When people think of sports, human rights are not the first thing to come to mind. Some see sport as a physical activity for improving their health. Other thinks about its glamorous side: fire-breathing athletes, packed stadiums, and expensive broadcasting.
But that’s only on the surface. Underneath, sport has the power to impact society in many meaningful ways. It can create new industries, influence existing ones, make people forget about their problems for a while, and even bring peace and promote human rights.
Peace and human rights are carved into Olympic ideal for a world without violence in which conflicts are being turned into friendships on the sports battlefields. In Ancient Greece, when the time for the Olympics had been on the schedule, all the wars had stopped until the end of the Games. The only battles had been ongoing in sports arenas. Similar is the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914. It says that on Christmas 1914, during the First World War, the German and British soldiers on the Western front took a short break from the war to play a football game.
There is a countless number of stories of sport promoting peace and building an environment where human rights are respected. Moreover, sports and human rights have common values, such as respect, fair play, sharing, community, and cooperation; therefore, these stories teach us how sport can advance human rights.
Sport as an Alternative to Violence
Children who haven’t been taught sports values are particularly vulnerable to the temptation of joining a street gang. Those who haven’t felt the benefits of sharing, cooperation, and fair play believe that everyone else is their enemy.
These young people sometimes get involved in gang killings, depriving others of their right to life. Very often, they are involved in some kind of bullying and physical violence, and always discriminate.
The story about the Afghanistan Rugby Federation is the complete opposite of that. They encourage sports as a tool for peace and mutual understanding. Anyone who wants to practice rugby can join them. They don’t have a prejudice about who have participated in the war and who hasn’t. Anyone willing to choose sport as an alternative to violence is welcome.
Heal Wounds of Conflict
The story above also shows the power of sports to heal the wounds of conflict. Instead of keeping hard feelings and proving who was right or wrong, the desire for sports activity keep them together and heals the wounds of their conflict.
This story inevitably reminds of the one about the South Africa national rugby team. Right after breaking from the apartheid, South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was the first major event the country has ever hosted and the first one where both white and black players brought the national team to the trophy. President Nelson Mandela used this event for healing the wounds of the conflict that preceded the World Cup and building a new environment of respect for human rights and tolerance. He managed to bring together both black and white communities and unite them under the same flag toward brighter future.
Fight Peacefully Against Abusive Governments
Not all governments take advantage of sports events to promote human rights in their country as Nelson Mandela did. Some of them are reported to violate them massively in order to present themselves in the best possible way to the rest of the world. Most notably, according to reports, the Qatari government abuses the human rights of workers building the venues for the FIFA World Cup 2022 on a massive scale.
The pressure created by the public worldwide made UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, include a new requirement for awarding the opportunity to host the final tournament. Starting from the bidding for the EURO 2024, the bidding countries have to prove that human rights are being respected in their country. That’s a way in which they peacefully fight against governments that abuse human rights.
Athletes Who Speak Up
Athletes are celebrities. When they speak up, their word is being heard and impacts millions. Enter Colin Kaepernick. He kneeled when the national anthem of the United States was being played to protest police abuse of power against Afro-American people. It hasn’t solved all the racial issues in the United States, but it sparked a great debate in the society and increased the pressure on the police to treat everyone equally in all situations.
Equal Rewards for All
Human rights mean absence of discrimination, but unfortunately, in many parts of the world women are still denied participation in sports activities. And, even when they compete in events, rewards are not always equal as of their male counterparts.
This doesn’t mean that human rights are being violated per se. The way the free market works often means that men bring more revenue to those who pay them. However, it shouldn’t prevent competition organizers from giving equal rewards to both men and women. Tennis tournaments were the first ones among major sports tournaments to recognize that, serving as an excellent example for advancing human rights through sports that others could follow.