Sports as a Tool for Social Inclusion and Social Change

Ask any sports participant what they love most about their involvement and they are sure to mention the bonds forged with their teammates. This is the case even when teams are made up of kids from different ethnic, socioeconomic, religious or cultural backgrounds.

Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that when applied correctly, sport can create bridges where boundaries usually exist, giving participants a lesson in teamwork, empathy for their teammates and respect for their opponents. Similarly, according to Truesport.com, “the literature on youth sport stresses the positive effects of participation in learning the important life skills of goal setting … the development of a strong sense of morality; and the development of an appreciation of diversity.”

Knowing how play can help develop and shape minds and hearts, it isn’t an unreasonable leap to think sports might be an instrument for social inclusion and social change, especially for migrants, immigrants or refugees. Organizations and governments have been working tirelessly to use sport for good in the world. Below are some examples of groups who began this work in earnest during the late 90s and early 2000s and then some examples of how more recently, governments and groups with world-wide influence use what they know about sports to help integrate migrants and immigrants and offer some reprieve for refugees.


During the late 1990s and early 2000s several initiatives began researching, developing, and implementing sports programs as a tool for social change. Non-profits, non-government organizations, and even the United Nations (UN) got to work in this field.

In 1995, the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA) was created with the philosophy that sport is not just about competition and exercise, but also regulates behavior and creates a feeling of belonging, which in turn leads to strengthening of democracy.

In 1997, FairPlay. Different Colours. One Game was launched by the Vienna Institute of International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC). FairPlay took an explicit stand against discriminatory behavior toward “foreign” fans and players whom regularly were victims of assaults ranging from structural exclusions to bullying chants.

In 2000, Laureus Sport for Good was launched to address a broad range of social problems. Part of South African Founder Johann Rupert’s inspiration came from when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, a triumph that helped unite people of all races. “The organization came to be named Laureus, based on the principle that sport can bridge the gaps in society and change the way people look at the world.”

Referencing back to antiquity and the Olympic Truce, the UN helped catapult sport into an agenda for development and peace when in 2001, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan nominated a Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace. In 2003 Sport & Development (www.sportanddev.org), an online resource and platform, was formed and is used to further the mission of the UN in seeking “how sport can be used as a tool for addressing some of the challenges that arise from humanitarian crisis and in conflict and post-conflict settings.” ISCA and Laureus Sport for Good now help fund sportanddev.org.


More recently in Europe, the theory of sport as bridge builder has been put to the test. Violence and poverty continue to drive a migrant crisis throughout Europe. Through the European Commission, the European Union (EU) has set a priority of using sport to offer migrants social inclusion.

“As well as being a great benefit to participants’ physical and mental health, sport and physical activity can be extremely valuable in the context of social inclusion and integration. Such activities provide opportunities for marginalized and underprivileged groups, such as migrants and people at risk of discrimination, to interact and integrate with other social groups.”

The EU project, Sport Inclusion Network implemented in 2011, published Inclusion of Migrants in and Through Sports: A Guide to Good Practice. The guide is based on country studies of eight member states of the EU including Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Hungary and United Kingdom. Each country has implemented programs that have been closely observed and the guide gives tips for program implementation including how to make programs accessible through schools and neighborhoods.

Academic experts continue to put resources toward research in the area of sport used as a tool for combating social exclusion. Studies like those listed below all explore the challenges facing 21st century societies:

In January of 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Dr. Thomas Bach visited Athens, Greece where $2 million of IOC emergency fund aided humanitarian efforts by building the Open Reception Centre for refugees in Athens. Bach says,

“By providing these sports facilities we want to give some hope to these refugees. We want to give them at least a little joy of life in these difficult circumstances. We want to give them the opportunity to mix with each other. Here you saw refugees from Syria, from Mali, from Sierra Leone, from Iran, from Iraq, all playing together with us, and really showing a small Olympic community here in this camp.”

In addition, the IOC has identified 43 prospective Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio under the Olympic flag. Bach says, “by welcoming ROA to the Olympic Games in Rio, we want to send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world.”

It’s logical to use every tool available to help repair torn communities, and sport seems like just the tool for the job. As UN.org reads, “Sport has a unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire. By its very nature, sport is about participation. It is about inclusion and citizenship. It stands for human values such as respect for the opponent, acceptance of binding rules, teamwork and fairness…” As long as sport is “increasingly recognized and used as a low-cost and high-impact tool in humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts” watch as society continues to make an investment in making sport a priority.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *