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'Sport can build bridges'

Interview: Herbert Schalling / alMay 20, 2015

Former Werder Bremen club president Willi Lemke knows plenty about using sport to achieve bigger goals. DW speaks to the Special Adviser to the UN on Sport for Development and Peace about his work.

Willi Lemke
Image: picture-alliance/Andreas Geber

DW: Recently, Qatar managed to come second at the Handball World Championships, with a team that had been brought together in three years. Should we congratulate them on their success or should we criticize this development?

Willi Lemke: The success occurred because they took advantage of the rules of the International Handball Federation. My suggestion to the IHF is that they clamp down on this in the future. When we examine the working conditions there in Qatar, for the many people that journey to the country to feed their families back home in Bangladesh and Nepal, then we shouldn't blame sport for it all. A while back I was able to go on a tour of the country, and I was able to see that not everything is as bad as we portray it here. There are employers who are trying to ensure proper salaries for their workers. But there are a lot of people not sticking to the rules: we have to spot them and punish them accordingly.

Sport is a human right, according to the United Nations. What chances does sport offer for cultural or societal development? Can you think of a good example?

I know of so many good examples. I know a women's project in Vietnam. Eleven HIV-infected women were totally isolated from their families. That hit their kids particularly hard, because no-one wanted to play with them. They then got support from the Vietnamese FA, and the project grew so fast that soon the whole village was involved. All kids - boys and girls - were all suddenly playing in the team. The children of the HIV-infected mothers are now totally integrated. It's a wonderful example who sport can get rid of social tensions. You can break down prejudice using sport, using football.

Monika Staab in Pakistan
German coach Monika Staab in PakistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany does a lot for sports development worldwide. Can you tell me how the world sees that?

Wherever I go there are German coaches, and they are always highly-praised. These are the best ambassadors that Germany can have. I am really pleased about this. That helps Germany have a good image in developing countries.

Let's talk about the Olympics. The Games are now taking place increasingly in countries that are very rich, but which are ruled in a dictatorial manner. Sochi is just one example. For the Winter Olympics in 2022 there is the choice between Beijing and Almaty in Kazakhstan. That's already being discussed heatedly. Is the west looking at this too simplistically?

This discussion confuses me. There is a lot to criticize in Russia and China, but also in other countries around the world. You can't blame sport for that. How should Olympic locations be picked and who defines where the Games take place? The Americans still have a jail at Guantanamo in Cuba, and it doesn't correlate with my view of human rights. But does that mean we should call into question whether the US should take part in particular sports events? No-one can want that, surely.

Why do we seem to not want to host Olympic Games in Germany? What can you do to help this?

In 1972, I was a volunteer at the Olympics in Munich. I was so excited, it is the biggest party in the world. I want that to contribute to nationalities coming together. During the 2006 World Cup, we saw what an event like that does for the image of our country. If we can get that sort of momentum going for 2024, then I would be pleased. I can only call on all those in Berlin and Hamburg - and everyone else in Germany - to support it. Be courageous, that is a big deal. If you think back to the London Olympics in 2012 that was fantastic and a major success for England. I am certain that we can do it just as good.

Willi Lemke
Lemke working with kids in KenyaImage: UNHCR

When you travel around the world, looking at sport, then you must come across the issue of doping. What do you expect from the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency and from international sports associations in this regard?

We have to educate the sportsmen and functionaries. The IOC, for instance, does this at the Youth Olympics, where they have education programs to tackle doping. That should be continued. I think the international associations are doing well, but we need more support from the politicians in the countries involved. They need to become more aware and they need to offer more support.

Is there a particular goal for 2015 that you want to complete?

In conjunction with the UN General Secretary I am in discussions with North and South Korea, in order to create some dialogue between the two states. We are organizing the Universiade sports event in Gwangju in South Korea. We want as many North Korean students to take part in that as possible. I used to be involved in a organizing sports in a divided Germany. My hope is that one day, Korea will be re-united. Sport can build bridges, where dialogue can take place. And dialogue is always more important than just buying more weapons.

Willi Lemke (68) was commercial manager of Bundesliga club Werder Bremen from 1981 until 1999. Thereafter he worked for the state of Bremen. Since 2008 he has had the role of Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace.