Like millions of others around the world, I’ve been glued to the TV for days watching the drama of the Olympics unfold in my living room. My favorite events were diving and gymnastics, perhaps because I competed in those sports as a kid. I also loved watching the games for their ability to unite the world in a way that no other event can. Extraordinary athletes from every country, religion, and culture, compete as equals for the purpose of reaching the same goal. They all enter as adversaries, yet these strangers from around the globe invariably hug each other at the finish line out of mutual respect and admiration. At a time of so much division and violence in the world, it’s a welcome and rare relief to see such multi-cultural cooperation celebrated on the global stage.
The Olympics should remind all of us involved in youth advocacy of the power of sports, not only as a potential way to bring different groups of young people together, but also as an avenue to engage them and pass along critical life lessons. In fact, our love of sports has already spawned some truly innovative efforts to help young people exercise a different set of skills as well – like how to be a good citizen or a better student, or how to reach beyond one’s own stereotypes to form a new friendship. Search for Common Ground has developed an international TV series called The Team that takes the universal appeal of soccer/football and merges it into a soap opera. The goal is to change deep-seated social attitudes and reduce violence in conflict areas of the world. Each series follows local members of the team as they struggle to overcome their differences so they can work together to win the game. These TV shows, now being produced across Africa and the Middle East, have been a huge hit. The Team in Kenya was ranked among the top ten most popular TV programs in the country.
Young activists have also chosen sports as a way to teach tolerance, non-violence, and social change. Dina Buchbinder, a YouthActionNet® Fellow, established an organization in Mexico that promotes the healthy development and active participation of children through sports and games. Her Deport-es para Compartir (Sports for Sharing) group works with kids from marginalized communities to strengthen their teamwork and leadership skills and understand their role in society. So far her organization has reached 45,000 children across Mexico, and plans to expand the project to other countries. “There is so much potential in every young person,” she says. “I see myself as one of them.”
Closer to home, I just learned from a colleague that her daughter, Dawn, a recent university graduate, has joined the local chapter of “Soccer without Borders.” The organization runs community-led, year-round sports and civic engagement programs for underserved youth. “This group pulls together refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and all over Africa who have just moved to Baltimore,” she explains, “and unites them, at least initially, around soccer.” Then, the program helps them navigate their new and sometimes hostile surroundings and prepares them to “enter a new culture, a new life, and new schools.”
We are bombarded every day with painful reminders of how desperately we need these kinds of bridge-building initiatives in our communities. Just a few days ago, a gunman opened fire on worshippers in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six of them and wounding others. The man wielding the gun was reportedly associated with a white supremacist group who played in a neo-Nazi rock band. Such hate groups are on the rise in the United States and elsewhere. Even with all the progress society has made, terrible acts of violence like this one, fueled by intolerance and fear, as well as our own personal store of stereotypes that can be deeply hurtful to others, undermine our sense of common purpose and shared humanity.
As we mark this year’s International Youth Day, I urge us all to do a much better job of celebrating the young people who are working every day in our communities, far from the TV cameras, to heal broken lives and close the divides that keep us apart. They, too, embody the spirit of the Olympic Games by teaching us about inclusion and tolerance, about keeping one’s identity while embracing different perspectives, about working together to solve our toughest challenges; about, dare I say it, understanding that winning isn’t everything. They, too, deserve a global platform, an "Olympics for Doing Good", that recognizes and supports their extraordinary efforts to build a more peaceful, open, and just society.