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<i>Olympic Aid</i>: The Power of Sports as a Training Tool

Olympic athletes and officials say sports can help young people in troubled areas. The organization Olympic Aid held a forum on the topic in Salt Lake City, the site of the Winter Olympics. The Olympians say sports helps youngsters in refugee camps and inner-city ghettos.

A group of athletes and Olympic officials formed the organization Olympic Aid at the winter games in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. At the time, the former Olympic city of Sarajevo was devastated by fighting, and the athletes and officials thought that sports could help in some small way to heal such conflicts.

At a forum sponsored by Olympic Aid, the newly appointed head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, voiced support for the concept. "Within the world," he said, "there is a group of people who [have] no access to sport, and that is the field in which the Olympic movement, together with all the highly respected personalities around us, must invest."

One of those personalities, a four-time gold medallist, is Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss. In 1994, Mr. Koss donated his gold medal prize money to help finance Olympic Aid, and he now serves as its chairman.

Sport has value for the training that it offers, says former amateur competitor Adolph Ogi. Mr. Ogi has served as both defense minister and president of Switzerland, and is now an advisor on sports to the secretary-general of the United Nations. Mr. Ogi said through sports, he learned to win and lose, accept rules and discipline, and respect both referees and his opponents.

"Sports is my training field," said Mr. Ogi. "I can train in sport. And I then avoid those mistakes in political, in my military, or in my professional life. So I believe in what I say sport is a school of life. But we have to go out and say it to everybody."

Viviane Reding is the member of the European Commission responsible for education and culture. She believes that sport can help wherever there are social problems. "Look, I always say we have to help football develop small organizations in the villages because it is better that boys run into a ball rather than they kick each other in the road," she explained.

Ms. Reding says what is true in villages holds true in international relations, where sports can promote global understanding. She says the friendly engagement of athletics is especially important since the terrorist attacks of last September. She went on to say, "I think that the 11 of September has shown to all of us that we have to find new ways of communication, that we have to speak together not only by ministers of foreign affairs making a resolution, but mostly by people meeting each other, speaking to each other, getting together, getting to know each other, because if you know your neighbor, you don't fight him. You speak with him."

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu stressed sporting organizations helped force the former South African government to end the system of racial separation called apartheid. "When sports persons refused to play sports in South Africa and against South Africans, well, here we are. Free, democratic, and anyone who would tell you that sport is not powerful doesn't know what they're talking about," he said.

Now, Archbishop Tutu noted, sports is playing a role in rebuilding his country. "Children who were alienated by apartheid, now they play together," he said. "And barriers that were formed long ago are tumbling. And sport is making miraculous changes happen before our eyes, children who were enemies are becoming friends, with sport helping the process of reconciliation in a wounded and traumatized land."

People at this forum say athletics can promote discipline and a sense of sportsmanship, and that prominent athletes can also help as celebrity spokesman. Olympic Aid has involved athletes with an immunization drive in Ghana, and now has volunteers in both Africa and Asia, promoting education on issues like AIDS, tobacco, and alcohol abuse.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is here for the winter games, says sport can contribute to peace, reconciliation and healing. But he says health and development are not spectator sports. They require the active involvement of individuals and countries.