Making Use Of Unifying Power Of Sports: Doing What Politics Cannot – Analysis


A growing number of sports persons and organisations have sought to intervene in conflict zones to encourage reconciliation between estranged communities. The international community unanimously declared the year 2005 as the International Year of Sport and Physical Education, serving as formal recognition of the added value of sport as a peace-building factor. Contemporaneously, in several regions of the world, the fundamental values of sport and play have been acknowledged as important contributors in the building of a stronger civil society where tolerance and lasting relationships are developed.


At a cursory glance, the links between sport and inter-state reconciliation seem abundant. Some pundits credit Ping-Pong Diplomacy with facilitating the subsequent thaw of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Others point to Table Tennis Diplomacy and the attempted Olympic Diplomacy as effective difference-bridges between the two Koreas in the latter decades of the 20th century. More generally, there has been a widely held sense that sports, as Jeremy Goldberg states in his ground-breaking work titled ‘Sporting Diplomacy: Boosting the size of the Diplomatic Corps,’ serve as “a ‘safe’ way to ease a country out of isolation, acting as a first step of engagement.”

This transformation of conflict-laden bonds is not limited to inter-state rivalries. In 2007, the apparent success of the Côte d’Ivoire’s national men’s football team in rallying the country and ending a five-year long civil war between Northern rebels and the government-controlled South was hailed as a testament to the remarkable power of sport in peace-building. Hence, sport appears to possess a quality which promotes not only inter-state reconciliation but also intra-state reconciliation. Judging from both the aforementioned Ivorian example and the images of a celebrating multi-ethnic Iraq following that country’s victory in the Asian Football Confederation Championship, it would seem that sport has at least a temporary ability to create intra-state linkages between conflicting factions.

National-level sporting events are therefore perceived to offer reconciliatory powers and diplomatic significance by members of society and powerful elites. In both Côte d’Ivoire and Iraq which experienced either “cold” (potential) or “hot” (open and violent) inter-state and intra-state conflicts, there have been concrete examples in which at least a segment of those involved point to sport as a significant factor in obtaining reconciliation. For one reason or another, sport seems to have a unique ability to transcend common social cleavages such as class, nationality, and race and create bonds between sides in conflict.


Sport for reconciliation projects can be used to promote social inclusion breaking down barriers and creating bridges between opposing groups. Sport can help the process of reconciliation by building confidence and trust among diversity, advancing the national healing process, encouraging resiliency, and restoring a sense of normalcy into the lives of those affected by war.

Sports as a unifying force can bring people together in unimaginable ways: in a country such as Sri Lanka, when a team that comprises an ethnic mix of persons work together towards achieving a common goal, what can be witnessed is the fostering of inter-dependence, team spirit, togetherness and understanding in ways that politics cannot.

This is not to say that sporting activities are a panacea for inter-ethnic strife; rather it must be looked at as a critical instrument in the tool-box of reconciliation to usher in peace and harmony between communities.

The use of sport and recreational activities as a tool in trauma rehabilitation in post conflict zones is gaining momentum. In addition to providing recourse from stressful home environments, sporting activities enable relaxed enjoyment which brings about a sense of purpose and achievement together with the opportunity to re-establish social networks of persons involved.

However, an important question to consider is how the negative aspects of sport such as extreme competition, social exclusion and nationalism could be contained and addressed to ensure that the endeavour does not become counterproductive. To this end, what becomes critical is the process employed in effecting the programmes. The ‘win at all costs’ mentality must leave the floor to give way to a ‘sport for all’ approach. It is only then that sport can serve the intended purpose of being a low-entry and high-impact strategy for social change.


Acknowledging the power of sport as both a strategy and tool for healing and reconciliation, national cricketing heroes have come forward, in what is hoped will provide impetus for further and future sports for reconciliation projects in the country.

