International Unitarian Universalism

Sports and Development: A Promising Pair

By UUA International Resources

With the summer Olympics coming up this month, sports are at the front of people's minds worldwide. Every couple of years we are reminded of the power of sports to bring the international community together in constructive, friendly competition. They serve as a symbol of our common humanity and hope for cooperation and understanding. On Thursday, July 28th, 2016, the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations hosted an event titled: “The Power of Sport to Change the World, Fostering the Sustainable Development Goals.” This event aimed to harness the passion that the global community has for sports and entertainment, and use it to promote the 2030 agenda. Though the panelists discussed the role of sports at large, a special emphasis was placed on the role of football (U.S. soccer). In attendance at the event were players from the FC Internazionale Milano. Panelists included: H.E. Mr. Inigo Lambertini, Deputy Permanent Representative of Italy to the UN; Erick Thohir, President of F.C. Internazionale Milano; Javier Zanetti, Vice-President of F.C. Internazionale Milano; Ahmed Alhendawi, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Youth; and Joe Colombano from the Executive Office of the Secretary-General (Moderator). There is a tendency within the international political community to view sports as being strictly for fun and not serious enough to be discussed at the United Nations or as a viable option for promoting the social and environmental justice agenda. Similarly, members of the sports and entertainment communities may feel that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are too “dry” of a topic for the sports industry to tackle. Ahmed Alhendawi, Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Youth, passionately insisted that this should not be the case, citing situations such as teenage pregnancy and child marriage that should provoke an emotional response. He hopes that everyone, not just politicians and diplomats, can get behind these goals and work together to achieve them. Celebrities and athletes have the unique capability and opportunity to bring visibility to the United Nations’ agenda. First, they have national and global recognition and respect. Football players, specifically, have driven the initiative of using sports for social good by mentioning the SDGs and the Inter Campus project in their televised and written interviews. Additionally, they hang the SDG posters around the football arenas where they play. Audience members are drawn in by the bright colors, then compelled to ask about them, thus starting a conversation about and raising interest in the SDGs that otherwise would not have taken place. Lastly, sports themselves are inherently tied to a number of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In order to excel in athletics, people must have: good nutrition, access to medical care in the event of injury or illness, and a strong sense of unity and cooperation. As observed on a recent UU-UNO visit to the Every Child is Our Child program in Ghana, sports can also offer an incentive to children to regularly attend school. In addition to these benefits, sports have the opportunity to unify causes and reduce barriers. While many people are stuck in a nationalist mindset, a religious mindset, or another limiting identification factor, sports encourage players to respect one another, despite differences. They allow players and fans to recognize the common humanity and interdependence between us all. Erick Thohir, President of FC Internazionale affirms that it is, “through football that we can open our hearts, that we can be one.” Sports are also an innovative and strategic approach to the Development agenda because they empower and incorporate the youth population. As Alhendawi explains, “young people don’t show up that much for conferences, but they show up for games.” The United Nations and its representatives aspire to connect as many people as possible to this campaign, and by weaving the SDGs into a popular and pre-existing fabric, they are keeping the younger generations engaged. There was a brief pause in the panel discussion to play one of the many powerful Inter Campus promotional videos. The video demonstrated the ways in which young students from diverse backgrounds are able to come together and form a bond as teammates. It showed the educational, economic, physical, and mental ways that beneficiaries thrive as a result of Inter Campus’s work and the integration of sports into their daily routines. The panelists also discussed the impact that Italy’s investment in this campaign has on the campaign’s potential for success and widespread implementation. As noted by Alhendawi, Italy is often at the center of initiatives to promote peace and security. Furthermore, Italian culture has a profound effect across the globe. Italian clothes, food, tourism, and sports influence people on an international scale; it is a nation about which almost anyone could find something to love, admire, and respect. Javier Zanetti, a former professional football player from Argentina, spoke about the educational and social problems hurting the youth population in the Buenos Aires area. His organization PUPI (Por Un Piberío Integrado/For an Integrated Childhood) aims to support kids affected by poverty. Given his background as a professional athlete, he is passionate about using sports to help provide these children with healthier and safer lives. One critique of the event, pointed out by an audience member, was that there were no women on the panel. In a field such as sports, which is already largely dominated by men, it is critical to have intentional gender diversity at these high-level events if they want it to trickle down to encourage young girls to participate and benefit from these programs. The panel and audience members alike addressed the importance of bridging economic and ethnic gaps, gender gaps, and how to make these programs accessible to children with disabilities, ensuring that no child is left behind. Furthermore, they touched on how, if this model is successful in specific regions and contexts, it could be applied across a wide range of goals and demographics. Before the end of the event, the moderator, Joe Colombano, reminded everyone that all countries are “developing” countries until the SDGs are achieved. While this term has been used to classify select nations in the global South, and exclude other wealthier nations, in reality, all states are in a position to develop, adapt, change, and improve. There is always an opportunity for all people to strive for the sustainable and equitable world mapped out by the United Nations. Echoing a comment made previously by Alhendawi, Colombano declared, “we have more goals than years to realize them, it is time to get to work.”

by Kelly Diaz, LGBTQ Program Intern at the UU-UNO

To watch a video of the panel on UN Web TV, visit:

About the Author

UUA International Resources

Warm greetings from the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Office of International Resources (IRO). Thank you for visiting us online. Our office supports congregations as they respond to the call of the UUA’s Sixth Principle: "to affirm and promote the goal of world...


For more information contact .