A language that everyone understands | How sports can bring people together around the world | DW | 16.06.2015
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Sports: the global language

A language that everyone understands

In the shadows of top level sport, smaller victories are being celebrated daily in sports development. Various projects around the world bring people together and give them hope. Even the UN wants to get in on it.

In the south of Guatemala City is a suburb that people call "Zone 21." It's one of the poorest areas in the country and one of the most dangerous too. In the middle of this concrete jungle is a children's playground. But no child is playing, the area is strangely quiet. Even though school is out for the day, no child dares to hang out here alone. The crime and murder rate is high and kids playing here alone would run the risk of being kidnapped.

Today things are different though. Social worker Diego Saravia is standing at the corner of the playground and is waiting for the local kids. Today, a special afternoon of sport has been organized.

"Getting involved in sport means kids will hopefully not join gangs, or get into crime," Saravia says. "Perhaps we can rescue a few kids this way. They should make something of their lives."

One of the children involved today is Javier. The 10 year old arrives - along with around 100 girls and boys his age - with a beaming smile. He says he's been looking forward to playing outside today, especially football and basketball. "But today I'm going to start with a jumping game."

Athletics day in Guatemala

The kids of "Zone 21" learn athletics with help from Germany

It's all part of a "Mini-Atletismo" project, which is supported both by the Guatemalan national athletics assocation and the city. The kids are surrounded by police as they play.

One afternoon without fear

The ideas and the sessions in the program come from Oliver Scheer, an expert with the German Olympics Sports Confederation (DOSB). "It's not about top level sport here, it's about using sport as a social instrument to create integration," Scheer explains. "We pull the kids out of their daily lives for a few hours and then you see smiling faces everywhere. That's great."

After completing an obstacle course, young Javier explains the situation in "Zone 21."

"It can get pretty bad here. A few kids come from 16th street and shoot their guns sometimes," he says. But before he can continue he returns to his group. It seems clear: for this afternoon at least, the worry and the fear is forgotten.

This example from Guatemala shows, what role sport can play in society: It helps people get active, gives kids (and adults) new freedom or brings them together, it provides options and allows people to move up the social tree. But most of all: it's a method of interacting that everyone can engage in and understand.

Rudi Gutendorf coaching Rwanda's footballers

Rudi Gutendorf has travelled the world and coached in over 20 countries

Sport as a human right

At international sports events it's the same story. Teams and athletes face off against each other even if they don't understand the same language. The competition itself has its own type of communication, which is understandable for everyone.

The United Nations has long observed sport - and playing for children - as a human right, which needs to be "respected and enforced worldwide." The organization says that sport is a "low-cost and high-impact tool in humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts." Germany's Foreign Ministry is also looking to capitalize on this potential too.

For more than five decades, the ministry has worked together with the DOSB, the German Football Association (DFB) and other German sports associations to set up sports projects overseas. The ministry can now boast of over 1300 initiatives, from coach Rudi Gutendorf's work in Tunisian football in 1961 (back when it all started) until today, with projects in Zambia, Guatemala, Ethiopia and the Philippines. In each project it's not just about improving top level sport. The focus also lies on creating chances for a better quality of life for locals.

A bridge between two nations?

At the International Olympic Committee (IOC) the power of sport is also well known. Even if the modern Olympic Games has long since become a billion-dollar industry, the main concept about bringing people together for sporting endeavour remains omnipresent.

"Sport is truly the only area of human existence which has achieved universal law," according to IOC president Thomas Bach. "We are all the same and respect the same rules."

And, if you are guided by the same rules, then at least you have something in common, as the example of North and South Korea shows. The two countries have been opposed since the 1940s and both have huge military capabilities.

North Korea and South Korea player push against each other

North Korea and South Korea face off on the pitch at the Asian Games

Many diplomatic missions have failed between the two sides, but the UN is now helping to plan a new event to bring them together. At the Universiade at Gwangju in South Korea in July, the host nation will welcome North Korean students.

"We want as many North Korean students to take part in that as possible," says Willi Lemke, Special Adviser to the UN on Sport for Development and Peace, who is helping to plan the occasion.

"I used to be involved in organizing sports in a divided Germany. My hope is that one day, Korea will be re-united. Sport can build bridges," he said in an exclusive interview with DW.

Whether it is building bridges, bringing people together or letting kids forget their troubles for one afternoon: the real potential of sport isn't just about going higher, faster and further. Sport brings people together and gives people opportunity. Quite simply: Sport is a language that everyone understands.

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