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  • Norman Brook

Replacing the UNOSDP with IOC Commission may strengthen SDP Sector

There seems to be quite some concern in Sport for Development and Peace circles that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has announced that the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) has closed. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan created the UNOSDP, appointing the first Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace Adolf Ogi in February 2001. Wilfried Lemke was appointed as the 2nd Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace by Ban Ki Moon. Lemke stepped down at the end of 2016 and many had been awaiting to learn whom Guterres would appoint as his special advisor.

The decision not to appoint a special advisor and to close down the UNOSDP would appear to be linked to an increasing partnership between the United Nations (UN) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The Secretary-General has agreed with the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, to establish a direct partnership between the UN and the International Olympic Committee.  Accordingly, it was decided to close the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP).”

The IOC was granted observer status by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2009 giving it the possibility of attending all UN General Assembly meetings where it can take the floor and promote sport. In addition to its 193 member states, the UN General Assembly may grant observer status to an international organization, entity or non-member state, which entitles the entity to participate in the work of the UN General Assembly, though with limitations.

In 2015, a historic moment for sport and the IOC, sport was officially recognized as an “important enabler” of sustainable development and included in the United Nations 2030 Agenda. IOC President Thomas Bach was invited to speak at the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals where he described sport as a natural partner for the realisation of the 2030 Agenda.

Paragraph 37 of “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” reads: “Sport is also an important enabler of sustainable development. We recognise the growing contribution of sport to the realisation of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect and the contributions it makes to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.”

More recently the IOC has appointed Philip French as Director of its Public Affairs and Social Development through Sport Department and formed a Commission for Public Affairs and Social Development through Sport[i] (formerly the International Relations Commission) lead by Mario Pescante to advise the IOC Session, Executive Board and President on strategies to promote the role of sport and Olympism in society and to position the IOC as a thought leader and a strong actor on the international stage around sport for development and peace in and beyond the Games. In doing so the stage was set for this commission to take over the role of the former Special Advisor and UNOSDP.

The responsibilities of the IOC Public Affairs and Social Development through Sport Commission are to:

  1. Devise strategies to advocate for the integration of sport and physical activity in government policies and programmes, as well as international development policies and programmes;

  2. Advise on engagement strategies with other key stakeholders and partners in sport for development, such as major organisations and institutions, the private sector (foundations, TOP sponsors, World Bank, etc.), and pressure groups (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, etc.);

  3. Advise on strategies to develop impactful and sustainable grassroots sport for development and peace programmes with key selected and reputable strategic partners (UN, major NGOs, foundations);

  4. Advise on the Sport for Hope Programme to ensure strong ongoing operations while developing sustainable operational models for the future;

  5. Advise on a global communications strategy around sport for social change, leveraging various platforms and Olympians, as well as the Olympism in Action Congress;

  6. Advise on how to further educate the Olympic Movement (NOCs, IFs, OCOGs, athletes) on the benefits of grassroots sport for development and peace, and help build their capacity to advocate, communicate and deliver around it.

With such a clear mandate for this IOC commission to further sport for development and peace, the IOC’s reach down through International Sports Federations and National Olympic Committees and the IOC’s observer status at the UN General Assembly, should we really be too concerned about the closure of the UNOSDP?

Perhaps those organisations that have a strong sport focus will welcome sport for development and peace being moved to the IOC whilst those organisations that are more focused on development outcomes would have preferred it to remain under the stewardship of the UN?

The role of the IOC Commission in educating the Olympic Movement on the benefits of grassroots sport for development and peace, and to help build capacity to advocate, communicate and deliver around should be welcomed by all who recognise the potential of sport to contribute to development and peace outcomes. The IOC has a huge reach and influence down to community level sport. Sports organisations in local communities are affiliated through National Sports Federation structures which are in turn are affiliated to International Sports Federations (ISFs) and National Olympic Committees (NOCs). The ISFs and NOCs being affiliated to the IOC. Through these structures the IOC is well placed to encourage sport to not just develop players but also promote values based life skills developing young people and addressing the social challenges identified in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Many may feel the IOC’s focus is only on competitive sport and that other forms of physical activity that are included in sport for development and peace may be overlooked.  The United Nations Inter-Agency Taskforce of Sport for Development and Peace included play, recreation, organised, casual or competitive sport; and indigenous sports or games within their definition of sport. The goals set out above for the IOC Public Affairs and Social Development through Sport Commission and the existence of other Commissions on Women in Sport, Sport and Active Society and Sustainability and Legacy may give some reassurance that the IOC has a wider remit than just competitive sport.

