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Peace through sports
Humane response to bigotry, intolerance and prejudice


April 4, 2005

PARIS -- The positive influence of sport on all aspects of human life - its benefits of instituting mutual understanding across divisions of race, culture and gender - means that its importance ought to be recognized in peace-building and global reconciliation initiatives. 'Peace through Sports' is a new frontier opened for humanity. The belated recognition of the true value of sport in promoting coexistence, however, means that peace through sports is a relatively new occurrence. Sports in modern world are helping gel nations together. Suwan and Badir two Arab players of the 22 member national Israeli football team with their two recent goals against Ireland and France achieved more goodwill gelling minds of 'people to people' than any other soothing political event in the recent past.

Who can forget the 'Ping pong diplomacy' contributions to global peace those games helped opened doors of China to the US. Politics in this new globalized world has become a secondary tool of achieving results, sporting events help cool down inflamed situations, in contemporary times wars are averted through sports, Cricket diplomacy is an important tool of foreign policy in South Asia, land of 1.2 billion people. The combine aggression let out by fans in the Eden Garden Calcutta is many times more than firepower in many a big war theaters in South Asia, it soothes the nations in a peaceful manner, seeing their opponent being slaughtered heals a lot of old wounds, what a peaceful way to achieve satisfaction of victory over hated foes.

Tiger Wood and Agassi have brought more power, prestige and admiration for US than many missiles. Similarly, Ali Daei, Hashemian, Ferydoon Zandi are grossing a lot of dazzling name for Iran and calming down a nation torn between political extremes, they help unite a nation, a role larger than playing football, little does anyone appreciates that the Iranian football team is a biggest healers of Iranian political wounds it helps unite the nation in a unison!

The past hostility between nations is now discharged on the sporting field rather on battlefields. Imagine, sea change of attitude, Arab players like Suwan and Badir are hailed as heroes in Israel's World Cup campaign, global sports and global events are helping cure the historical cancers embedded deep within societies. Football is working its miraculous healing process within heart of the most of fractious of societies.Lot of bridges of hate and acrimony can be crossed by these overnight champions of sports. Palestinian politicians pushed the point home after Arab pair, who suffered verbal abuse from Jewish fans in the past, scored crucial goals in Israel's two qualifying games last week, leaving Israel on the brink of World Cup qualification. Abbas Suwan, whose 90th-minute goal against Ireland in Tel Aviv last Saturday secured a 1-1 draw, said afterwards: "I thank everyone cheered on the national team and made no distinction between Arabs and Jews. Everyone hugged me in the dressing room." Subsequently Walid Badir, a veteran of the Israeli premier league team Maccabi Haifa, saved the national side from defeat by heading in a late equalizer against France. Three Arabs in the 22-strong Israeli national squad have caught the imagination of Palestinians and Israelis. Their sudden popularity has been hailed as a sign of football's ability to bridge the gaps between warring communities - especially after one of the Arab players dedicated his goal to his "Jewish brothers".

Responses from fellow Israeli Arabs, has been lukewarm, however, many of them were sore at the way exultant Israeli fans chanted "He's Jewish, he's Jewish" after Suwan's goal. Many of these fans have been supporting Israel's opponents in the World Cup matches; in protest at what they say is discrimination against them by the country's government.

Arguably FIFA is a stronger organization than UN given the importance placed on the World Cup which over 60 percent of the World population watches. Olympic committee responsible for awarding 2012 events is hosted with more pomp and luxury than royalty and heads of states than any other member of the diplomatic corps. Even Head of States privately frown at the ostentatious generosity towards the Olympic committee and the way gifts are showered; it is said that Olympic hosting changes the economy of the city; it saddles the hosting city with loans but uplifts the city a few notches higher, Barcelona pre-Olympic is a different city from Barcelona post Olympic same can be safely said about Athens. President Chirac and Queen Elisabeth are both trying hard to maneuver the hosting of 2012 Olympic in their respective countries.

Sport's role in nation-building is multi-faceted: a victory in a major international sporting event is of national importance. One of Africa's great statesmen, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah once said ìsporting success gives dignity and pride". In 1960, when the Ghana national football team made a tour of Europe, Nkrumah instructed them to go and correct the Europeans' prejudices about Africa. He saw sport as the first step towards building a formidable team which could contribute to the emancipation of Africa. Instead of hot wars; sporting events in arenas are modern equivalents of old wars where natural human embedded belligerence finds a peaceful outlet.

