The transformative power of sport can unite us all

A young man performs a trick on his BMX bike at a skate park in Cartagena, Colombia. © EPA-EFE/RICARDO MALDONADO ROZO

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a detrimental impact on young people, said Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO)  Global Survey on Youth and COVID-19, the right to leisure, including sports, was the most affected than any other right during the pandemic. The study reports 68 percent out of a total of 12,000 people surveyed said they experienced significant restrictions on sports.

Even the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games was postponed for one year due to the pandemic. The multi-sport event will begin on 23 July.

“The Olympic ideal is anchored in human rights: it embodies fairness, non-discrimination, respect and equal opportunities for all,” Al-Nashif said at a high-level panel discussion on promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal during the Human Rights Council. “Sport promotes human rights values, as they reach billions, including young people.”

According to Toshiro Muto, Director General of Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, sports must reflect the realities of young people. For example, a refugee team will be included in Tokyo.

“The participation of refugees in large sporting events, such as the Olympic Games, can inspire millions of children and youth to overcome challenges that they face,” said Al-Nashif.

Also, for the first time, new youth-oriented sports such as basketball, sport climbing, skateboarding, Cycling BMX, and surfing will be Olympic sports.

“Inclusion of these sports in the Olympic Games means that more young people than ever, regardless of their social and economic background, will have the chance to be a star on the world stage,” Muto said in a video message.

Young people with a range of disabilities will also have an opportunity to showcase their athleticism at Tokyo 2020, which is the second Paralympic at the Olympic Games.

A member of the Russian Federation’s Paralympics team and a European & World Champion in sitting volleyball, 22-year-old Elizaveta Kunstmann, was hit by a train when she was a child and lost both of her legs.

She didn’t want to engage with friends and school, so she turned to sports. Kunstmann said her mother encouraged her to try sitting volleyball at the rehabilitation center. When she was 13, she became the youngest sitting volleyball player at the Paralympic Games.    

The Olympic Games is the only event that unites the world in peaceful competition through solidarity, according to Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee. These Olympic values are also seen through their business operations to ensure sustainably, gender equality and inclusion with human rights standards, he said in a video message.

“We are a carbon-neutral organization, and we are committed to becoming climate-positive by 2024,” Bach said. “We will achieve gender-balance at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 for the first time in history with almost 49 percent women participating.”

For Kathrine Switzer, a 74-year-old Marathon long-distance runner from the United States, being a female athlete hasn’t always been inclusive.

In 1967, she was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor. At the race, the race manager physically assaulted her to prevent her from participating because she was a woman, she explained. She ran the race anyway.

“But when I finished the race, everything changed because millions of people saw that women could run a long way,” she said. 

She said her passion for running began when her father challenged her to run a kilometer a day.

“The kilometer a day changed my life, not only through sports but my sense of self-esteem and fearlessness,” she said. “I grew up having the courage to try new things, in sports, education and career and believe in myself to succeed.”

A civil society organization in Brazil, Fight for Peace, is doing just that by engaging with young people in local communities teaching combat sports, along with jobs support, youth leadership and personal development.

“Through boxing and martial arts, young people develop strength and discipline, build self-respect, and learn that success comes from focused effort and dedication,” said Jenny Oklikah, Chief Executive, Fight for Peace.

To address sports related human rights challenges such as combatting sexual abuse of young athletes, UN Human Rights helped launch the Centre for Sport and Human Rights to ensure collective action with all stakeholders, including young people, Al-Nashif said.

This year, Sofia Bekatorou, Olympic gold and bronze medalist in sailing for Greece at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympic Games, revealed that she was raped by the former Vice President of the Hellenic Sailing Federation during her Olympic qualifier for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Bekatorou said she later joined other victims and lawyers to fight for the adoption of laws that protect victims and the process of the interrogation.  

“The Olympic values I have served practically all my life are giving me now the opportunity to make a real difference for my country and the world defending human rights, gender equality and reducing all sorts of violence,” she said.

22 July 2021

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