Skip to main content

Sports build character, develop strategic thinking, and leadership skills, and promote justice

Writing on the complex issue of combating violent extremism in a polarised society through sports in the context of the present situation in the country requires knowledge, skill and sensitivity so that nothing falls out of proportion. Right at the outset I must vindicate my position as an “a-political” person with a strong affiliation with Pakistan only.

My sole effort is to educate sports enthusiasts and policymakers to use sports in national development agenda and education policies. The recent political developments in the country have given political awareness to the general public on one hand and polarised society on the other, where friends, colleagues and relatives have adopted hardlines in favor of their narratives with little respect for each other.

In the absence of a well-thought education policy and overall social development strategy, our society has been drifting towards this situation for decades. In my article “Sports & Tolerance” published on August 04, 2019, I warned about the aggressive behaviors, violent extremism and mob mentality evident in the brutal murder of Mashal Khan in Mardan University and how an angry mob torched a cathedral near Faisalabad and two brothers were beaten to death in Sialkot, all in just one month of April 2017.

These incidents were just the preamble to the collective chaos and social madness that we confront today in the form of group polarisation.

It is unfortunate that we neglected social sciences and sports in our education system and left the development of human behaviour to chance. The internet-fueled participatory democracy and simplistic techno-fatalist criticism which are the characteristics of the 21st century media have further complicated the issue of polarisation in a country like Pakistan, which offers limited constructive activities like organised sports for its 6 percent youth.

Throughout history, sports have been seen as leisure for the majority of the population, separate from serious matters of politics and influence. But sports have always played a role in the distribution and use of power, particularly as a show of national strength at times of crises. John Donahoe, the Nike’s CEO, looks at things differently. He sees sports as a way to unite fractured societies. In a TV interview, Donahoe said that sport is the most powerful institution in the world now. A lot of other institutions are falling down. They are polarizing. Sport is something that brings people together, he concluded.

In the past, the practice of sports was an occasional pastime of the rich and idle youth. “I worked thirty years for that practice to become a habitual pleasure of the petit bourgeoisie. Now it is necessary that this pleasure becomes part of the life of the young workers through sports for all,” said Pierre de Coubertin, the father of modern Olympics and eminent educationist of France.

The General Assembly Resolution A/RES/73/24 of 2018 states that sports is an important enabler of sustainable development. The resolution further states that sports can play a unique role by generating social capital and helping in mobilizing communities and promoting social inclusion and solidarity.

The development of societies and human behavior is a delicate matter that shouldn’t be left to chance otherwise societies become directionless mobs with no discipline and empathy for others. Sports help more than just develop muscles and physical fitness. Sports build character, develop strategic thinking, and leadership skills, and promote justice. Sport is a great leveler; you lose one day to bounce back the next. A true sports person knows that no loss is permanent and the game has to be played as per the rules.

Sports teach you to focus on your strengths and abilities. They teach you that process is more important than the result. They teach you to plan ahead and see through the consequences of your act. They teach you to be flexible and not carry a fixed mindset because you need to adjust and adapt. Above all, they teach you to respect your opponents.

Sports foster important human values and should be used as a tool to promote respect for rules, a sense of belonging and community, diversity, hospitality and empathy — values that our social system is losing fast.

Our policymakers have forgotten that sports can serve as an effective platform to address the root causes of violent extremism by strategically providing a tool to create meaningful and positive engagements for youth, thus disengaging them from the spell of social media which constantly bombard their brains and make them polarised zombies.

In this regard, I would like to draw the attention of valued readers and policymakers to the technical guidelines for the prevention of violent extremism through sports developed by UNODC consultant Holly Collison, who is a consultant on Sports for Development & Peace at the Institute of Sports Business in Loughborough University London.

The UNODC guide explains how violent extremism can be prevented when sports are employed strategically interplaying with education to inculcate the much-needed life skills, develop empowerment through youth leadership at the grassroots, propagate social inclusion, and develop resilience in young people through peer learning and critical thinking thus reducing chances of polarization in society.

People must have their political affiliations but not at the cost of others’ respect. The holy month of Ramadan is over and the nation has successfully overcome the effects of Covid 19. It’s now time for parents to push their children towards sports and also put pressure on policy makers and educationists to include sports in the education policy without further delay.

The sports need to be understood and applied by policy makers as spelled out in the General Assembly Resolutions and technical guidelines of UNODC. We must leave a better and more tolerant Pakistan for our next generations, where more opportunities exist for developing elite sports and sports for all programmes to overcome extremism and group polarisation.


Aamir Bilal is an eminent sports analyst with expertise in sports management and sports for development