by Seth Sicroff
In July 2002, the Secretary General of the United Nations appointed an Inter-Agency Task Force to assess the potential contributions of sport to the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) as defined in The Millenium Development Goals Report. These eight goals, to be completed by 2015, are:
In 2003, the Task Force issued a 35-page report entitled Sport for Development and Peace: Towards Achieving the Millenium Development Goals. Of the eight MDGs, none mention peace and only #8 mentions development. Development, however, is to be understood as broader than economic change: it covers a range of "human" values, including education, health, social equity, and sustainability. Development is a process of enlarging people’s choices and increasing the opportunities available to all members [present and future] of society. Essentially, development is the current term for what we used to call progress; apparently the word progress is now perceived as too transparently presumptuous in terms of the direction that change ought to take; personally, I would say that development has now been loaded with similar connotative burdens. Be that as it may, development in this value-loaded sense is targeted narrowly or generally in all eight MDGs.
Partnership: According to the Task Force, the world of sport is particularly suited to contribute to Goal 8, the cultivation of a global partnership for development, insofar as sport is about participation ... about inclusion and citizenship; it brings individuals and communities together, highlighting commonalities and bridging cultural or ethnic divides.
Of course, there are many non-sport activities that might be characterized as partnership-friendly. Stamp collecting, poker, singing, and Web site development all have a social dimension, even if they can (like running, swimming, or skiing) be practiced in isolation. The argument for the utility of sport as a means of furthering development and peace is based on the apparent benefits of sports (as opposed to other partnership-building activities) and on the status of sport as a universal human right.
What does the Task Force mean by sport? According to the SPD Report, sport includes all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction. These include play; recreation; organized, casual or competitive sport; and indigenous sports or games.
Confusingly, the Report then distinguishes between
This artificial and incomplete framework would seem to contradict and to narrow the definition just proposed. More puzzling, the Report goes on to postulate that Importantly, play, physical recreation and sport are all freely chosen activities undertaken for pleasure. If this means exclusively and necessarily for pleasure, it would exclude not only all compensated activities (whether professional or collegiate), but also all required academic and scholastic programs. My guess is that this exclusion is not intended. Motivation is almost always mixed, and the fact that an activity is required or lucrative does not mean that it is not pleasurable.
The Report also limits the inclusiveness of what is characterized as sport in emphasizing sport for all; (participation and ...inclusion of all groups in society, regardless of gender, age, ability or race), as opposed to elite competitive sport [which] generally lies outside the scope of this report.)
The aim of United Nations activities involving sport is not the creation of new sporting champions and the development of sport but rather the use of sport in broader development and peace-building activities. While in some instances such activities may lead to the development of sport, the primary desired outcome is to contribute to overall development via sport-related projects.
This seems at odds with the argument that sports contribute massively to the economy: if elite sports are removed from the calculation, the total impact of sports would be relatively minor. In addition, the argument that sport has a rare potential to mobilize attention and action is seriously undermined if we exclude the kind of elite competition and exceptional performance that attract spectators and fans. Finally, it seems unrealistic to exclude from consideration precisely the facet of sport that defines it the world at large. It is as if we were to say that in our definition boxing includes only shadow-boxing or sparring, but not competitive bouts where the object is to beat someone up.
In fact, the initial formulation is vague enough to include gardening, singing, dancing, walking, crawling, pottery throwing, and even sex. If the scope is then limited to activities that are organized and involve rules, we have eliminated jogging, non-competitive weight-lifting, biking, surfing, rock-climbing, mountaineering, all extreme sports and Frisbee tossing. Again, some of the Report's generalizations about the benefits of sports would seem to narrow the concept (for instance, the point that participation would raise awareness of and concern for the environment -- obviously not applicable to indoor sports), but it is important to keep in mind that the report does not say that all sports offer all or even most of the mentioned benefits.
Here is a laundry list of sport benefits culled from the entire Report:
Sport is critical the development of children, and important to people of all ages, insofar as it
For refugees, displaced persons, orphans and former child soldiers, sport
For the community and for society in general, sport
As noted above, not all of the claimed benefits apply to every participant's experience. Elizabeth Lambert's recent spectacle is remarkable not just for its lack of sportsmanship, but for the fact that she now has a fanclub on Facebook with thousands of supporters who defend her aggressive play. (If you're not cheating, you're not trying.) As for learning about one's body, I ran outdoor and indoor track for three years in high school, was a founding member of the soccer team, and boxed for several years in college -- and learned very little about human biology. It might be argued that the coaching staff could take a more active hand in shaping physical education, but that is not a typical outcome.
Oddly, the claims made for sport would seem to apply better to any team sport (including baseball, which, unless you are the pitcher or catcher, involves little activity during the actual games) than to jogging, swimming, or aerobics classes, which can do a lot more to maintain health over the long term. American football and boxing are in fact quite damaging to health, over the long term.
Clearly the Task Force was not interested in adjudicating what is or is not a sport. One advantage of emphasizing the importance of partnerships is that the United Nations is not placed in the untenable position of having to make such decisions.
The SPD Report suggests that sport is a propitious field to target for UN purposes because there is a UN-acknowledged universal right to participate in sports. This status is
Of course, unless a “right” is clearly defined and also enforced, any invocation of it is just posturing.
I'll have more to say about the recommendations of the Task Force, and about the role that Moving Mountains can play in furthering the SPD agenda
If you are interested in participating in Moving Mountains or have any feedback, contact Mountain Legacy Projects Coordinator Seth Sicroff at email@example.com; 511 W. Green St., Ithaca NY, 14850 USA; (607) 256-0102.