28 September 2013

Nation-building through sports

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

The 8th SAFF Championship presented a great boon to at least two countries. The Afghanistan national football team brought about immense joy and unity to a battle-scarred nation by claiming the tournament title.
SAFF Champions Afghanistan

After the final whistle of the competition was blown at Dasharath Rangashala stadium in Kathmandu, Afghans of all creeds, sexes and ages poured on to the streets of their country to celebrate the victory.

There were euphoric scenes across Kabul on the return of the football national team to Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of people, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, were on hand at the airport, on the streets and in the national stadium to greet their returning national heroes.

Afghanistan´s SAFF Championship triumph was well documented by the international news media and was one of the rare occasions where Afghanistan was in the news for positive reasons.

Meanwhile, Nepalis also had much to celebrate during the SAFF Championship. While the final outcome was not what fans would have wished - Nepal lost in the semifinals of the competition, the national team played an attractive brand of football and defeated arch-rival India creating enormous jubilation across the country.

Nepal´s tournament performance was a much-needed reprieve from the dysfunctional government, dilapidated infrastructure, and nauseating pollution that Nepalis must endure on a daily basis.

In a country where ethnic politics, cronyism and nepotism rule the roost, a determined and exciting national football team that consisted of players selected on merit, from diverse ethnicities and who come from varying social and economic backgrounds provided a standard that most Nepalis long for.

The SAFF Championship is an example of how sports can play a powerful role in nation building. The passion, energy, and buzz that accompany sports and sports events make it a unique and influential platform for development and for a country like Nepal that is yearning for a formula to modernize itself politically, economically and socially, sports has the potential to be an effective ingredient.

Political development

From the Ping Pong Diplomacy that thawed frosty relations between China and the USA to the international sporting boycott of South Africa that played a significant role in ending apartheid, sports and politics have long been intertwined.

As the national football team showed at the SAFF Championship, sports can really unite and bring a “feel good factor” to a nation. It might thus be prudent for the country to invest in sportspersons and sports infrastructure to increase the odds of Nepal doing well in international competitions.

On the heels of India and Pakistan publicly testing their nuclear arsenal bringing about much celebration amongst their citizens, Nepal won 32 gold medals at the 8th South Asian Games in Kathmandu creating mass elation in the country. Former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala wittily commented that unlike India and Pakistan who spent billions on their nuclear weapons, Nepal only needed to win a few gold medals to heighten national pride.

Economic development

Sports can be a great economic engine. Sports event usually require extra accommodation, food and transport thus stimulating the economy. Nepal´s geography and existing tourism setup lends itself well to hosting smaller sports events especially in the realm of adventure sports.

Sports events also afford a city or country a great opportunity to brand itself. For example, the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona played an important role in transforming it from an industrial city to one that is now known for its art, culture and commerce. Imagine if Nepal were to host a cricket match between India and Pakistan. What would it say about Nepal´s capabilities? It would make an enormous statement internationally about Nepal´s security, accessibility and infrastructure.

Social development

Sports generate many social benefits. Foremost, a healthy nation is a more productive nation. Unfortunately, parks and spaces to play are at a premium in Nepal. Building public areas for sports should be amongst the priorities of the nation. It would be a great investment in health and ultimately help reduce long-term health care costs.

Because sports has the power to bring people together and unite them as a team, it is also a powerful teaching tool that institutions are using to help bring about social change. The United Nations even has a department named The Office on Sports for Development and Peace. The government, NGOs and social organizations would do well to follow suit and use sports to raise awareness for various social issues.

As a member of the Rotary Club of Jawalakhel reminded me when I was invited to give a presentation to them on this topic, perhaps the greatest benefit of sports is the spirit of sportsmanship, something that unfortunately is sorely lacking from the halls of power to our congested streets.

If politicians carried a little more sportsmanship in their veins, perhaps the country could finally have a constitution and if micro drivers had a little more sportsmanship in their brains we could all drive our vehicles without fear of getting run off the road every time we leave the garage.