Can Sport Help Build Peace?

With so much of the world tuning into the Olympics in Rio, we wanted to know, can sport be used to build peace?

The town of Pinga in the DRC has been the site of horrific violence, with rebel groups and government forces clashing there as part of the country's ongoing civil war. So it's no surprise that tension remains between the main groups in the small town in North Kivu.

When global organisation Search for Common Ground (SFCG) got to Pinga, the relationship between Nyanga and Hunde communities there was at breaking point.

"They were no longer talking to each other, they refused to speak to each other, go to the same central locations, community locations, they refused to have any sort of contact with each other," SFCG sports organizer Rigobert Luhinzo told Peace News.

Opening a direct dialogue about the conflict wasn't really an option for the ethnic groups in Pinga - so instead, SFCG a soccer match.

"So it was a first step toward bringing people together, to have some sort of communication, even though it wasn't necessarily about conflict, it was about social cohesion - that was the initial communication and message."

With teams made up of half of one group, and half of another, communities that are otherwise in conflict, can begin to communicate, rely on and work with each other in a very real and concrete example. Mr Luhinzo said this game, and sport in a wider sense, has a major role to play in de-escalating tension, and are an easy and inexpensive way of breaking down barriers.

"It's probably helpful in any environment,” said SFCG DRC National Co-ordinator Kevin Osborne.

“But in environments that are in conflict, we find this to be one of the only way to get people to come together."

Sport has been emerging as a powerful peace-building tool for some time, for example, did you know that a ping pong tournament in 1971 is credited with breaking the diplomatic ice between the United States and China, leading to the restoration of full diplomatic relations? But sport has really gained traction as a peace-building tool in the last few years.

At an International Forum on Sport, Peace and Development, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said it was a powerful tool.

“Sport has become a world language, a common denominator that breaks down all the walls, all the barriers,” he said.

Africa on the Ball is another organisation that realizes the value of sport, and the ability it has to bring divided communities together. Co-founder Andrew Jenkin says he saw an incredible example of this through his work at a school in Tanzania. Social divides were very obvious there, especially between Asian and African students.

“I think that's the really important thing, it doesn't matter what background you're from, social class, status within society, with football the rules are the same for each side and you're working together on the same team,” Mr Jenkin said.

“I think that's a really key message, and because anyone can play sport anywhere around the world it can be a really important mechanism for bringing people together."

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