Sports can make a significant contribution to the development of understanding, respect and, tolerance. It can also serve as an icebreaker against fixed prejudices between peoples.
Manfred Lämmer, a professor of sports history at the prestigious German Sports University in Cologne, explained to me, when we met at the Olympic Games in London in 2012: On the very personal level, through common interests in sports, initial interpersonal contacts can develop. The Olympic Movement aims, through sporting competition, to bring people together who differ with regard to their ethnic origin, their nationality, culture and political beliefs, into a universal community of common values. Sporting encounters should contribute to breaking down prejudices and to foster mutual respect.
- The International Olympic Committee (IOC) aims to contribute to a peaceful and better world through the education of sports among young people, in accordance with Olympic values (Charter 1.1). It connects sports with ethics, as sports is regarded as a service to humanity and also a contribution to peace (2.4). In a brochure entitled, “What is the Olympic Legacy?” the IOC explains, “The Olympic spirit comprises respect for ethical values, human dignity, mutual understanding, the spirit of friendship, solidarity, fair play and the rejection of all forms of racist, religious, political or sexual discrimination.” (www.olympic.org).
- At the European Football Championship in 2012, the UEFA initiated its comprehensive “Respect Diversity” program with a series of campaigns in partnership with FARE (Football Association against Racism in Europe, www.fare net.org). Banners in the stadium brought these calls for respect and tolerance to a worldwide TV audience of millions. The program also included the training of police officers and stewards in the two host countries, Poland and Ukraine, so they could better identify discriminatory choruses of demonstrators, symbols, and behaviors, and take action against them.
- In 2008, FC Barcelona supported the initiative “Voices of the Youth against Racism,” along with the UNESCO, the European Parliament and the European Coalition against Racism. Together they presented ten recommendations against racism which promoted more tolerance. “Football is a means to fight against violence and racism and for integration in our society,” explained Joan Laporte, the president of FC Barcelona. In 2013, the popular team started its “Peace Tour” in Israel and Palestine. The superstars, among them Lionel Messi, trained with Palestinian children in the Dura Stadium in the West Bank and with Israeli children in the Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa. President Sandro Rosell said that by doing this they wanted to create common meeting places on the road to peace. March 19, 2016, we visited a soccer game in Brussels-Molenbeek on the large place before the city hall. The teams were established by one young Jew, Muslim, Christian and free-thinker, playing together in one group as a sign of good cooperation.
- Various national and international programs support respect and tolerance through sports. Among them are Sports for Peace (www.sports-for-peace.org), Let’s Kick Racism out of Football, FIFA Football 4 Hope, Program for the One Champion and One Project.
- On April 27, 2014, a racist scored a true own goal in Spain at the match of the FC Barcelona against the FC Villarreal. The dark-skinned Brazilian Dani Alves was just about to take a corner for his FC Barcelona, when somebody threw a banana at him. The player had already been insulted due to racism several times. He remained totally cool, lifted the banana, peeled it slowly and bit into it; then he took the corner. His team colleague Neymar published a photo on Instagram, showing Dani Alves with his little son, both with a banana in their hands. A worldwide protest against racism followed. The banana became a symbol. The Italian Prime Minister Renzi and coach Prandelli bit into a banana, also the Dortmund professionals Lewandowski and his dark- skinned colleague Aubameyang. Guga Ketzer from the advertising agency Loducca in Sao Paulo had the idea for this witty campaign. “Intolerance can best be combated by taking the sting out of racism,” he said.
- In 2008, the Peres Center for Peace founded the first joint Israeli-Palestinian football team, which participated in the AFL International Cup. Twelve players came from the West Bank and from Israel respectively. In joint meetings, political problems and tensions are widely discussed.
- In Belfast in Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic children play in mixed teams in basketball tournaments of the Laureus Project “PeacePlayers International.” Religious affiliation no longer plays any role (www.laureus.com).
