News01 Apr 2020

As International Day of Sport for Development and Peace approaches, a look at athletics' crucial peace-building role


Athlete refugees Otmane Nait-Hammou and Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed in Aarhus with IAAF President Sebastian Coe (© Jiro Mochizuki)

On 29 February 1996, the siege of Sarajevo, the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, officially came to an end. Over the course of nearly four years, almost 14,000 people were killed, with the city, which just 12 years earlier hosted the Winter Olympic Games, largely left in ruins.

Just over six months later, World Athletics (then the IAAF), helped organise Solidarity Sarajevo 1996, a track meet that would be the first international sporting event to be staged in the city after the siege was lifted. More than 80 athletes from 30 countries, including a handful of freshly-minted Olympic champions, answered the call. More than 50,000 spectators attended that 9 September event, packing the newly-reburbished Koševo Stadium where the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics were held. 

It's a day Nusret Smajlovic, the meeting’s director who survived more than 1,400 consecutive days of shelling and bombing, will never forget.

"It was a day when we believed that we would live again, worthy of humanity, and have a new future," he said. "People who came believed that a new normal life was beginning."

With the city still digging out of the rubble and piecing itself back to life, Smajlovic’s characterization of the impact the meeting had on his city cannot be overstated.

Celebrating the power of sport

Such was and remains the power of sport.

Inspired by examples similar to that, the United Nations launched the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace in 2014, an annual observance held each 6 April to celebrate and honour the role that sport plays in society, whether by encouraging healthier lifestyles or using sport as a vehicle for development in areas torn apart by poverty, inequality and conflict.


The elite field at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Race


The concept of course, that of sport as a unifying force, is nothing new.

As early as the 9th century BC, warring factions called ceasefires before, during and after the ancient Olympic Games to allow safe passage for athletes and families traveling to the Games.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, said he was guided to resurrect the Games by the belief that "sport is one of the most forceful elements of peace".

Nelson Madela is as much know as the man who said that "sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does" as he is for leading the movement that brought an end to South Africa's brutal racist system of Apartheid.

Sport for peace-building

Those are lofty claims - but they’re also supported by a host of examples, case studies and research in recent years conducted in many of the world’s most desperate regions.

While sport alone can’t prevent conflict or build peace, it can contribute in a multitude of ways. Indeed, by incorporating its core values - respect for rules and opponents, self-discipline and fair play - sport is well placed to help prevent or solve disputes and even promote social inclusion.

According to a Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group study, Sport and Peace: Social Inclusion, Conflict Prevention and Peace-Building, sport helps bridge social, economic and cultural divides within a society and builds “a sense of shared identity among groups that might otherwise be inclined to treat each other with distrust, hostility or violence”. In short, it can work to re-humanize those previously perceived as enemies.


Athlete Refugee Team member Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019


The study also illustrated that sport has served as a tool to advance demobilization and disarmament efforts in conflict areas and has been used to support the reintegration of ex-combatants, particularly former child combatants, into their communities. As the Sarajevo solidarity meeting example showed, sport activities can also help alleviate war-related trauma and promote healing to help victims of war regain a sense of security and normalcy.

The study also points out that well-designed sport activities have also provided alternatives to involvement in criminal gangs and armed militias who actively recruit disaffected or troubled young people.

The Athlete Refugee Team programme continues

More recently, programmes have helped integrate refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons and asylum seekers into their temporary communities.

The best example at the moment is the Athlete Refugee Team which, since its appearance in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as the Refugee Olympic Team, has become a source of inspiration for millions of people across the globe, both on and off the track.

Composed of athletes who have fled violence and conflict at home, the project provided a way for those athletes to pursue and live their dreams while drawing attention to their plight, one shared today by more than 70 million people around the world.

It was a global debut made possible in part due to a collaboration between the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which works with refugee communities in Kenya, and World Athletics’ Athletics for a Better World programme, which has worked with and supported Loroupe's foundation for more than a decade. Through its continued support, the International Olympic Committee then made the team's Rio Olympic appearance a reality. 

With the support of World Athletics, The Athlete Refugee Team has since fielded squads at the World Relays and World Athletics Championships in 2017, the World Half Marathon Championships in 2018 and the World Cross Country Championships, World Relays and World

Loroupe’s shining example

Loroupe, the distance running legend and former world record holder in the marathon, is a giant in the peace-building field. Since 2003, when she established the foundation that bears her name, ending conflict has been her full time job.

A long-time Ambassador of Sport at the UN and World Athletics, she also runs the Tegla Loroupe Training Camp for Athlete Refugees in Ngong, just outside of Nairobi and was the Chef de Mission for the Refugee Team at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Her annual Peace Races bring together hundreds of reformed warriors, cattle rustlers and petty bandits from Uganda and Kenya who have laid down their weapons.

Road races to unify and raise awareness

Road races are especially well placed to help bring communities together and raise awareness on a slew of issues they face.

Since its inaugural edition in 2003, the Beirut Marathon has been widely hailed as one of the country's most unifying events, a rare annual occasion where members of all political and religious groups come together - in this case, to run together.

In early 2008, a series of Run for Peace races were organised to promote reconciliation among rival groups involved in post-election violence in Kenya that left nearly 1200 people dead. Spearheaded by high profile athletes and organised locally, the events made a strong positive impact.

Partnering with Right to Movement, a running community named after article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem brings attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by highlighting the logistical difficulties of staging a 42.2km event in a city where walls, checkpoints and barriers are a part of daily life.

In fact, it is road races, such as the Bentiu community fun run in Unity State, South Sudan, that are often the first events organised in communities emerging from conflict or strife.

Organisers of numerous other races, from Moscow and Kosice to Kigali and The Dead Sea, have incorporated ‘Peace’ into their names, underscoring local efforts to harness these events’ power to unify.

As we approach this year’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, World Athletics will share a series of stories that take a look at how our sport is affecting positive change.

Between now and next Monday (6 April), we’ll introduce you to athletes who have integrated into their new communities, either as asylum seekers or citizens, after escaping the conflict and poverty of their homelands. We’ll highlight a successful athletics club that was founded specifically with troubled youth in mind. We asked several people close to our sport to share anecdotes about how they’ve crossed paths with the theme of ‘development and peace’. We’ll share those stories, too. And we’ll revisit the Sarajevo meeting, which almost 24 years later, serves as a fitting example of how our sport can play a positive role when the world finally emerges from uncertain times.

Bob Ramsak for World Athletics