The stirring success of the three Arabs in the 22-strong national squad reminded me of the heroics of Zinedine Zidane who played splendidly for multi-ethnic French team in blasting conventional styles of Frenchness, and delivered a smashing blow to the Le Pen political beliefs of exclusion, segregation, fascism and reaction. Born to an immigrant proletarian Algerian family in Marseilles, "Zizou" as he is tenderly identified to the French public has risen to become not only the most important French footballer of the 1990s, he is now a totemic enlightening symbol. French soccer team with the help of individual players like "Zizou" destroyed the rising tide of right wing politics within France. One million people celebrated on Paris's Champs ElysÈes after Zidane's two headers stunned Brazil in the World Cup final in 1999 on home soil.

The role of Algerian-French Zidane along with his team mates that boasted an Armenian Youri Djorkaeff, the battling West African Patrick Vieira, and, in Lilian Thuram, an authoritative French African who saved his nation's footballing hopes more than once, from right-back, with a set of wonderfully struck goals. France had, in addition, two Black strikers in Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet, a talented Black attacking midfield player, Christian Karembeu, and a Basque left-back, Biexente Lizarazu -- and even captain Didier Deschamps was half Savoyard. When this extraordinary group of Frenchmen won the supreme sporting experience in the world on home soil, the little-France mindset of Le Pen and his breed was savaged by an unbridled devouring of cheerful sporting energy, producing a blissful national satisfaction that owed nothing to the hate-filled fantasies of the Right, and everything to a multi-ethnic patriotism. It is no coincidence that the triumph of these Frenchman took place just in advance of the satisfying implosion of the Front National, and the disastrous decline of the political fortunes of Le Pen himself.

The bridge-building power of sports linking people to people was amply demonstrated in the wrestling competition which ended over twenty years of hostility between the USA and Iran in 1998. Despite uncertainty on both sides, the Takhti Cup International Wrestling Tournament went ahead in Teheran. American and Iranian wrestlers entered the ring to the cheers of an enthusiastic public and the contestants exchanged pleasantries after the competition.

Some time later America and Iran took a step further in their new-found affiliation when they were drawn to play in the same group at the 1998 FIFA World cup Finals in France. Again, media commentary prior to the encounter was anxious, with many articles predicting that the match would be blemished by hostilities. Once again, however, the qualms proved unwarranted with fans of both sides exchanging souvenirs including T-shirts in the national colors of America and Iran. Before kick-off the players presented each other with bouquets, posed for group photos, and even embraced. The match itself was one of the fairest in the entire tournament. The Iranians won 2-1, but the Americans were sportive in defeat.

In South Africa, politics and sports are intertwined. During the apartheid years, South Africa was excluded from international sports competitions. Although European cricket and rugby teams still toured South Africa in defiance of the international sporting boycott, they encountered a torrent of criticism. Left without international sports heroes of their own, black South Africans looked for alternatives abroad. In particular, Dutch football-player Ruud Gullit became incredibly popular among black South Africans, not least because he dedicated his prize as European Footballer of the Year to Nelson Mandela, who at the time was still in prison. The redemption of post apartheid South Africa has been largely due to the roles played by the South African sports teams such as in 1994, when a multiracial South Africa team clinched the rugby World Cup at home in front of a beaming Nelson Mandela.

Today nations are judged by the number of gold medals they achieve in Olympics; GDP/ capita is one element of dominance but Olympics success is not far behind, nations economically superior but sportingly weak are considered as ill advanced and ill equipped to meet the challenges of 21st century.

Major super powers and aspirants of proposed expansion of UN Security Council coveted powerful seats plan to secure maximize number of gold's in next Olympics; it privately said those who should lead the world should lead in sports too. Many countries weak on this count fear rejection of their coveted status and working hard to bridge the quality gap. China is planning to upstage US by 2012 in the Olympic Gold aspiring to emerge as new Global sporting super power! One of the expressions of power today is supremacy in the fields of sporting events. Sporting events can form strong bridges. Politicians should look at the calming effects of sports that helps blend concord and tranquil within competing segments of population.

For letters section
Iqbal Latif

Iqbal Latif


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