Celebrating Unity and Diversity through Sport

Sport is an important tool for socio-economic and political development. Like music, sport brings people together regardless of age, gender, and physical ability, racial or ethnic background.

It can also help to alleviate juvenile delinquency and crime. A good example is in Mexico where it is claimed that whenever Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is playing for his club Manchester United, there is a reduction in gang-related violence and crime in most Mexican cities. This, because criminal gangs take time off to watch Mexico’s favourite sports son performing on television.
Furthermore, closer to home, it has been established by non-governmental and charity organisations that, given a choice, most of the children abducted to be child soldiers are happier playing football than running around holding guns and machetes, killing and maiming their own kith and kin.
Such is the power of sport that it can serve as social therapy and unite diverse groups and tribes in various nations to rally around their respective national flags during sports competitions.
However, before we get too excited, we should remember that, sometimes, sport cannot be a panacea to all the problems that our societies face. For example, the unity and joyful celebrations of the Kurds, Sunni, Shiite and Shia Iraqis in the streets of Iraq after the country won the Asian Football Cup a few years ago was short-lived. “Normal service” soon resumed in the form of car bombs, grenades, shootings and other forms of violence.
There is, therefore, need for political stability for the benefits of sport to be enjoyed in any country, including Iraq. As concerned world citizens, we can hope and pray that Iraqis can unite to rebuild their country for the citizens to continue enjoying their sport.
When one looks at the bitter rivalry between the South Asian nations of India and Pakistan, cricket is one activity they agree upon.
 When the two countries are engaged in cricket competition, they find a different battleground, appreciate each other more and it is not surprising that guns do fall silent. Nobody talks about the disputed Kashmir Region for a change! Such is the unifying power of sport.
However, recently, world sport, especially football, got a rude awakening in Europe.
The racial abuse scandals that have plagued the game, especially in Eastern Europe where some countries are being made to play in empty stadia, are indeed causes for concern.
The football governing body for Europe, UEFA, has been criticised for being too lenient with clubs and associations whose fans perpetrate such nefarious deeds. It has been alleged that some clubs in Russia even abuse their own black players.
 It is also reported that some fans at a well-known club have even gone on to publicly threaten a black player of French origin, warning him against signing for their club and coming to play in Russia.
Considering some of the aforementioned examples, some cynics might argue that the unifying power of sport is very much exaggerated. They do allege that sport is too much hype over nothing. They further allege that any racial unity or solidarity or civilised interaction is a facade restricted to the sports grounds. Back in mainstream society, bigotry, discrimination, inequalities, prejudice, xenophobia and violence characterise relations among the various racial and ethnic groups.
The United States and indeed the whole world celebrated Martin Luther King Day recently. One might ask whether in his 1960s speech, “I have a dream”, the good brother perhaps was dreaming too much.
Is it right for black Africans to extend a hand of forgiveness, friendship and reconciliation to their erstwhile foes and abusers? What if there is no reciprocal gesture from others?  Is it a sign of weakness or strength? Indeed these are tough moral questions to answer.
Despite these thorny issues, however, the stage has been set for Africa by its political leaders. The 2010 FIFA World Cup was a prime example that Africa can organise events that are largely trouble-free when it comes to race relations. The conviction and moral authority of Martin Luther King and political leaders such as Nelson Mandela provides hope that indeed the whole world, including Africans, must move forward.
The world, and especially Africa, cannot afford to go back to the dark days of racial hatred and intolerance. The consequences of doing so are too ghastly to contemplate.
Genuine sport lovers will, however, continue to take heart from the wise sayings of Mahatma Gandhi who boldly stated that, “The weak can never forgive.
Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”. In addition, Martin Luther King provides further counselling that “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools”.
As the attention of African sports lovers continues to be riveted on the on-going Africa Cup of Nations in  South Africa,  it is indeed another fitting tribute to Nelson Mandela and other great African political leaders who have led the continent to where it is now. It is confirmation that we can indeed celebrate our unity and diversity through sport.
Africa must continue to show world how to party! May the best team win the 2013 AFCON!

January 2013
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