generations. In a time in which difference and what separates us are often overvalued, athletes demonstrate that our emphasis on winning, on medals and prizes, represents a limited focus that – during and even after athletic success – can also be used to promote social unity.

This dedication takes a variety of forms, from those who pass their knowledge and experience on to students and young people to those who use their names and money to support athletic foundations. This has resulted in important sport projects and given many people the opportunity to develop their athletic talent without having to give up or neglect their educations or professional training.

Sport can also make a contribution to promoting equal rights for men and women. Here are just a few more brief examples that clearly demonstrate the potential of sport in this area:

Nawal El Moutawakel

The Moroccan runner won gold in the first ever 400 meter hurdle event for women at the Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles in 1984. She was a student in the USA at the time and set a milestone as both the first Muslim woman and the first African woman to win a gold medal. As if that were not enough, after ending her athletic career she continued her dedication in a wonderful way: "In 1993 she started the Course Féminine de Casablanca, which has grown to around 30,000 participants and is one of the largest women's sporting events in the world. In 1995 she became a member of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and since 1998 has been a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 2002 she founded the Association Marocaine Sport & Développement, an NGO. From 1997 to 1998 she was State Secretary at the Ministry for Youth and Sports in her homeland, in October 2007 she was named to head the same ministry." (see Wikipedia 2012). 50-years-old today, she is married and the mother of two children.

Cathy Freeman

grew up in Australia. As a 27-year-old she won the gold medal when her homeland hosted the Olympic Summer Games 2000 in Sydney, after taking silver in the 400 meters in Atlanta in 1996. Freeman was the first Aboriginal woman to participate in the Olympics. In 2000 she was given the honour of lighting the Olympic flame in Sydney. Wikipedia continues her biography: "As an ambassador for her people, Australia's native population, she drew the attention of both the Australians and the global public to their situation. TV cameras often focused on the tattoo she bears on her right shoulder consisting of the words 'cos I'm free."

In an article published in 2003, just one day after her retirement was announced in the Daily Telegraph, Cathy Freeman wrote about her success: "I don't think anybody, certainly not myself, realised what a toll Sydney took on me. It was wonderful, marvellous, the pinnacle of my career. But it was also incredibly traumatic. More traumatic than I allowed myself to feel at the time and slowly but surely I have come to realise that I could not go through all that again. And realistically, to win a gold medal in my own country, having lit the Olympic flame, there was never going to be a moment for an athlete finer that that. And climaxing with that night in the Sydney Olympic Stadium when I won the 400 metres and then just sat there on the track, hardly daring to open the window in my mind that would let me experience all the feelings that were fighting to get in my head. I don't think I ever really did open the window fully." (Cathy Freeman: Daily Telegraph (from Wikipedia 2012).

We should not neglect to mention at least one example from the recent history of the development of disabled sports. Disabled persons often find integration into civil society and sports quite challenging. And while sport clearly cannot act as a replacement for the many disadvantages the disabled experience, sports can bolster self-confidence considerably through a person's increasing belief in their own ability to perform. This was the initial drive behind athletic competitions for people with disabilities, which are, by now, fairly well developed all over the world. The Paralympic represents the pinnacle of these competitive sporting events.

Then an athlete came along who called this widely accepted division into question and – for the first time in all these years – overcame it: Oscar Pistorius. A double-amputee, the South African runner ran the necessary qualification time for the 400 meter on prosthetic legs in 2011, qualifying him to participate at the World Championships in Daegu.

He just recently failed to qualify for the South African team for the coming 2012 Olympic Games in London.


Nonetheless he opened up a whole new dimension for disabled athletes (some speak of Pistorius as a "hero") who could also participate in the global top sporting events for the "able bodied". Look at his Twitter feed after qualifying.


But competitive athletes and the top athletic associations that support them (sport associations and clubs, for example) are not the only ones who are active in peace building and development policy. One sports organisations somewhat further outside the limelight works hard in these areas as well. The abbreviation TAFISA, quite a mouthful, stands for "The Association for International Sport for All". It is a sports organisation that aims at helping as many people as possible get to know the positive aspects of sport (www.TAFISA.net 2012). And this on a global level – based on local traditional patterns of movement as well as through mediation and the exchange of modern knowledge. Their dedication has drawn the attention of many to the cultural heritage of their own peoples, inspiring them to individually adopt traditional sports. These sports are not lost and forgotten; instead they are integrated into daily life. While there is no need to aspire to world championship sporting events – fun, cooperation and health can be the focal points – it is nonetheless certainly possible that a popular amateur sport might engender athletic events on a local, regional and national level, while some might even kick off international championships. Sepak Takraw (from Thailand/Malaysia) and Zurkhaneh (which can be traced back to Islamic-Iranian roots) are just two examples representative of many other forms and patterns that originate from traditional cultures.

"Sport is a fundamental right for all!"

Classical sport associations are also finding a myriad of ways to realise sport as a right that must be accessible to everyone. The president of the International Association of Federation Football – FIFA – has presented his vision of football as an "agent for understanding between peoples and peace," and has even stylised it as a "worldwide peace organisation". Under President Jacques Rogge "the IOC has identified development goals it believes it can help advance through sport and together with its partners, namely the National Olympic Committees, the International Federations and the Olympic Games Organising Committees, but also with governments, United Nations agencies and programmes, as well as non-governmental organisations." These goals, which also correspond to most of the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, are to:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Promote gender equality and empower women
  3. Combat HIV/AIDS
  4. Ensure environmental sustainability
  5. Promote universal education and the health of children
  6. Encourage social integration and strengthen the identity of minorities
  7. Promote a global partnership for development

Sport and those who pursue it vigorously, that is to say athletes, are not necessarily good or better people per se. We have enough negative examples of athletes who have doped, former athletes who became corrupt politicians (see boxing champion and later dictator Idi Amin in Uganda) or of spectators who express their emotions as violence (see the Football War between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969). The representatives of associations have also made use of the opportunity for personal enrichment from the sport funds entrusted to them.

But the central message of sport is quite different: "Sport is a fundamental right for all!" Doing sports with others and competing against others has a variety of positive effects, helping to:

  • Develop team spirit
  • Demonstrate justness and honesty through fairness
  • Show the opposition respect – whether they win or lose
  • Accept opponents as partners
  • Recognise rules
  • Transfer the values accepted in sport to personal behaviour in social interactions

This brief treatise has demonstrated the personal development processes the people described above have undergone and experienced, along with the experience and insight they brought to the challenges they faced after retiring from sport. As a part of this process, most reflected on the fact that their talent needed to be identified first, then encouraged. From this standpoint, it is clear that sport has to be learned and practiced, that education and upbringing are fundamental foundations for later successes. Innumerable parents, teachers, trainers and officials are involved in this process worldwide. The examples selected, to which many more could have been added, show the potential of sport to drive individual development which, in turn – whether out of gratitude, modesty or because these individuals view it as their life's work – can be passed on to young people who can look forward to a better life because of it.

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