- After the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, no one could imagine at first how the country of the perpetrators could ever have friendly relations with the new country of the victims. Until 1967, Israel had restrictions on dealings with Germany, but the ice was broken by athletes. The first German to be officially invited to Israel was the young president of the German Sports Federation, Willi Daume, in 1957. Following the triumph of the German national football team under Sepp Herberger in 1954, Israeli footballers came to train at the German Sports University in Cologne for the first time. Among them was the German-born Emanuel Schaffer, who was appointed the Israeli national coach in 1968. He became friends with his teacher Hennes Weisweiler. Both brought the German and Israeli football together. In 1967, an Israeli delegation of the Hapoel Association visited Germany. At the turn of the year 1968/1969, the German National Youth Team set up its training camp near Netanya. In 1969, the FC Bayern was the first German club to play on Isreali soil. In the same year, the first international match took place in Frechen near Cologne. In 1970, a special plane of the Air Force brought the players of Borussia Mönchengladbach, with their star Günter Netzer, to a friendly match with the national team in Israel. The Germans Uwe Klimaschefski (1971 at Hapoel Haifa) and Lothar Matthäus (2008/2009 at Maccabi Netanya) trained Israeli footballers. Therefore, football made a valuable contribution as an icebreaker in the difficult relations between the two countries.
At the local level, sports achieve most attempts at mutual understanding. More than 30 years ago the equestrian community in the small German city of Goslar, established – stimulated by its active chairman Otto Fricke – a partnership with the sports club Hapoel in Raana, a city with 80,000 inhabitants, near Tel Aviv. In the summer of 2006, this resulted in an official friendship agreement between the two cities in Israel and Germany.
- German football coaches advanced to become ambassadors of their country as the national coaches of Cameroon (Winfried Schäfer 2001–2004), Greece (Otto Rehhagel 2001–2010), China and Iran (Klaus Schlappner, China 1992– 1995, Iran 2000-2001) and Japan (Detmar Cramer).
- The integration of colored players into the upper leagues of the football associations and the national teams sends out strong signals for their acceptance by fans all over the world.
- In 2002, the Association of Jeunes Sportifs de Kigali Espérance founded the football tournament “Four Countries 4 Peace” with youth teams from Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. What is particularly special about the constellation of the teams is that the six-member teams consist of an equal number of girls and boys, with the right to score goals reserved for the girls. In addition, the matches are played without a referee, so that the teams must clarify conflicts through dialogue.
- During the FIFA World Cup in France in 1998, the teams from the United States and Iran met. Since the overthrow of the Shah and the hostage crisis at the US Embassy, relations had been frosty and the US was regarded as the archenemy by the Mullahs. Nevertheless, the teams greeted each other friendly and exchanged flowers.
- Football can even stop war for a short time. During the Christmas peace in the trenches of the First World War in 1914, German and British soldiers came together and played football peacefully. When the matches were over, killing started again.
- Only a year after the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, the mixed white-black rugby team of the country won the World Cup in 1995. The “Springboks” thus became an important catalyst of reconciliation and an acclaimed symbol of the Rainbow Nation.
- The establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China was preceded in 1971 by the famous “Ping-Pong Diplomacy,” which was developed by chance. Glenn Cowan belonged to the US national table tennis team, which traveled to the World Cup in Japan in the spring of 1971. There, he got on a tournament bus with the Chinese national team already on board. In the back of the bus, the three-time world champion Zhuang Zedong was sitting. With the aid of an interpreter, he addressed the American, “Although the US government was not friendly towards China, the people in America have always been the friends of the Chinese. In order to express this friendship, I want to give you this present.” Zedong handed Cowan a picture woven into silk. When the door of the bus opened, the waiting journalists and photographers saw the American with this present in his hands amidst the Chinese athletes. As a way of saying thanks, he spontaneously handed the Chinese a T-shirt with the peace sign and the Beatles’ saying, “Let it be.” Finally, the leader of the American delegation addressed his Chinese colleague.
He had heard that the Chinese had invited some nations for friendly games, so they could also invite his team. The next day, some newspapers printed the photo on the front page with the headline, “The US and China are coming closer.” Mao read this story in Beijing. Since he considered a closer relation with the US useful, because of the increasing tensions with the Soviet Union, he decided, “Invite the American team to China. The meeting of the two teams is just natural and history has willed it.” The 15-member table tennis team was the first American group to visit China since 1949. The Americans played two friendly games, one in Shanghai and another one before 18,000 spectators in Peking.
As a sign of respect and hospitality, the superior Chinese players let each of the American players win once. The team was treated with the utmost courtesy and respect. When Premier Zhou Enlai asked at a reception whether there was any criticism toward the host, the president of the American Table Tennis Association, Graham Steenhoven, replied dryly, “You give us too much to eat.” After the delegation had returned home, diplomatic rapprochement started. The National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger traveled to China for secret talks. In 1972, this was followed by the historic visit of US President Richard Nixon and the establishment of diplomatic relations.