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    Photo Credit: “   Children playing soccer, Dogon region, Mali” by Jelle Jansen

Photo Credit: “Children playing soccer, Dogon region, Mali” by Jelle Jansen

by Becky Struwe, former U.S. diplomat and Athletivate supporter. 

  • ISIS claims suicide attack on Iraqi stadium that kills 25 (CNN)
  • Rio’s ‘symbol of hope’: The incredible stories of the world’s first refugee Olympic team (Washington Post)
  • Boston marathon hit by double explosion (The Guardian)

For most people, all of these headlines evoke strong feelings.  A sense of devastating loss when an innocent game of soccer or an annual marathon is targeted by terrorists.  A sense of overwhelming hope when those without a country to call home are still eligible to compete in the great tournament of nations we call the Olympics.   

What could two stories that evoke devastating loss have in common with one that evokes overwhelming hope?  They both point to the transcendence of sports during times of conflict.  Sports are a unifying force.  You don't have to love soccer to feel the deep sadness for the family who loses a family member during a senseless attack.  You don't have to be a marathon runner to be compelled by the devastation of the attacks on the Boston marathoners.  You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete yourself to understand the tremendous obstacles the refugee Olympic athletes have overcome to participate in this momentous event. 

Sports can equally transcend the challenges of everyday life as well as headline-grabbing calamities—and for some, those are the same.  People are able, for brief moments in time, to forget that their countries are ravaged by war.  Boys gather for pickup soccer games on war-torn streets in Syria.  Families assemble to watch a popular soccer team play in Iraq, a country haunted by war for the last decade.  Fans in Iraq congregate at a café to watch their favorite Spanish soccer team.  Refugees who have made long and treacherous journeys from their homes find themselves united under one Olympic flag.  All of them coming together, in the midst of tragedy, through sports.

The images of boys playing soccer on war-torn streets remain on the pages of our newspapers.  But while we struggle with how to deal with the devastation of war and work toward peace, we also celebrate how athletes and sports organizations, professional and otherwise, can use their platforms to promote unity and hope in times of conflict.  The unifying nature of sports draws people together and provides opportunities to celebrate where none would otherwise exist.