The 2014 World Cup – reflections on the link between sports and development

10/06/2014 at 1:50 pm Leave a comment

In two days, the soccer World Cup kicks off in Brazil. The month-long competition features 64 matches in 12 cities, and the country has spent an estimated $3.6 billion on building new stadiums and $7 billion on improving infrastructure for the tournament.

While the Brazilian government and soccer’s governing body FIFA had hoped that the 2014 World Cup would be a celebration of samba soccer, the run-up to the tournament has been marked by stories of unfinished stadiums, absent public transport and growing social unrest.

Popular protests across Brazil have focused on the country’s enormous spending on preparations for the tournament, and on the heavy handed displacement of poor people from slums surrounding the sports venues. The protesters say that the World Cup is set to benefit foreign tourists and Brazil’s rich, at the expense of the country’s poorest people and its growing working class.

Yet, mega sports events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games do have great potential to benefit, rather than marginalise, poor people. In the experience of Irish NGOs, sports events can bring communities together, help bridge cultural or ethnic divides and even have a positive impact on the economy. But only if they are designed, from the start, to be inclusive, and respectful of the rights of affected communities.


What we know works – and what doesn’t.

 Sport is more than a form of entertainment. Participation in sport is a human right and essential for individuals of all ages to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Play and physical activity are critical to a child’s development, improving health and reducing the likelihood of disease.


In addition, sports and games teach children cooperation and the importance of inclusion, and can help deal with trauma and the normalisation of life after disasters. In the more organised form of competitive events, sports can bring communities together, help bridge cultural or ethnic divides and even have a positive impact on the economy.


The right to sports and play remains a ‘forgotten right’.

While development agencies and governmental decision-makers acknowledge the human right to sport and play, in practice, sport is seen more as a by-product of development than as an engine. What we know works – and what doesn’t Irish NGOs are acutely aware that sport has the ability to affect positive change and promote international development. Yet they are aware that sports cannot be a panacea to the problem of poverty and disadvantage. Rather, they see the power of sport as a tool, within a broader toolkit for social change.

Research and NGO experience show that:

  • Sports programmes have an impact on the self-esteem and self-efficacy of participants. However, this impact is not always linear, nor positive: many sports programmes do not reach children with low self-esteem, and perceived exclusion may have a negative effect on participants.
  • Sports programmes help foster more positive attitudes towards women’s participation in sport and education. However, positive attitudes towards girls’ access to education do not automatically translate into changed attitudes towards gender roles in other settings.
  • Sports programmes can help promote greater awareness of health issues. When combined with drama and education workshops, and when embedded in broader community development strategies, sports programmes can be a powerful tool for behavioural change, through social mobilisation and education. The use of sports stars as goodwill ambassadors for social causes is also effective.
  • Sports programmes need rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Many existing ‘sports for development’ programmes set ambitious, yet vague objectives, making impact evaluation difficult.

Sports can help the inclusion of people with disabilities. Sports activities can provide an opportunity for marginalised people to leave their homes and reduce the focus on the person’s impairment. Disability sports programmes can help strengthen participants both mentally and physically and promote their rehabilitation.

The key to successful ‘Sports and Development’ programmes is in an emphasis on inclusion. Without proper attention to the equal participation of marginalised people, and without proper embedding of the sports programme in the wider setting of the community, sport has the potential of perpetuating, rather than weakening, systemic inequalities.


The impact of Mega Sports Events

Mega sports events, such as the soccer World Cup, are often surrounded by enormous amounts of publicity and claims of long-term economic benefits. Such events do have a great potential to foster collective enthusiasm and a sense of belonging. Equally, sports events can impact positively on the local economy, and on the international reputation of a country.

However, evidence to date shows that the economic impact tends to be over-estimated, that the events’ infrastructure and facilities often do not benefit poorer people and that little attention is paid to the potentially negative side effects of the event.

Experience shows that mega events do not automatically create sustainable social change. They need to be designed from the start with a view to optimising sustainable benefits for the host region and to delivering these benefits well before, and long after, the event. This includes safeguarding human rights, deliberately including marginalised areas and communities, providing opportunities for social housing and for small enterprises to benefit from the event. The key to long-term positive impact lies in the building of a truly inclusive transport, business and sports infrastructure.



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