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Peace is Winner in Athletic Competition

  • Mike Osborne

The Olympic Games have always brought international athletes together in peace for friendly – if fierce – competition. But two American sports researchers say the same spirit exists on a local sports field. Athletic competition, they've learned, is a great way to promote peace. Mike Osborne tells us more.

Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman are working toward their doctorates in sports sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Both were struck early on in their research by athletic competition's ability to break down barriers.

Huffman participated in a sports camp held in Israel a few years ago. She recalls being surprised at how quickly four of the girls bonded in spite of their cultural, religious and political differences. She says the two Israeli Jewish girls, the Arab Christian girl and the Palestinian Muslim girl remain in close touch. "[They] have had their parents drive them to Jerusalem to meet. You just would never think that that would happen. And so I think it was really just the essence of the camp… that's what it was all about."

Building on their research, Hillyer and Huffman launched Sport 4 Peace. The organization provides opportunities for girls and women from various backgrounds to engage in friendly competition. The program focuses on female athletes living in countries where women face difficulties participating in sports.

Softball hits a home run in Iran

Hillyer just returned from her eighth visit to Iran, where she spent a month teaching softball. Her first trip was in 2002, and prior to that time, she says, softball had never been played in the country. "So this last time I was there was extremely rewarding because over the last six years the women have really embraced the sport and improved. So much so that they've expanded and have started 15 different teams in 15 different cities throughout Iran."

Softball is a relatively recent American invention and began as an indoor version of baseball. Hillyer and Huffman videotaped a game played in Iran, and it looks for all the world like the softball games played on summer days in small towns all across the United States.

But Hillyer says there are some important differences. "As soon as we step outside and we go to maybe a practice soccer field where we would be in the view of men, then we have to wear a scarf and long sleeves."

Differences disappear on the field

Getting past those cultural, religious and political differences is exactly what Sport 4 Peace is designed to accomplish, Hillyer says. "When it comes down to it, both the women in America and the women in Iran understand that those problems are our governments' problems. … Sports provides a tremendous opportunity for American women and Iranian women to meet as people and to share ideas and beliefs and hope and empowerment through sport."

Hillyer and Huffman have been impressed with the dedication of the Iranian athletes. On this last trip, the pair delivered donated protective gear to a catcher who'd been playing without it for years. Hillyer recalls her saying that she'd never had a mask or a chest protector or shin guards, and because of that she'd had a broken nose and a few black eyes and several split lips. "Then finally she just broke loose and hugged me for two or three minutes because she was so incredibly grateful that she finally had something to protect her face and protect her body that would allow her to continue to play a sport that she absolutely loves and she would love to represent her country some day."

That young Iranian catcher just might get her chance. Softball is a medal sport at this year's Olympic Games in Beijing. Competitions are also held annually under the oversight of the 117-nation International Softball Federation. And women in other sports can look forward to playing on the global field – this summer, Sport 4 Peace is helping rebuild the Iraqi women's national basketball team program.

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