I remember Fred Coalter[ii] [iii] presenting to a meeting of Community Based SDP Organisations in Cape Town in 2010 where spoke of three approaches used by SDP organisations based on the relative emphasis given to sport to achieve certain outcomes.

  1. “Traditional forms of provision for Sport, with an implicit assumption or explicit affirmation that such sport has inherent developmental properties for participants.”

  2. Sport plus, in which sports are adapted and often augmented with parallel programmes in order to maximise their potential to achieve development objectives.”

  3. Plus Sport, in which sports popularity is used as a type of ‘fly paper’ to attract young people to programmes of education and training, with the systematic development of sport rarely a strategic aim.”

Coalter challenged the implicit assumption or explicit affirmation that sport has inherent developmental properties for participants warning us to beware “sports evangelists” promoting such beliefs. This did not look good for sport as it seemed to point towards plus sport or sport plus as being more effective in achieving development or peace outcomes. The Sport Plus approach with sports being adapted or augmented with parallel non sport programmes seemed to diminish the role of sport. The Plus Sport approach where sport was used to attract young people into other programmes but where the sport itself was secondary importance also seemed to devalue the role of sport and its potential to be used to achieve development outcomes.

Gould and Carson[iv] point out that sport can have both positive and negative outcomes both in term of sporting skills and life skills.

Theokas et al[v] note that although participation is often linked with developmental benefits, mere participation does not confer benefits; the quality and implementation of sports programmes are the likely causal mechanisms of enjoyment and development.

According to Petitpas et al[vi] there is growing evidence, however, that if sport is structured in the right way and young people are surrounded by trained caring adult mentors, positive youth development is more likely to occur.

Danish et al[vii] suggest that simply disseminating information to participants alongside sports participation will not predictably produce the desired result of developing a young person’s life skills.  A better approach is the teaching of skills of how to succeed in life and why such skills are important. Moreover, skills, whether directed toward enhancing athletic performance or success in life, are taught in the same way – through demonstration, modelling and practice.

Gass[viii] noting that if sports programmes are designed to help the adolescent learn both sport and life skills, what is learned in the athletic venue must be able to be transferred to non-sport settings.

This suggests that there is potential to better design sports programmes to achieve development and peace outcomes and to train sports coaches to be able to coach value based life skills through sport.

The closing of the UNOSDP and the repositioning of sport for peace and development under the IOC presents the opportunity to mainstream sport for development and peace in traditional sports structures and to increase the reach of sport for development and peace movement. It also provides the opportunity to move Sport back to centre stage in the sport for development programming rather just using it as a means of attracting young people into other activities delivering development and peace outcomes.

[ii] Coalter, F., 2010. Sport-for-development: going beyond the boundary? Sport in Society: Culture, Commerce, Media, Politics, 13 (9) pp. 1374-1391.

[iii] Coalter, F., 2010. The politics of sport for development: Limited focus programmes and broad gauge problems?. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 45 (3), pp.296 – 311.

[iv] Gould, D., & Carson, S. (2008a). Life skills development through sport: current status and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(1), 58–78.

[v] Theokas, C., Danish, S., Hodge, K., Heke, I. and Forneris, T., 2008. Enhancing life skills through sport for children and youth. Positive youth development through sport, 6, pp.71-81.

[vi] Petitpas, A. J., Van Raalte, J. L., Cornelius, A., and Presbrey, J. 2004 A life skills development program for high school student-athletes, Journal of Primary Prevention, 24: 325–34.

[vii] Danish, S.J. and Hale, B.D., 1981. Toward an understanding of the practice of sport psychology. Journal of Sport Psychology, 3(2).

[viii] Gass, M.A., 1985. Programming the transfer of learning in adventure education. Journal of Experiential Education, 8(3), pp.18-24.

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