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.
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.
hits a home run in Iran
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.
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."
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
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.