06/13/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2014

Values in Play: The Inspiration of Sports

The word religion keeps coming up in commentaries on the just launched World Cup in Brazil. Let's pick that apart. Obviously people are fingering negative aspects, especially the sense of fanaticism and partisan fervor that seems to be part of large sporting events. But the positives are broader, hopeful, and exciting. Sports has a capacity to transcend barriers and to energize people, all around the world. Many of the values that underlie sports are the core values of social justice, values that should lie at the heart of religion.

Sports mobilize people in far more ways than the purely physical. I was privileged to work with a remarkable group of young leaders at the United Nations last month who, as one of them observed, are doing more than most young people to get off their backsides and translate their ideas into action. An improbable coalition was behind this meeting on May 22-24 (the third in an annual series exploring the values of sports): Haruhisa Handa, Japanese philanthropist and Shinto leader, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which is focusing on sports as a path to bridge the divides that spark conflicts, Lord Moynihan, energetic politician/businessman/sportsman who was a key figure in the London Olympics, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue, that focuses on core values shared by religion and development. What brought us together was a determination to highlight the positive values that link sports, peace, and development and to explore ways to translate the insights gained into practice.

What's so appealing about working through sports is that the translation of values into practice is tangible and immediate. Think how often people use sports metaphors to express profound thoughts: the level playing field to convey fairness, teamwork as the essence of solidarity. Sports conveys ideas in practical ways that force us to confront what they mean.

The summit at the UN built on the experience and dreams of a group of 25 young leaders who work through sports for world peace and true development. Adam Fine founded Fives Futbol that operates in South Africa, while he was still at college. It inspires young people but also gets them jobs. Dina Buchbinder is a quintessential social entrepreneur. Her civic education program, Deportes Para Compartir, uses the power of games and sports to press for core values of citizenship. Dina works from her native Mexico but also in the US and has worldwide dreams and plans. And Zaid Mohseni, lawyer and businessman, returned to his native Afghanistan from Australia and has built a football league whose energy and hope defy negative images of that country. Each of the young leaders group (and some equally remarkable "elders") came determined to work together on transformational and creative programs.

So what positive values in sports link the material and the spiritual, the fun and joy of sports with programs worthy of the grave challenges that face the world? Six stand out.

The first is peace. Ending conflicts and controlling violence are vital for development and for sports. But sporting events are also a great way to work for peace in practical ways. During the ancient Olympic games, all fighting stopped for months and each Olympic Games today is accompanied by a United Nations blessed Olympic Truce. It's an inspiration that needs some umpff to give it meaning. Looking beyond silencing guns is the goal of building peaceful and harmonious societies. Such notions of peace call for action starting at a very young age, continuing through life. At all stages sport as a reality and as a metaphor offers ideas and inspiration for the peaceful development.

Second, in sports goals are set high and there are no limits to the ambitions of achievement. The essence of excellence is dealing with disappointment and learning from it to achieve more. In development we need to resist limits on goals and ideals for human welfare. We know what can be achieved, for example with modern health care. And we know that more can be achieved. That is another link between sports and the new global goals that members of the United Nations are hammering out.

Neither in sport nor in working for peace and development can we achieve what we aim for alone. The essence of teamwork is to build on differences, and on different experience. Partnership and cooperation are vital. Teamwork is what empowerment is about.

In both sports and peace and development we talk about inclusion, because excellence is not for an elite but for everyone. We know that girls and women are vital and equal players, as are those with disabilities. Sports can achieve miracles in inspiring people in poor communities, truly bringing them into the society.

Firth, in both sports and development integrity is the most central value. Without trust, and without clear rules of the game, law and order, respected and reflecting both each culture and universal norms, systems and people fail. We have come to appreciate how devastating corruption can be across the board, undermining both achievements and trust. We have to that we face our flaws and differences with honesty and a constructive spirit.

Perhaps the most resounding value that sports can advance is to reinforce the importance of happiness and human fulfillment. A central attraction of sport is the sheer beauty of seeing what a human being or team can achieve, whether it is figure skating, a marathon, or a soccer team in action. All allow the human spirit to soar.