The Murali Harmony Cup 2012 will get underway on the 8th of September 2012 and will conclude on the 12th of September 2012 ahead of the International Cricket Council ( ICC ) World T20 Series in Sri Lanka. The Murali Harmony Cup 2012 is a tournament that is being jointly organised by the Foundation of Goodness, a non-governmental organisation that aims to narrow the gap between urban and rural life in Sri Lanka by tackling poverty through productive activities, and whose trustees comprise national cricketing heroes, namely, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena and Muttiah Muralitharan, together with the sponsorship of Red Dot Tours and the ICC. The administering of the tournament has received the cooperation of the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka Cricket, Sri Lanka Schools’ Cricket Association, the Sri Lanka Women’s Cricket Association and the Ministry of Education.

The tournament invites twelve Under-19 schoolboy level teams to represent regions from across the island in recognition of outstanding performances in schools’ T20 cricket. These schools will compete with combined schools’ squads from across the North and Eastern provinces, which will benefit from specialist coaching clinics leading up to the event.

To reflect the ICC World T20 model and in recognition of the rapid development of the women’s version of the game, the event includes eight Under-23 womens’ clubs as well as combined squads from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

All matches will be played at five post-conflict school venues across Sri Lanka’s northern regions of Mankulam, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu. The schools from the North and East of the country will compete with twelve Under-19 schoolboy teams representing Central, Western, Wayamba, Southern and North Central Provinces as well as the Ambalangoda, Kurunegala, Kandy` and Hambantota districts, similarly selected in recognition of outstanding performances in schools’ T20 cricket.

The objective of the Murali Harmony Cup 2012 is to bring together Sri Lankan children from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions to play cricket together and in the process develop the skills and love of the game while promoting community-building and reconciliation in post-conflict Sri Lanka. More importantly, the event is designed as a catalyst for much-needed cricket development in the under-resourced schools of the war-affected northern and eastern provinces which will serve as a platform for involvement in national sporting events.

All matches of the tournament will be actively supported by the presence of Sri Lanka’s star cricketers: the matches played in Mullaitivu will be attended by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena; the matches played in Jaffna, Killinochchi, Maankulam and Vanuniya will be graced by Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekera, Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews, and Upul Tharanga. Muttiah Muralitharan will attend the semi-finals and finals of the Harmony Cup 2012.

At the end of the tournament, the outstanding performers from the participating teams will be selected to form what will be called a ‘Harmony Team’ comprising six players from the North and eight players from the South. The Harmony Team is then scheduled to be taken to Singapore on the 14th and 15th of October 2012 for a series of competitive matches that will be played with Singaporean schools’ cricket teams. An additional bonus for the Harmony Team would be the opportunity provided by the organisers to attend the semi-final and final matches of the ICC World T20 tournament that will be held in Sri Lanka. Such exposure and incentive to the conflict-affected youngsters of the north and south of the country will be a first.


Studies have shown that while sports by itself cannot start the process of reconciliation, it can prove invaluable in a broader programme of national reconciliation that is robustly supported by favourable governmental policy. An example of such is seen in the recent work of the Department of Sport and Recreation of the Government of Western Australia which is the lead agency responsible for putting into practice government policy and initiatives relating to sport and recreation. Accordingly, the Reconciliation Action Plan 2008 – 2009 which specifically supports the development of a diverse sport and recreation system that encourages participation, develops talent and contributes to the health and wellbeing of marginalised communities and people with the intent of contributing to reconciliation in the country, has been promulgated. Sri Lanka, not unlike Australia, is a sports loving nation. What is required, therefore, is to harness the spirit and enthusiasm for sport that exists across ethnic and communal divides, and channel it into avenues that can foster collective healing and nation-building.

Has the time come for Sri Lanka to use the unifying power of sport to devise a reconciliation plan, similar to models used in countries such as Australia, which would in turn fit into the broader framework of national reconciliation efforts? It is time that national sporting authorities step forward.

This article appeared at The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London. She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building. She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Email: [email protected]

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