Commentary

The United Nations, sports and the refugee crisis

Updated: October 3, 2017, 7:44 AM ET
By Richard Lapchick | ESPN.com

World TaekwondoSergei Bobylev/TASS/Getty ImagesWorld Taekwondo has led a charge to make the inclusion and awareness of the refugee crisis a priority.

I recently wrote a column highlighting various examples of how sport is being used to include and support refugees in countries and communities where they are settling. Participation in sport has helped refugees adjust to the culture of their new communities, make friends, and take their minds off the usually horrific experiences from which they fled. With fear and hate so often in today's headlines, I believe it is so important that efforts to be inclusive and support marginalized groups are recognized, applauded and encouraged. I am happy to see that several organizations have stepped up and recognized how sport has been used to positively impact the lives of refugees.

The United Nations General Assembly is now in full swing with global leaders setting their nation's global priorities. Refugees have taken a back seat to conflicts and issues more relevant to the leaders who often emphasize their own nation's greatest concerns. "America First" was uttered by President Donald Trump more than once, but he is not the only global leader to say that sort of thing.

However, at a United Nations meeting in December, the UN adopted a resolution that acknowledged sport's powerful impact on social issues especially through the Olympic Games. The UN called "upon future hosts of such Games and other Member States to include sport, as appropriate, in conflict-prevention activities and to ensure the effective implementation of the Olympic Truce during the Games."

Beyond that strong and important statement, the resolution specifically recognized the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games, which both featured refugee teams, as great representations of social inclusion through sport. While this is not the first time the United Nations has emphasized the important and transcendent ability of sport to positively influence social issues, it is critical that organizations such as the UN continue to issue resolutions like this that express their support for sport's connection to society. This will help ensure that sport organizations are cognizant of their ability to impact society and might even encourage entire countries to make sure their sports advance important social issues.

In addition to the inclusion of the refugees at the Olympics and Paralympics in Brazil being recognized by the United Nations, the refugee Olympic team recently received the Laureus Sport for Good Award. At a news conference before the Laureus World Sports Awards, Nawal El Moutawakel, a Laureus Academy member and the chair of the International Olympic Committee Coordination Commission for the Rio 2016 Olympics, said, "The Refugee Olympic Team was one of the best sporting stories of 2016. We talk about resilience and determination as being key attributes of successful athletes, this team has it in droves. They embody Nelson Mandela's message that sport can instill hope where once there was only despair." In receiving the award, Tegla Loroupe said, "This award is for the 65.4 million displaced people globally who cannot go to their homes because of strife. Each of the 10 inspirational people in our team have triumphed over adversity and endured unimaginable journeys to get to the start line. We were not in Rio to win medals; we were there with the help of the IOC and the UNHCR to use sport to send a message of hope and positivity to people around the world." Loroupe was the 2016 United Nations Person of the Year in Kenya, in recognition of her role to get refugees to participate at Rio 2016. She held the world records for the marathon and in 20, 25 and 30 kilometers. The reinforcement of Loroupe's message and the continued recognition of the Olympic refugee team as a powerful symbol of hope is critical to advancing awareness of the worldwide refugee crisis.

As a sports league, World Taekwondo has made an important commitment to use sport for social good. This past November, it signed an agreement with Peace and Sport to come together to be a vehicle for social growth. According to Inside the Games, "the agreement, which will last five years, means both parties will commit to 'promote peace, social cohesion and coexistence, and to improve living conditions via taekwondo.'" This agreement is not out of character for World Taekwondo, which runs a foundation known as the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation that supports refugees and displaced persons worldwide to teach them the sport.

World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue lauded the partnership, saying, "This is a great step forward for the humanitarian activities of World Taekwondo and Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation. To work with an organization that is as respected and well known as Peace and Sport opens a new range of opportunities for taekwondo in its role as a vehicle for good." World Taekwondo and its Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation is a wonderful example of a sports league dedicating itself to using sport to make a difference in society.

My hope for refugees is that influential organizations and sports leagues will join the United Nations, the Olympic and Paralympic movements, and World Taekwondo in supporting efforts to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and integrate refugees through sport. I believe this will make significant strides in instilling hope in refugees while breaking down barriers that prevent necessary collaboration to support their needs. In my next column, I will discuss the role of Pope Francis and the Vatican in using the power of sport to address the refugee crisis.

Sport is one of the most powerful tools our society possesses to address social issues. Therefore, it is always a priority for me to highlight efforts in sport that foster social inclusion and impact society. I congratulate all of these organizations that are recognizing the social impact of sport and those who are leading these efforts. My recommendation for sport organizations and athletes is to always consider the potential social impact their sport can make and how they can advance social justice initiatives. This can take place on all levels of sport and certainly does not have to be restricted to large leagues or professional sport organizations. Whether you are simply including members of your community on a local team or advocating for large-scale social change, sport provides a viable option for all of us to effect change, so let's take the initiative and better our society.

Todd Currie contributed to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com

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