UI symposium focusing on effects of peace-through-sports effort

UI symposium focusing on effects of peace-through-sports effort

URBANA — Last year, Emma Sherry racked up more frequent-flier miles than she cares to remember, traveling the world to promote peace through sports.

"About 100,000 kilometers," the associate professor for sport and social impact at Australia's Latrobe University said Monday. (That's a little more than 62,000 miles.) "I'm definitely a gold-level frequent flier now."

This week, Sherry's travels have brought her to the University of Illinois, where she and about 200 colleagues will be partaking in a two-day symposium discussing their findings on how to promote peace around the world through the universal language of sports.

Sherry has been conducting research in this developing field for about 10 years, looking predominantly at how sports can be used to enact social change. Early on, most of her work was with disadvantaged, marginalized and at-risk communities of Australia, such as prisons and the homeless. These days, she's working in the Pacific, in nations like Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

"There are a few ways sport can be used as a tool to affect social change. The main way is it acts as a hook; it's a good way of engaging communities," said Sherry, the co-editor for the Journal for Sport and Development. "It's also a nice context to bring people together who may not normally come together. It's not magic, but it does draw people in that would not necessarily draw people in using more traditional methods."

For example, if you tried to engage different groups about health care, you might not get much participation. But invite them to come kick around a soccer ball and then bring up health care, and that's a winner, Sherry said.

"It's a more comfortable way of engaging different groups," she said.

Sherry's work in Papua New Guinea included starting a rugby league in a country of 5 million with more than 800 different languages.

"It's a very diverse community," she said.

In an autonomous region called Bogainville, people were seeking independence and effectively fighting a civil war, using youth to do battle.

Almost everyone there is passionate about rugby.

"We're seeing some real shifts in how sport can be used as that common language where maybe 10 years ago they were trying to kill each other," Sherry said. "It doesn't stop or fix everything, but it does give them an opportunity to engage in a more friendly (activity). Rugby is a pretty physical sport, but they can get some of that tension out but in a more friendly and supportive way."

Sherry's colleague, Nico Schulenkorf, is a senior lecturer at the University for Technology Sydney in Australia. His research focuses on the social, cultural and health-related outcomes for sport and development.

Schulenkorf, who's also in town for a symposium that kicks off today, has spent time in Israel and Palestine, working toward easing the tensions there.

"Peace is always a massive word, and I think we realize with these sport projects we're trying to contribute a little bit to peace building," he said. "It's really to try to bridge the divide between communities by finding a relatively mutual platform where people find the time and the willingness to engage and where it's not dictated or dominated by one particular group.

"It provides people a space for (them) to be relatively safe in what they do and it's a fun element you can bring to a rather serious discussion on peace building and conflict resolution."

Alexis Lyras, a faculty member at Japan's Tsukuba International Academy for Sport Studies, has also spent time at the University of Louisville, where the Muhammad Ali Center celebrates the life of the late champion boxer and social justice advocate.

"Muhammad Ali is a great example of what one person can do in questioning the system and give a good example of giving back to the community and reengaging the community for more just interactions," Lyras said. "This is how one role model can actually serve as a catalyst for change. That's not enough and this is why we need policies and programs and academic agencies to start engaging."

Lyras, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, is working to establish Olympic education programs across the globe.

"We're trying to see how we can embrace this part of sport and the games for peace building and reconciliation," Lyras said. "There's a long way to go.

"For my part, the next step is through the academic world and to establish a very strong academic network to start producing the future leaders — the future Muhammad Alis, the future Gandhis, the people that actually have those elements. Academia needs to connect with reality."

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