07/02/2014 12:04 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

Even Just to Celebrate Our Differences: Why We Still Need Sports to Make Peace


It's the football (soccer) season again, and I find myself in a good mood. Growing up, I always looked forward to the Olympic Games and, during middle school, the World Cup. My reason was simple: I would have an excuse to watch more TV for some exciting stuff, not all of which I understood, but still, some exciting stuff which was better than no exciting stuff. Even better, I'd have something to discuss with my classmates the morning after -- anything from players' flops to commentators' gaffes. Everyone would join in, even the quiet kids who were often too shy to participate in a rowdy conversation that might involve the teachers. Bonding, so to speak. Even better, I might be allowed to stay up for a late-night game if my parents also happened to be interested in it. The night when the Barcelona Olympics opened, I as a preschooler could only steal a few glimpses from my bedroom. But in those few glimpses, I saw what seemed to me like such an extravaganza beyond worldly existence. For a kid who had barely left her block with two channels available on TV, moments like that were a big deal. Even just seeing the daylight in another country when it was pitch dark at home was enough for me to know that the world really was round, and there was a whole lot out there to be seen and lived one day.

This is the feeling that I only got to revisit at the recent World Sports Values Summit for Peace and Development in New York City. The Summit's co-organizer, Professor Katherine Marshall, has already made a succinct statement of the Summit's multifaceted outcome, which is also captured by the Summit Declaration. Young people today, in particular, were recognized as using sports to address challenges in both conflict and post-conflict settings. But where does one find the "significant potential" of sports to "overcome cultural divides, build community and advance peace and the common good," as the Declaration suggests? Clearly, "sports" could mean very different things for different people. To me, its meaning is not complete without invoking the middle-school bonding after World Cup matches and those glimpses through the bedroom door. To many of my friends here in the U.S., it often entails beer on a Sunday night. To some in Africa, it might mean making and playing with a football made from plastic bags. But this is exactly how sports unite by highlighting commonality among those who are otherwise very different.

From the thousands who worked for the Beijing Olympics one would get thousands of different defining "moments." In my case such a moment came quite unexpectedly. It was just another morning in the summer of 2008, when my coworkers and I were waiting for the bus to the Olympic Village where we worked. As our bus wobbled to a halt, barely able to support itself from the overload, the bus conductor got off and started to use her bull strength to push the outflowing passengers onto the bus. As we were in the middle of the intensive shoving and pushing my coworker turned to me and said, half-jokingly: "Even at a time like this?"

By "a time like this" she meant the Olympics. Sure, bus conductors in China had been doing this since the beginning of time (though not as professionally as those in Japan), but it still took a moment of being in the spotlight for one to be self-aware of such facts. Oftentimes, it's in moments like this that we're made to face our shortcomings and decide to finally do something about them. Such attempts may succeed, or they may fail miserably. But over the centuries, sports have provided all nations with many more opportunities to do so than otherwise. Since ancient times, people have put down fighting to do sports. When the reverse happens, it's often a sign that the world is undergoing turmoil of some sort. The absence of sports, in this regard, is much like a symptom of a malaise, an outward expression of something much deeper.

These were among the brief thoughts I shared at the World Sports Values Summit, which was much like an assembly of proactive idealists. A proactive idealist knows that just because one can't do everything doesn't mean one has to sit there and do nothing, as Lord Michael Bates from one of the panel sessions pointed out. Through sports, many of us have got to know better and even make friends with those who were our enemies. It's up to us each to take that further and let sports help promote peace and foster development through the building of social capital. Just as trade and interdependence have many times played an important pacifying role from the Pax Romana through today, sports can and should continue to be a stabilizing force especially in regions that are undergoing increasing tension, and we are all responsible in ways great and small to make it a reality.