Closing UNOSDP is Guterres’ worst mistake
Sport leaders have to know a great deal more than just the organizations they oversee, because they face the same issues, challenges and threats that governments do. They can benefit by learning from the experience that makes possible to enter circles that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, but sport for development has opened those doors.
The closing of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) is the worst decision that the Secretary-General António Guterres can make. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan created the UNOSDP, appointing the first Special Adviser in February 2001 (See chronology of sport, development and peace). In a statement by the UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric he said, “The secretary-general has requested the UN office in Geneva to oversee the closure arrangements for the Office on Sport for Development and Peace.” Apparently the reason is for a cost-saving measure.
The diplomacy of sport and its role in nation building
Sport can be a generator of soft power in a world hegemonically more and more dominated by hard power. The principles behind idealism can help forge a strong counter-position with sports for this global political awakening of realism and the perils and fears that the collective suffering have brought to everyone. Directly and indirectly the Syrian war, the refugee crisis, the extreme radicals and ultimately the taking of the most important political position in the world by a right-wing populist affect us all.
If sport has played a role in softening diplomatic relationships such as the famous ping-pong diplomacy between the United States and China, if it has been able to create social cohesion as when Nelson Mandela understood the importance of using rugby, if it has found common ground for nation building such as when F.C. Ararat became a symbol for Armenians in 1973 after winning the Russian league, if the ideals of the Olympic charter in modern times try to revive the ancient peace truce that existed in Greece, the ekecheiria, during the Pan-Hellenic games, then the timing couldn’t be better for institutions such as the United Nations to use sport not only as a sui generis topic but as a tool for embracing the very best of humankind at all levels.
It’s true that sport has been at times a vehicle to express discontent and in unfortunate accounts it has been the modus operandi to affect others negatively. However, it is rather time for stakeholders involved within sports: athletes, sport managers, leaders of sport organizations to influence politicians and social leaders for the use of sport as never before to bring out its potential of unity, excellence, teamwork, respect and perseverance. And it needs to be done at the elite level all the way to the grassroots level.
The role of international sport organizations and the benefit of sport, development and peace
It is important for Guterres, leaders of international sport organizations and head of states, to understand that sport has the ability to trickle down to the outer circles of exclusion where sport for development and peace does most of its work, working with the most disenfranchised communities. Also, the use of non-sport activities is part of the strategy used in sport for development and peace to bring back excluded citizens, strengthening social capital.
Furthermore it’s of importance for international sport organizations such as the International Olympic Committee to increase their role in the global context by supporting the existence of branches like UNOSDP. We live in a world inter-connected as never before. Sport has the capacity of consolidating relationships at many levels and should be in the capacity of political leaders to bridge the divide through social innovative mechanisms that grassroots sport offer and these initiatives should be implemented hand in hand with international sport organizations and the knowledge of UNOSDP.
Governments now have to think more creatively about sport development. Sport leaders have to know a great deal more than just the organizations they oversee, because they face the same issues, challenges and threats that governments do. They can benefit by learning from the experience that makes possible to enter circles that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, but sport for development has opened those doors.
Using UNOSDP to create a peace world-building movement
Politically speaking, Guterres, having served for 10 years as High Commissioner for Refugees should understand better the benefits of having the UNOSDP. We are in a moment when mega sport events have become a realist aim for potential terrorist targets to demonstrate their power and undermine the security measures of developed nations. This has become a financial burden for organizers, and it deviates the true spirit of the game from its very essence.
Developed nations that are part of multilateral organizations like the OECD, those who have suffered from attacks during their mega sporting events, and those who hold seats in the UN Security Council, should place the same sport policy importance to initiatives such as the ones offered by the UNOSDP that can truly become tools of soft power for the betterment of the international community. If sports became a pivotal actor in many instances for nation building during the 20th century, it is time now that sport becomes a peace world-building movement for the remaining of the 21st century. For this to happen every stakeholder in the sector: beginning with Guterres, the international sport organizations and heads of state, should look beyond their personal agendas and egos, and think for the collective interest of all, to learn what the field of sport for development and peace has achieved, and reinstate the UNOSDP.