Sport: Investing in sports as a nation builder

Last Thursday, as I was concluding a consultancy assignment in Georgetown the following email turned up in my mailbox:

“Hey Karen- I know your team is really good- But remember we need to play everyone fairly- Other teams have been complaining about the same players up front the whole game. Please do not let Ashora and Neo play up front the whole game- Let them try “goalie” and let the girls be up a bit- Just to make it more sporting. Thanks so much- I hope you guys have fun this weekend”.

This email requires a but of background explanation. My children attend an International Charter School (ICS) where more than 50% of their schoolmates are from countries around the world. Many of them are refugees from Eastern Europe and Africa who have been granted asylum in the United States. The ICS school population also includes American- born children of Caribbean parents.

Three of my children aged 7, 8 and 9 represent their school on the soccer team. My husband coaches my 7 year old son’s team, and I coach my 9 year old daughter’s under 12 co-ed team. The team I coach is made up largely of children from African nations and many of them have played soccer in the countries of their birth for more than 7 years.

Several of these mostly 12 year olds come from war-torn countries. Some have witnessed the killings of friends and family members, and these horrific emotional scars apart, they continue to struggle with the challenge of learning English as well as the various other cultural challenges that have arisen in their new environment. They feel most comfortable on the soccer field, where they not only excel, but are superior.

The email was sent to me by one of the volunteer league coordinators. Apart from the fact that she has never witnessed a soccer game and her assertions concerning the girls are false, her point really was that our team’s victorious season had made others upset. She even made “recommendations” regarding the composition of the team which recommendations I have rejected out of hand. I am not about to make any changes to the team that would kill the spirit and stifle the talents of children who have already been victims of shattered dreams simply to make others feel better.

I share this experience to make the point first, that serious sport competition begins at the elementary level of schooling in the United States, Cuba, China and many European countries and, secondly, that even at this level sport is taken seriously.

The development of serious athletes must begin early in their lives. There is an abundance of research that suggests that the competitive spirit that derives from participation in sport is actually transferred to the classroom. Sport reduces the rate of early pregnancy by almost 1/3 and develops leadership skills which girls take with them into their adult experiences.

The United States has made a tremendous investment in sports infrastructure. Each city has a Department of Recreations that administers both indoor and outdoor sports facilities including courts, fields and, in many cases, swimming pools. Competi-tive leagues are established in various disciplines that allow for participationby children as young as five years old. Leagues are run mostly by volunteer coaches and tend to run for 4 months each year.

Talent development at a very early age is the key to the success which the United States continues to enjoy in a number of sporting disciplines. Having participated in their local recreation leagues for many years, students graduate to their middle and high school sports teams. Outstanding student athletes in this arena are offered sports scholarships to college.

Local government administrations are acutely aware of the benefits to be derived from youth involvement in sport. Apart from the very obvious benefits in the areas of health and physical development, sport helps to foster leadership potential and develop discipline in young people. Additionally, sport redirects the energies of young people away from the potential lure of crime, gangs, drugs and “underground cultures” and towards positive activities for which they are recognized and rewarded.

In March 2000, UN Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette told sportsmen and women that ” the power of sports is far more than symbolic. You are engines of economic growth. You are a force for gender equality. You can bring youth and others in from the margins, strengthening the social fabric. You can promote communication and help heal the divisions between peoples, communities and entire nations. You can set an example of fair play. Last but not least, you can advocate a strong and effective United Nations.”

All the world is aware of the benefits of sport. I believe, however, that in Guyana, that recognition is yet to be transformed into corresponding investment of time and money and in attention to the development of sport as a vehicle for nation-building.. There is, in my view, too high a level of bureaucratic involvement in decisions that have bearing on sport and I sincerely believe that this phenomenon is largely responsible for the underdevelopment of sport in the country.

The fact that Guyana has, up until now, been an underachiever on the international stage has less to do with a paucity of talent and more to do with a lack of investment in that talent and in the infrastructure that shapes that talent into world class performances.

Try as I do I simply cannot accept that, Guyana’s economic circumstances notwithstanding, the country has been unable to establish even a single sports stadium or even an outdoor track worthy of an international athletics event.

Interestingly, I have found that parents, athletes and coaches are keen to invest effort and interest that can help to build sport in Guyana. For the most part, however, they are powerless to improve infrastructure and to fund the major investments that are needed to enhance performances at all levels of the various sports.

What is also evident is that the private sector in Guyana which comprises mostly small and medium-sized businesses, has long been stricken with sponsorship “fatigue.” Additionally – and while there are some notable exceptions to this rule – many if not most private sector agencies in Guyana are yet to recognize a nexus between sports sponsorship and personal returns and are therefore ambivalent about investing additional dollars in sports.

In my view, the juncture at which the state can begin to make meaningful budgetary allocations to the various sports bodies in order to better position them to fund adequate facilities, equipment and coaching resources cannot be arrived at quickly enough. That would be a starting point for putting our athletes in a position where their natural talents can be combined with a more convivial training environment, a circumstance that would considerably enhance their chances of performing well on the international stage.

Each appearance by a Guyanese athlete on the world stage represents an invaluable marketing opportunity for Guyana. Good performances enhance, many times over, the value of those marketing opportunities. Spectators wonder about the country, investigate it on the internet and – believe or not – some of them even plan to visit.

Participation by Guyanese athletes in international sports events also rekindles feelings of intense nationalism arising out of an awareness that they can cheer for the land of their birth Sport also fosters racial tolerance and the eradication of stereotypes; challenges that are not unfamiliar to Guyana.

For all these reasons I am particularly proud of the role that I have played as a member of the Guyana Secondary Schools Basketball Association (GSSBA) leadership team in seeking to “roll out” a youth development sports programme in the country’s secondary schools. In truth, it has not been easy. I am, however, immensely encouraged by the energy and dynamism that has been demonstrated by the Association’s Board of Direc
tors, its local advisory board and by physical education teachers in Guyana. I am heartened by the fact that up until now, 39 schools, 80 volunteers, 500 students and more than 700 parents remain committed, enthusiastic and involved.

What the GSSBA seeks to do is to create a new, more disciplined, more motivated generation of young people, some of whom will probably not excel at sport but all of whom will be infused with the strength of character that is needed to help develop Guyana.

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