Sport – so what?

06/04/2016  -  8.58am

Dr Richard Medcalf - Principal Lecturer in Sport

Today (April 6) marks the third “International Day of Sport for Development and Peace” (IDSDP), an initiative led by the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee to celebrate the way in which sport can act as a lever for social change.

It is not uncommon to hear evangelical accounts of the perceived positive outcomes of participation in sport. Sport is often deemed to provide the opportunity for friendship, challenge, and betterment. In addition to the many therapeutic individual outcomes of participation in sport, it has long been apparent that sport can stimulate outcomes beyond the individual. Sport can be a vehicle to achieve social good. Engagement in sport is often seen as a catalyst for opportunities for communities to interact and for nations to meet.

Sport is now commonly considered to have the potential to make a contribution to a range of wider social objectives. However, participation in sport does not happen in a social vacuum.

In the same way that we can cite many positive outcomes that are possible through engagement with sport, we must also acknowledge the potential for negative experiences in and through sport.

Sport’s social and commercial power makes it a potentially potent force, both for good and for bad. Sport celebrates the mastery of an opponent, and the exertion of effort. Consequently, it can also provoke conflict amongst both individuals and communities. There are innumerable occasions that evidence how sport can construct barriers between individuals and communities, and thus can often cause a challenge to our relationships. Engagement in sport can exacerbate social tensions and divide communities. Sport often offers a reward for assertion and aggression in a way that many would find uncomfortable. It is frequently the very nature of sport that stops some people from participating.

There is often a polemic response to sport that is indicative of the way in which engagement in sporting activities ranges from those who are impassioned activists for sport, to those who choose not to engage on any level. ‘Sport’ is a contested term which can mean different things to different people. The nature of sport, and the values which are inherent within participation, are reflective of the rich and varied experiences which participation can bring.

The IDSDP is a programme designed to celebrate the very many positive outcomes of sport. It is also incumbent upon us all to remind ourselves of the challenges associated with (and sometimes caused by) the sports industry in its current guise.    

More information on the IDSDP is available from the IOC and UN websites. Elements of this blog are taken from our new text, Current Issues in Contemporary Sport Development, edited by staff from the Institute of Sport.