With the World Cup fast approaching and preparations for South America’s first Olympics already underway, the visibility of sports in the Western Hemisphere is at an all-time high.
In addition to the fun and fanfare, sports can be an effective tool to help achieve goals in education, health, security, gender equality, and community development. Sports have the ability to level the playing field by providing marginalized children and youth with the tools they need to be healthy and productive members of society.
Young people today face many challenges. Youth in the Americas are among the most overweight and obese in the world. Research conducted by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in eight countries in the Western Hemisphere found that less than 30 percent of students between 10 and 24 years of age were physically active. Being physically inactive and overweight can lead to non-communicable diseases such as asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, which are estimated to cause a global output loss of $47 trillion over the next two decades.
In addition to health issues, many young people engage in risky behavior, such as drug use, alcohol consumption, smoking, sexual activity, and violence. Although adolescents in the Western Hemisphere have relatively high school enrollment rates, the average Latin American student only attends 4 to 5 hours of school per day, compared to 6 to 7 hours per day in the United States. What they do in the remaining hours makes all the difference.
This is where sports can play an important role. While playing a game of pick-up soccer in a neighborhood park is an enjoyable and healthy recreational activity, it takes a great deal more to impact social development.
At a January 31 seminar on sports and innovation and development that was co-hosted by Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Inter-American Development Bank, institutions like PlayRugby USA and Grassroot Soccer discussed how offering daily structured practice sessions keeps kids in an organized, safe, and positive environment.
Coaches and adolescents serve as role models and mentors in communities where kids may otherwise have none. When young people form friendships and discover a sense of “belonging” on their sports teams, they are less likely to join gangs or participate in criminal activities.
Sports are a way to encourage regular physical activity, but what is offered to the participants goes way beyond kicking a ball. Programs like DC SCORES and Save the Children offer tutoring, hygiene instruction, nutrition programs, conflict resolution training, and service learning project planning, in addition to sports practice. Special attention is given to incorporating young girls, who often have other priorities or responsibilities in the home and are not allowed to participate. This is a challenge when women’s sports do not generate the market power that men’s teams do.
Successful institutions throughout the region are continually proving that sports have the power to engage kids, teach good values and help create healthy habits at a young age that will lead to a more productive life. By developing human capital, sports act as an economic driver, increasing workforce productivity and reducing healthcare costs in the long term.