Building Back Better

Sport as a Catalyst for Sustainable Development: The Ball is Now in Our Court

7th December 2022

Reflecting on the many changes we have had to cope with because of the pandemic, the way we address sports and physical activity is definitely in the top ten. On the negative side, facilities welcomed less people at a time (if any at all) depriving people of exercise; sporting events and supply chains were disrupted; professional athlete development was impacted. My optimistic view, though, sees the resilience of physical activity as most people took up informal and unorganized sport and recreation activities, such as cycling and exercising outdoors. In this article of our Building Back Better series we will examine how sports are a tool to create a better society for future generations.

Words Vicky Koffa

For long, sport – team, individual, organized or not, both from a viewer’s or athlete’s point of view – has been considered mainly as a form of entertainment, as secondary in the priorities one should set in their life. In the last decade and in the framework of compliance with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the immense potential of sport has been acknowledged more and has proven to be an ‘enabler of social sustainable development’ (according to the UN General Assembly’s draft resolution adopted in December 2020). As more and more organizations become involved in the SDG’s, sporting associations follow the pattern to change the game towards a more sustainable sector.

The Benefits of Sports

The first thing that comes to mind is a healthier population. Regular physical activity helps with the prevention of non-communicable diseases as bodies get fitter. It also promotes healthier lifestyles among the young (healthy food consumption, sleep patterns) teaching them that being active is important. A healthy body results in a healthy mind: mental health and development are impacted positively as self-esteem grows in a strong body.

What makes the case stronger is that physical activity knows no boundaries. Race, age, money, gender, culture, religion, and disability can only affect the ‘how’ but not the ‘if’. Sport is highly adaptive in any circumstances and, therefore, as inclusive as it gets. It has the power to overcome prejudice and misconceptions and lead to a truly inclusive society. This inclusion creates a sense of belonging, a community focusing on a common interest rather than its differences. Which is why, going further, sport is considered as peace bringer.

The reach of well-being is more impressive when looking at minority groups in the field. People with disabilities, older persons, children, and women get (or should get) equal opportunities in enjoying an active lifestyle. Without the feeling of being left out, such groups are empowered physically and mentally, leading to a more confident and less violent society.

Furthermore, according to EU research“sport has been shown to contribute to the attractiveness and touristic potential of countries and regions, to provide opportunities for innovation and ICT development, and deliver solutions to major social challenges, such as implementing environmentally friendly transport systems.”

Major organizations like the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) actively believe in the power of sport. “Sport has a way of bridging any potential gap in an incredible way similar to art and music. It can be used as a tool to educate individuals and especially youth regarding any relevant social issue, including sustainability. We believe this has to be done as a joint action and not as two separate components. While playing their favorite sport, youths are interested and engaged and this can be utilized to better their own future while slowly integrating aspects relevant to sustainability,” says Theren Bullock Jr, Foundation Manager of FIBA’s Basketball For Good.

Develop Sport to Develop Society

Strangely enough, despite the obvious gains, the sport sector did not receive in the past enough attention on a policy level. In order to harness all its benefits, sport needs support to become in itself more sustainable. A clustered approach between governments is essential to acknowledge its impact and establish new partnerships between different sectors and economic domains. Through these, new public and private financing solutions can be unlocked for sport activities (e.g., redistribution of revenue derived from professional sports to lower levels of the sport chain).

Another key solution is to digitalize sport further. More online platforms can be envisaged to provide easy access on two fronts: on the one hand to promote sport activities as more viewers gather around major events (community creation); and on the other, to promote the value of sport by offering online exercising and healthier lifestyles. 

Science and innovation can also be avenues to create the right infrastructure (transport to training, adapted training equipment) for the disabled, for example, to be able to participate in more activities, may that be actively or as viewers. Merging sports and science can unlock powerful potential synergies and is vital to improving the performance of all athletes.

