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Peace Dividend

Simon Kuper

The Indian and Pakistani cricket teams have long been chummy, used to playing each other around the world. The Pakistanis often visit the Indians’ hotel rooms for a chat. It’s even been known for a host to sneak a guest a glass of alcohol.

The next time they meet they’ll have something to toast – the United Nations has named both teams “spokespersons for the international year of sport and physical education 2005.” The United Nations and non-governmental organizations everywhere are seizing on a new idea – that sport can encourage peace and development. You see the offshoots everywhere now, from NGO workers dressed as condoms parading around African football matches to Palestinian and Israeli kids being made to play football together.

I met the chief proponent of sport-for-peace at the International Football Arena conference in Zurich this month. Though Adolf Ogi looks like a cheery grey-haired innkeeper, he was president of Switzerland before becoming the UN’s special adviser on sport.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like such a dumb idea. Nobody except perhaps the Taliban is against sport. It undeniably brings people from different countries together. When the Pakistani cricket team visited India this year, the country’s president, Pervez Musharraf, went to watch, met India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh and agreed with him to open the militarized Kashmiri frontier. The leaders also said peace was “irreversible.” This was much better than nuclear war. Ogi asks: “Who opened the doors? The sportsmen! How did they do it? They played cricket.”

Every now and then sport does marginal good or harm, but most of the time it makes no difference whatsoever. Sport may make ordinary people friendlier to the people across the frontier, but then wars are rarely caused by xenophobia among ordinary people. Famously, there has never been a war between two democracies. It’s dictators, warlords and senior bureaucrats who tend to fight wars and they don’t care much what ordinary people think.

I asked Ogi why he thought the 20th century, which saw the rise of international sport, was the bloodiest century ever. “It’s a paradox,” he admitted.

However, his dream goes beyond peace. Ogi also believes that sport creates better people. “Sport is the best school of life,” he said in Zurich. “I learn to win without thinking I’m the best. I learn to lose without thinking that’s the end. I learn discipline. I learn rules.” But if sport is good for you, that doesn’t explain all the sportsmen who cheat, fight, get drunk, assault women, or indeed kill civilians in war.

Nothing discourages Ogi. He finishes with his trump card – his account of seeing footballs being given to children in African refugee camps. “These kids are often traumatized. But when they play sport, they forget everything. There is no vaccination, no medicine that has the same effect. I’ve seen what it does – I have saved the pictures in my head,” he says.

And here he is surely right – playing sport makes people happier. I saw it once in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town. About 200 kids had gathered in a meadow, where a man from sporting goods company Adidas explained that it had been decided in Germany to give them 98 footballs. For survivors of genocide stuck in a camp for years with nothing to do, footballs could be even more important. A decent ball – made, perhaps, in Pakistan – costs about $10. It can make dozens of kids happy for weeks before it bursts. It’s not world peace, but it’s something.

Adapted from: 'Give peace a sporting chance' Financial Times , November 18, 2005. Copyright the Financial Times Limited 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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