Wolff examining sports role in bettering the world

CORNWALL — As Cornwall resident and Sports Illustrated writer Alex Wolff tells it, the idea that sports can improve people’s lot in life is not new.
While previewing his upcoming talk in Cornwall and his latest piece in the magazine, Wolff cited both the English faith in the playing fields of Eton and the fact that his favorite sport, basketball, owes its existence to Dr. James Naismith’s belief that idle hands might do the work of the devil if they were not lobbing soccer balls through peach baskets.
“Naismith invented basketball because he was one of those muscular Christians and thought people would go out and raise hell if they were not playing sports,” Wolff said. “So there’s always been that element of reform that’s hovered around sports.”
But what Wolff focuses on in his SI piece, which comes out this week in print and at si.com, is a growing trend to use sport as a lever to improve people’s lives in developing nations.
Wolff — who began at Sports Illustrated in 1980, fresh out of Princeton University — will also describe the movement, known as Sport for Development and Peace, or SDP, at the Cornwall Congregational Church on Friday, Sept. 30, at 7 p.m.
Wolff will discuss groups that teach martial arts and computer skills in a tough neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, fight AIDS in Africa by using soccer as a metaphor, and create basketball teams in the Middle East with Arab and Israeli youths.
And he will talk about the corporations, governments and organizations that are increasingly willing to fund and work with the hundreds of other groups like those.
Wolff said the SDP movement has its challenges, but more and more outcomes are being shown to be positive.
“There is a lot of money now being poured into it. And part of the reason the money is being poured into it is the practitioners have gotten smart and realized that they need to prove that this is working, that they can’t go around and just say, hey, we like sports, let’s do sports,” Wolff said. “The good ones out in the field are figuring out how to document their work.”
For example, Wolff might mention that Grassroot Soccer, founded by Tommy Clark (brother of Middlebury’s Jen Clark), has reached more than 330,000 girls and young women in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Zambia with its athletic program and message that multiple partners and unprotected sex put them at risk.
Wolff writes that it is hard to tie a 60 percent decline in the rate of HIV infection among the area’s young women directly to Grassroot Soccer, but donors believe — including Elton John, who gave $1.4 million.
Wolff could also note next Friday that Lacrosse the Nations, another SDP venture devoted to teaching skills and health education to kids around the world, was founded by a Middlebury College lacrosse player.
“I’ll do what I usually do in print, which is tell stories. I still have a lot of vivid mental pictures, not just from the trip I took to do this story, but also from a number of other sports-related assignments,” he said. “Part of my hope for that Friday night is that somebody will be inspired by hearing the stories of some of these other people. It’s kind of a viral movement, and there are people in this community who have done amazing things.”
Wolff’s SI story touches down around the world where SDP programs have worked well, after an introduction that focuses on legendary Norwegian speedskater Johann Koss and his 1990s contribution to the SDP boom.
After medaling in the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Koss founded a program that morphed into Right to Play, which according to its website trains coaches to run long-term athletic programs that also provide opportunities for “individual and community leadership,” and focuses on “key health issues,” especially HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention campaigns.
Right to Play now serves 700,000 children a week in 20 countries. Wolff writes its funding shows SDP’s growth: In the past five years its annual budget has doubled to $30 million.
In part of Wolff’s story that will appear only online, he discusses a promising trend for SDP known as “the halo effect.” He cites a study in which 73 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to do business with a firm they perceived as socially responsible.
That belief led Spanish soccer team F.C. Barcelona to pay UNICEF $10 million for the right to put its name on athletes’ jerseys.
“Corporate decision-makers all over the world are realizing, especially in an economic downturn, they want to be seen as good global citizens,” Wolff said.
And, Wolff said, sport’s popularity makes it a natural for companies to use it as a method for delivering that message.
“It engages so many different people across the world. ‘It breaks down all the barriers’ is a cliché, but you see this every four years with an Olympics or with a World Cup,” he said. “You just have the attention of the whole world.”  
And there is something about sport itself that is perhaps universal. Wolff quoted running guru Dr. George Sheehan, who concluded in 1975 that Shakespeare posed the wrong question. It should have been, Sheehan wrote, “To play, or not to play:”
“You can have peace without the world, if you opt for death, or the world without peace if you decide for doing and having and achieving. Only in play can you have both … Play, then, is the answer to the puzzle of our existence,” Sheehan wrote.
Or, as Wolff said, a little bit of fun doesn’t hurt when there’s a serious message to be delivered.
“When you use sport as an idiom to explain larger things in the world, you have a chance to reach a lot more people because it doesn’t seem like ‘eat your peas.’ It doesn’t seem like a civic lesson,” he said.
Not all is perfect for SDP, which remains a young movement. One issue is that not all groups have been sensitive to local needs. Wolff said responsible practitioners train local volunteers and consult with the local people; Right to Play, for example, recently credentialed 500 volunteers in Liberia.
“It troubles (responsible practitioners), or many of them, when there’s some kind of cultural arrogance, for instance, when people from the First World come parachuting in, particularly young college grads who are idealistic from the U.S., say, and are very prescriptive, and don’t listen, and don’t find out what’s really needed or wanted,” he said.
At the increasing number of conferences devoted to SDP — the Clinton Global Initiative is hosting one in New York City this week — Wolff said, “You get some people from the Third World saying, ‘We need to be in charge of this.’”
Funding, while increasing, remains an issue. Some efforts are working toward becoming self-sustaining: The Rio martial arts program markets its own line of clothing, and a Mozambique soccer program sells fruit it grows around its fields.
But Wolff is optimistic on the money front. He notes that London’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics gained traction because of a $10 million to $12 million pledge to support SDP efforts. Those funds are already being used to teach children to swim in flood-ravaged Bangladesh. 
“Imagine that becomes the new normal, that every major event (host) doesn’t have a chance to win the bid unless they earmark a certain amount for grassroots sports,” he said.
Wolff also believes SDP has a tremendous opportunity, as does Grassroot Soccer, to improve the lot of women in the developing world.
“It can still accomplish a lot, in so many parts of the world, if girls and women are taking charge of their own bodies and learning self-confidence, not just acquiring it, but demonstrating it in a systematic way,” he said. “There are all these ways things are stacked against girls and young women in different parts of the world.”
And, Wolff said, SDP continues to benefit not only from the idealism of many, but the boom of social media that allows connections to be made that have benefits both tangible and intangible.
“What’s happening in Sport for Development and Peace right now … is we have an idealistic generation coming along that wants to find purpose and meaning in what they chose for their life’s work,” he said. “But you also have this incredible technological toolbox at your disposal to network, to connect different efforts in different parts of the world to make sure you’re not duplicating their efforts … but also to inspire people.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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