Sports are a tool for global social change

For many people in the world, the United Nations brings to mind a picture of Security Council negotiations and debates over weighty international problems like nuclear proliferation.

Still, if you pull back the curtain of mystique, you see an unexpected variety of UN programs changing lives in practical but important ways. On a daily basis, UN programs collaborate with governments, the private sector, and other partners to improve health, education, and living standards around the world.

Over the past decade, the UN has increasingly recognized the importance of sport in promoting development and peace - from reducing tensions between social groups to raising awareness about the risks of HIV/AIDS with help from sports stars. In order to call attention to sport's valuable role, the 191 UN member countries unanimously declared 2005 the International Year of Sport and Physical Education.

After all, sport is creating social change, widening opportunities for women and girls: In Kenya, the Together for Girls project was established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (with help from private industry) to encourage girls to participate in sports as a way to get them to attend and stay in school. The result has been an 88 percent increase in enrollment at the preschool level, and a 75 percent increase in participation in sports by girls at all levels.

Such initiatives will be highlighted at an international summit, Effecting Social Change through Women's Leadership in Sport, Oct. 20-22 in Atlanta.

Indeed, throughout the world, women are increasingly taking the lead by engaging their communities in an innovative fashion - often using sport as a springboard - to break down stereotypes and shatter barriers in the process. Consider three more examples of leaders who are changing their cultures on and off the athletic field:

• Molly Barker, a world-class triathlete and four-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete, founded and directs Girls on the Run International (GOTRI), which encourages preteen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running. This volunteer-led network of community-level councils across the United States and Canada serves as a role model through a 12-week, 24-lesson curriculum delivered in settings like after-school programs and recreation centers.

• Another example is Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan who, at the age of 13, became the first female to represent her country internationally in equestrian sport (show jumping) and is the only woman equestrian to ever win a Pan Arab Medal in that sport. Princess Haya now concentrates on humanitarian aid, with a core interest in promoting health, education, and - of course - sports for youth.

• Mary Harvey, who enjoyed an eight-year career with the US Women's National Soccer Team, helped the team to win the inaugural FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) Women's World Cup in 1991 and Olympic Gold in Atlanta in 1996. Now, as the director of development for FIFA, she manages programs worldwide that extend beyond the sport itself. In partnership with organizations such as UNICEF, FIFA utilizes soccer as a means to organize and support critical efforts against poverty and homelessness, and to promote education.

Initiatives like these encourage governments and organizations of all kinds to mobilize sport as a powerful tool for effecting lasting social change. At the Atlanta summit, Olympic women medalists, pioneering sportscasters, educators, and others will illuminate how sport and physical education play an important role at all levels.

For individuals, they enhance personal abilities, general health, and self- knowledge. On the national level, they contribute to economic and social growth, improve public health, and bring different communities together. And on the global level, sport and physical education have a long-lasting positive impact on development, public health, peace, and the sustainable management of the environment.

I encourage people everywhere to pause and recognize the world-changing potential of sport and physical education. And, even more so, the potential of all women around the globe.

Adolf Ogi is the former president of Switzerland, and is now special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace.

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