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How sports can appease interrnational relations

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Sports are a pillar of universality in a world increasingly polarized along religious, cultural or political lines. Sports have  proven to be, at times, the only bridge between peoples, and have played a role in shaping widespread perceptions of international relations.

Through part of the 20th century, the sports arena was the setting for the symbolic confrontation of the Eastern and Western blocs--an extension of the cold war through the Olympic Games, for example(at times when the USSR and the US did not boycott the events), or in international chess competitions that have become iconic (Fischer vs Spassky, for example).

With the downfall of the soviet union and the end of the cold war, sports progressively became an opportunity for dialogue and exchange more than confrontation. The symbolic value of sports has, in recent years, often been more effective than diplomatic efforts in helping to mend difficult relations between groups.

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland gave a powerful example of this when they presented a unified rugby team, long before tensions around Ulster politics were appeased. Similarly, athletes of North and South Korea have walked together for years during the Olympic opening ceremony, in spite of severely conflicting relations between the two countries.

Symbolic gestures are indeed powerful, although they certainly cannot replace tangible diplomatic relations. Signs of reconciliation and hope can be disseminated through sports and can play a pivotal role in steering group perceptions and opinions in the direction of dialogue and peace. Joel Bouzou, a former athlete and founder of Peace and Sport argues that:

"Sport is a concrete and pragmatic tool to facilitate exchanges between peoples and communities through its direct impact on younger generations. The power of sport to provide structure make it an idea framework for prevention of multiple evils that affect populations vulnerable to violence, hatred and poverty."

The awareness regarding the social and diplomatic importance of sports is growing all around the world. Recently in Qatar, Richard Attias launched the Doha Goals Forum, which provides a forum for reflecting on the social impact of sport and how its potential political momentum can be tapped into for positive objectives.

More and more people believe that we should face the fact that globalization, along with the increased exchanges and greater opening of world economic, cultural and social frontiers it has triggered, has also brought up new lines of division. In this context, common, universal references that bring people together are becoming harder to find. But sports have the ability to play that role.

Richard Attias' initiative is intended to enhance the role of sports as a catalyst for communication and advocacy for peace and dialogue in accordance with core values of sportsmanship. It will bring together athletes, policy-makers and sports fanatics from all over the world around one discussion table to start spelling out a global reflection on sports and peace.


I'm a retired public school teacher from Belgium with a special interest in schools systems worldwide as well as development issues.
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How sports can appease interrnational relations


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