While Eritrea’s developments toward peace and cooperation have rightly dominated headlines over the past several months, the area of sport has also begun to attract renewed interest. Several weeks ago, Eritrea played host to the first edition of the Africa Cup cycling competition.
Then last week, a high-level delegation from the Confederation of African Football visited Eritrea, accompanied by representatives of the football federations of several neighboring countries. As well, the youth national football teams of Eritrea and South Sudan will play an international friendly match in Asmara this upcoming Sunday. Not to be overlooked, numerous Eritrean athletes have been participating in and winning a variety of athletic competitions in locations around the world. Although sport is often dismissed as pure fun and games or nothing more than entertainment, it can, and does, make a profound and positive impact on individuals, communities, and nations. This article provides a brief overview of the important benefits provided by sport, how it can play a positive role in supporting peace, and its broad socio-political significance.
Health and development benefits
Hippocrates (c. 460 BC – 370 BC), an ancient Greek physician who is considered as one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine, is widely thought to have said, “Sport is a preserver of health.” He also claimed that, “eating alone will not keep a man well; he must also take exercise. For food and exercise… work together to produce health” (in H.S. Jones 1953). Although having first been spoken centuries ago, those words remain just as true today.
There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence on the positive effects of sport and physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle. The positive effects of engaging in regular physical activity are particularly apparent in the prevention of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression, and osteoporosis. As well, sport and physical activity can increase muscular fitness, bone health, and life expectancy. Notably, there is also a considerable body of research illustrating how sport, exercise, and physical activity can promote mental and emotional wellbeing, contribute to higher levels of self-esteem and self-worth, improve cognitive function, and play a therapeutic role in addressing a number of psychological disorders.
It is important to note that these benefits extend beyond the individual to positively impact communities and nations. For example, healthier workers are more productive and take less sick days. In turn, this can ease burdens on national healthcare systems. There is a positive association between sport and physical activity and academic performance and achievement – which can support development and growth. Additionally, several years ago, researchers Roberto Gasquez and Vicente Royuela persuasively argued that there is a positive effect from international football success on productivity through increases in happiness and positive intangible effects, such as community spirit, self-confidence, pride, and solidarity.
Life skills and important lessons
Beyond its contributions to positive health, sport offers many other benefits. Howard Cosell, an American sports journalist and author, who was prominent and influential on radio, television, and print media, memorably stated, “Sports is human life in microcosm.” Indeed, sport can build character, teach countless valuable lessons, and help develop numerous skills that are applicable in many areas of life. For example, through sport, one can learn about or develop skills in sportsmanship, graciousness in defeat and victory, teamwork, leadership, accountability, self-discipline, time management, persistence, preparation, hard work and sacrifice, communication, overcoming setbacks, goal-setting, and more.
Peace among and within nations is a fundamental human aspiration. It is also a fundamental human right; in 1999, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on the right to peace, affirming peace as a human right and “appeal[ing] to all states and international organizations to do their utmost to assist in implementing the right of people to peace through the adoption of appropriate measures at both the national and the international level” (UNGA 1984 – A/RES/39/11). In addition to the benefits outlined above, sport can also contribute to supporting peace.
Sport is a recognized instrument for promoting peace, as it disregards geographical borders, ethnic differences, and social classes. Importantly, it provides a vehicle for inclusion, drawing together people of different races, religions, and cultures. Through bringing people together , it provides opportunities for social interaction and can help build a sense of shared identity and fellowship among people or groups that might otherwise be inclined to treat each other with distrust, hostility, or violence. By sharing sport experiences, participants from conflicting groups can increasingly grow to feel that they are alike, rather than different. This shared “ritual identity,” or sense of belonging to the same group on the basis of a shared ritual experience, helps to erase the dehumanizing effects of persistent negative characterizations of opposing groups (Right to Play n.d.).
Progress, change, and socio-political significance
Last, sport can be an agent of progress and help effect social change. For example, there is considerable evidence suggesting that sport has huge potential to empower women and girls. In many countries, it has been recognized that sport can improve girls’ and women’s self-esteem and be a force to tear down gender barriers and discrimination.
There are also countless examples of sport’s broad socio-political significance. For instance, for years, the banned colles castelleres (human towers) or trekking excursions and support for FC Barcelona were a reflection of Catalonian resistance against Franco’s fascistic regime in Spain, while support for Spartak Moscow was, at times, seen as a symbol of political resistance against the official establishment in the former USSR. Additionally, in Korea, football within the curricula of physical education created a platform for Korean resistance to Japanese colonialism (Numerato 2011: 109-110).
Similarly, in Eritrea, the most popular sport, cycling, became a symbol of resistance to Italian colonialism. The first sighting of a bicycle in the country was in the latter half of the 1800s in Massawa, having been introduced by the Italians. By the 1930s, clubs were being organized, and on 21 April 1937, the first race took place in Asmara. However, during this period, Eritreans were barred from races and clubs due to the segregationist policies of fascism. Not to be denied, Eritreans soon created their own competitions and formed their own clubs. Then, in 1939, a special “trial of strength” was organized by the Italian colonial administrators; Eritreans and Italians would compete together in the same race. In Mussolini’s Italy, sporting success was to embody the greater glory of the fascist nation-state, and the joint Eritrean-Italian race was expected to display the superiority of the colonial master. Instead, like Jesse Owens’ spectacular destruction of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Munich Olympics, Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru won the race and shattered colonial myths about Eritrean inferiority.
During the turbulent 1960s, in the midst of the growing black power movement, the civil rights struggle, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, Muhammad Ali, widely regarded as the best boxer ever, became a global symbol of resistance to racism, militarism, and inequality. He unapologetically raised troubling questions and forced society to come to terms with civil rights, race, religion, war, and imperialism, defying all convention and the US government (Rowe 2016; Zirin 2016).
“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” Ali stated forcefully. “They never called me ni–er.” With that, despite being at the peak of his career and understanding the implications, he refused to serve in the US Armed Services. Subsequently, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion (facing a 5-year prison sentence), fined thousands of dollars, and banned for several years. While he would eventually make a glorious return to the ring, it was his strongly principled stand and unwavering activism that truly made him “the greatest” and an inspiration for millions worldwide.
In 1968, a year after Ali was convicted of draft evasion, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200 meters, made history at the Mexico Olympics by staging a silent protest against the continuing racial discrimination of blacks in the US. They stood with their heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised as the American national anthem played during the victory ceremony. Although they were immediately booed and castigated by many, and then quickly suspended by their team and expelled from the Olympics, Carlos and Smith’s brave act, which soon gained much support from black athletes around the world, “shifted dissidence from the periphery of American life to primetime television,” and “was understood as an act of solidarity with all those fighting for greater equality, justice and human rights” (Younge 2012).
Ultimately, sport is much more than simple fun, games, and entertainment. It can have a positive impact on individuals, societies, and nations and can serve as an agent of progress and change. In this regard, it is encouraging to see sport taking centre stage in Eritrea and the Horn of Africa.