Written by Julia Quintavalle
There’s something about the Olympics that I find mesmerizing. Every other year, we gather around the television to cheer on athletes competing in sports that we have never played. We admire and envy Olympic athletes. We’re amazed by their natural abilities. We look at the medals that hang around their necks and wonder “how amazing would it be to stand there?” For most people it’s an unrealistic goal. However, even though most athletes young and old will never call themselves Olympians, there are definitely lessons that can be taken from Sochi and applied to everyone else in the world.
Every professional athlete has extraordinary natural skills and abilities, but natural ability alone is not what turns an athlete into an Olympian. Those skills – passion, dedication, determination and a strong work ethic – are skills that can be mastered by anyone, no matter what you plan on doing with your life.
I had the pleasure to attend a panel discussion last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in partnership with the International Youth Foundation. The panel was entitled “More than Medals: Youth, Sports, Prosperity, and Security” and focused on how sports can bring people together and prepare youth for a fulfilling future. It was an impressive panel that included representatives from PeacePlayers International, USAID, the British Council, and a 2-time Olympic Gold Medal-winning swimmer.
Using sports as a means for development is not new, but it is definitely becoming more popular than it has ever been. Sports are an integral part of every culture. From a young age kids look up to professional athletes as role models. Why not use something that is so engrained in our society to make the world a better place? When employed correctly, kids develop the very skills that are necessary to succeed outside of sports; the skills that every successful person, whether they are an athlete or not, has used to make their way to the top.
The participating speakers at the panel all had the same message: sports can unite people, teach them valuable skills, and create a great space for developing human capital. PeacePlayers International uses basketball as a way to bring together youth in areas of ethnic and religious conflict. Brendan Tuohey, the founder and Executive Director of the organization, noted that a good sports program will bring youth together because they want to compete, and when they are competing they don’t care if their teammate is from a different ethnic or religious background. However, competition is not the only important factor; with trained coaches and a good curriculum, PeacePlayers International takes conflict resolution and tolerance off of the court and applies it to the rest of the participants’ lives.
Similarly, the larger multilateral organizations like USAID and the British Council also recognize the importance of using sport as a tool for development. They note that sports programs are relevant, sustainable, and athletes have a great amount of soft power. The British Council runs programs in conjunction with the English Premier League, giving the star power necessary to draw in kids but also creating a space that can further enhance community development.
As the Winter Olympics continue into their second week, we once again realize the impact that international sporting events and athletes have on our society and our world. As much as we enjoy seeing our country’s team win gold medals, it is not the fact that they have won that impresses me, but everything an Olympian has had to do to get where they are, that is truly inspirational. They had to work so hard, give up so much, and never give up on their passion in order to be where they are today. It is not just the athletes, but their message. In a few weeks we will forget the names of many of the competitors that we have watched, but what an Olympian stands for, the message that they embody, is what will stick with us for the next two years, until we do it all again. That is the power of sports, and something in which anyone can find inspiration.