As a former Olympic athlete, I have experienced the incredible impact that sport can have firsthand. But, it wasn’t until 1993, during a trip to Eritrea, as an ambassador for Olympic aid, that I began to truly understand the influence that sport can have on a variety of developmental issues, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Since then, I have become utterly convinced that participation in sport and play programs has the potential to significantly contribute to child and youth development, prevent the spread of non-communicable and communicable diseases and strengthen communities.

Former Olympic speedskater Johann Koss. Photo Credit: Johann Koss

The 2011 United Nations Summit’s focus on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is timely as global deaths from NCDs are predicted to continue to rise over the next 10 years, particularly in developing countries. Because physical inactivity is a primary risk factor driving the global increase in NCDs, participation in sport plays a critical role in slowing the spread of chronic diseases. Regular physical activity effectively prevents non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression, and osteoporosis.

Sport and play is a true catalyst for combating NCDs, as it generates benefits through direct participation. Research shows that children and youth who build physical activity into their daily lives will be more likely to grow into active adults with a lower risk for chronic illnesses. We also know that physical activity, including sport and play, can produce beneficial effects on mental health, including enhancing self esteem, alleviating depression and helping to manage stress and anxiety. When individuals suffering from various mental health issues integrate regular physical activity into their lives, research has shown that their clinical symptoms, particularly for depression, significantly diminish.

Beyond physical and mental health, sport can also be a vehicle for social change and the promotion of social inclusion, which is another fundamental determinant of health.  A healthy population also produces significant societal benefits such as reduced health-care costs and increased productivity.

Good health is often seen as the foundation for all development objectives, particularly the MDGs. In addition to slowing the spread of non-communicable diseases, sport has proved to be an effective agent in combating communicable diseases. The use of contextually-appropriate games and activities has proven highly successful in educating children, youth and communities about infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV and AIDS, TB, measles and diarrheal diseases.

Participation in sport and play programs can contribute to other development objectives such as MDG 1, Universal Primary Education. Sport enhances education by creating an environment conducive to learning and by helping children to develop key life skills. Evaluations of well-designed, sport and play programs indicate that children who participate in child-centered sport and play-based learning activities while in school, are more likely to attend school every day and less likely to drop out. Research has also established that participation in sport and play activities can contribute to improvements in children’s concentration levels, readiness to learn and overall academic performance.

MDG 3, Promotion of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, can be greatly advanced by the participation of girls and women in sports. Sport provides girls and women with opportunities to increase their self-esteem and self-confidence so they feel empowered.  Sport and play activities have also proven to enable women to access important health information, develop social networks and access leadership opportunities and experience.

While international momentum around Sport for Development and Peace is growing, more meaningful advances can still be made. My sincere hope is that national governments worldwide will embrace the power of Sport for Development and Peace and seize the opportunity to create policies and programs, which will contribute to slowing the spread of non communicable diseases, achieving the Millennium Development Goals and promoting every child’s right to play.