Not to forget the basis of everything, education. FIBA has created a Foundation to be their social and legacy arm to create and implement Basketball For Good projects globally using basketball as a tool to create positive change. Each initiative has a basketball component, which is consistent in every project, and a social component which varies depending on the relevant social issue in the country/region where it is located.

Bullock explains: “In many cases the relevant social component is sustainability, so our next step within this awareness direction is to create a curriculum combining the two. We will have a program linking grassroots basketball development, but each drill and game will be linked to some form of sustainability education divided in 10 modules. This program will then be able to be introduced into Physical Education classes around the world in collaboration with the respective National Basketball Federation and the Ministry of Education.”

Develop Sport to Develop the Environment

Although it may not be straightforward, sport can help advance climate issues and overcome challenges. Reduction, recycling, and reuse of plastic in major events, water and electricity upgrades in stadiums, construction of sustainable transport methods to access training facilities, promotion of outdoor training are all ways to achieve environmental balance. The approach can be twofold: tangible action taken by organizations and use of sports broad reach to raise awareness.

Action has started: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2024 and 45% by 2030. The UN is facilitating this action through its Sports for Climate Action initiative, where sports organizations and their stakeholders can join to find support in creating change and guidance on how to raise awareness. Co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the EU, the “Sport for All and the Environment” (SforAE) project is raising an awareness about the benefits of implementing ecological behavior in sport for all.

Associations can make a difference here implementing in their regulations actions for staff and members to reduce carbon footprint, following the example of the Quebec provincial cycling federation, Fédération québecoise des sports cyclistes. The organization has launched internal policies of eco-responsibility for employees as well as concrete guidelines for organizing more sustainable events with three levels of green certification. Likewise, the Green Sports Alliance is an environmentally-focused trade organization that convenes stakeholders from around the sporting world to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play. Members are reducing waste, conserving energy and water, and eliminating toxic chemicals, among many other ongoing initiatives and accomplishments.

Projects for Development

Governments and organizations saw the bigger picture and have created all sorts of collaborations to include sport in Building Back Better. UNESCO’s Fit for Life supports inclusive and integrated policy making and enhances the wellbeing of youth around the world through data driven sport interventions. 

Co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the EU, the Sport For Sustainable Development project is a collaboration between 5 partners from 3 continents: the European Sports NGO (ENGSO Youth) as the coordinator, Hungarian University of Physical Education, Sport and Citizenship, National Olympic Committee of Senegal and Kokushikan University of Japan. The objectives include up-skill youth sport trainers, gather information on good practices and provide learning and mobility opportunities for disadvantaged young people, among others.

International Cycling Union promotes sustainable innovative mobility through collaborations with Autonomy Digital (in 2020) and concrete actions and campaigns shown on its dedicated webpage Cycling For All. The association recently approved modifications to its regulations aimed at allowing refugee athletes to take part in major events with the status of “refugee athlete” and a new action on the climate. UCI President David Lappartient said: “I am delighted by the progress made to strengthen cycling’s universality, through the creation of the status of refugee athlete; and its contribution to sustainable development, with the adoption of a UCI Climate Action Charter.”

Associations Are Ever Present

The boundless potential of associations strikes yet again. In their role as conference organizers, they gather academia, government and industry under one roof to advance not only the interests of sport, but also the promotion of its benefits towards a more sustainable world. Improvement of the sports sector can positively impact other economic fields (tourism, urban regeneration, employment etc.) and associations are usually in the middle of such intersectoral collaborations.

New connections and partnerships formed before, during or after association events or other networking activities (such as campaigns and international projects) attract valuable funding. The more active a sports association is, the more partnerships it forges and the more funding opportunities it may receive.

Finally, associations have the ‘shout-out’ power: large events spread the message worldwide with the right awareness activities tied to an upcoming conference. Besides, they can capitalize on the popularity of certain professional athletes and use them as ambassadors to promote the value of sport.

This article is graciously sponsored by Business Events Scotland, whose values align with the Building Back Better concept.

Hit enter to search or ESC to close