Skating, Soccer & Fencing

By: Rebecca Saltman Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile

The Sport of Changemakers

Skating Soccer & Fencing

Did you ever wonder why people of every creed and culture are so drawn to professional sports? Sunday afternoons in the fall across this country are always filled with gatherings to watch any number of sporting events, both live and on television. What drives this interest in our lives? No less a personage than Nelson Mandela sought out this common connection when he asked the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, Francois Pienaar, to help unite their country. Knowing his nation remained racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid, Mandela believed he could bring his people together through the universal language of sport. His frank and vocal support behind South Africa’s underdog rugby team (during their unlikely and dramatic run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match) became a way for many disparate elements within South African society to look for areas of connection and of collaboration. Clint Eastwood and an all-star cast brought this amazing story to life on the silver screen in the form of “Invictus.”

I grew up in a home where my father would watch any sport. My mother has often joked that Dad would get excited if two people were competing to keep a piece of tissue paper in the air. He loved the thrill, the competition defined by opposites using mutual skills against one another - and I also believe he really enjoyed watching successful teamwork. This early exposure is probably where I got my fierce drive for collaboration, ultimately laying the groundwork for engaging in social entrepreneurship in my own life.

I will be honest, writing about sports per se is not really a strength. However, writing about Changemakers is. My background in high school swimming and volleyball would not lend itself to a piece highlighting the international efforts of internationally renowned athletes, so I reached out to Ashoka. Finding some of the best and brightest social entrepreneurs, using sport to create positive change in their communities, is a mission statement for several Ashoka Fellows.

Ashoka’s Changemakers and Nike partnered on their “Sport for a Better World” competition in 2007, opening a worldwide search for projects that use the transformative power of sport to achieve real social change. One result of this enduring project was worldwide exposure for several athletes whose physical skills were matched only by their drive to improve their world. Ashoka’s brilliant Fellows, Johann Olav Koss, Jürgen Griesbeck, and sisters Balsam and Lulwa Al-Ayoub, have taken their dedication of sports and projected it onto an ugly canvas of violence, poverty, war, and starvation. In effect, they painted vibrant new philosophies on dull, unvarnished old paradigms. The results, detailed below, may explain why sports has universally become so integral in our lives – it is a true prototype of collaboration. We may look back as a global community and hail the early years of the 21st Century as the first cohesive recognition that “we’re all in this together”, and only together can we move on.

Johann Olav Koss

was born in Norway in 1968. His parents were physicians (his father a heart specialist, his mother an obstetrician-gynecologist). In his youth, Johann discovered a passion for speed skating and trained very hard to become an Olympic athlete. He credits much of his success to understanding the value of teamwork. He won four Olympic gold medals and one silver during the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics (setting multiple speed-skating world records in the process).

In 1993, Johann became a sports ambassador for Olympic Aid for Eritrea, devastated after its 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. During this visit, he played football with war-affected children who had lost one limb, using a football made from shirts tied together. This trip left a permanent impact on him. It was then, that he realized the impact that sport could have in bringing people together. After winning three gold medals in the 1994 Winter Olympics, Koss announced that he would be donating his entire bonus to Olympic Aid and its affiliated organizations. The Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee (LOOC) conceived Olympic Aid (now “Right To Play”) in 1992 in preparation for the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. The focus of Olympic Aid was to show support for people in war-torn countries and areas of distress. A partnership was formed among the Red Cross, Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Council, Norwegian People’s Council, the Norwegian Church Fund and Olympic Aid to raise funds for and awareness of the specific initiatives each of these organizations were implementing.

Koss was named the lead Athlete Ambassador, and he proceeded to challenge fellow athletes and the public to donate money for each gold medal won. An unprecedented $18 million USD was raised and used for five main projects: building a hospital in Sarajevo; building schools in Eritrea; supporting a mother/child program in Guatemala; supporting refugees in Afghanistan; and a disabled children’s support program in Lebanon.

In 2003, Johann helped change the orientation of Olympic Aid away from favoring Olympic sportsmen to opening it up to various levels of athletes. Today, he is President and CEO of Olympic Aid’s newer incarnation, “Right to Play.”

Right to Play reaches out to countries affected by war, poverty and disease in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and, in the near future, South America. It identifies local issues and adapts sport and play programs to suitably address them. The core idea behind Right to Play’s programs is to contribute to a behavioral change among children and youth, ultimately leading to their holistic development.

The core idea behind Right to Play’s programs is to contribute to a behavioral change among children and youth, ultimately leading to their holistic development.

This behavioral change is cultivated by including the children and youth in Right to Play’s sports and games - all designed to teach values and life skills such as teamwork, inclusiveness, discipline, and communication.

Johann focuses 35% of his activities in refugee camps connecting strategic issues such as inclusion and diversity, health, sanitation, and HIV/AIDS with sport. Under his guidance, Right to Play has developed 300 games that have improved the children’s understanding of leadership, cleanliness, personal hygiene, and how diseases spread. These games educate children in matters of conflict resolution and communication issues related to living in small, crowded areas with different tribes, religions and geographies.

Right to Play has successfully established a coach-teacher model that is self-sustaining: participants are simultaneously trained to become future coaches/trainers. In many countries, competitive sport is very elitist - and the organization strives to bring learning opportunities through sports to the bottom of the pyramid. Thus, through all its programs, Right to Play is using sport to bring better education and health to some of the world’s most disadvantaged areas. Perhaps not surprisingly, class barriers are reduced and avenues for career development and income generation are created in the process.

Right to Play has strategically partnered with local communities and citizen sector organizations (CSOs) in every country where it operates. It is now entering into a dialogue with national governments to influence public policy, building upon its local success to affect systemic change at the global level through the United Nations. For example, in Mozambique, programs teaching disease prevention and HIV/AIDS awareness have seen involvement rise from 80 children in 2007 to over 200 children in 2009. In Lebanon, conflict resolution and peace building games have given children living in refugee camps an outlet to express their fear, anger and frustration, finally leading to healthy emotional expression.

Jürgen Griesbeck

has been a sports enthusiast from a young age, and was always fascinated by the social effects of sports. Having studied sports sciences in Cologne, Germany and social sciences in Medellín, Colombia, in 1994 he began research as the coordinator on “Sport and Local Development and Eradication of Poverty” at those same universities. He later wrote his Masters thesis on the subject of “Contemporary Social Problems.”

That same year his life was completely upended when the Columbian national football star Andrés Escobar was killed in a bar shooting. Escobar was a friend of his wife’s family, and Jürgen knew El Caballero del Futbol (“Soccer’s Knight”) personally. One of the most affecting details to surface during the Medellín authorities’ investigation was the very real possibility that the murder was revenge for an unfortunate play during that year’s FIFA World Cup tournament, against the United States. Stretching to stop a cross by U.S. midfielder John Harkes, Escobar deflected the ball into his own net. The USA won the game 2–1, and as a result, Colombia was eliminated from the tournament in the first round. The next month, while visiting a local Medellín club with friends, Andres was cut down by 12 bullets. Witnesses claimed the murderer, a local elementary school teacher, mockingly cried out “G-O-O-O-O-A-L!” as he fired. Deeply shocked, Jürgen wondered: “How can football (also known as soccer), a game based on team spirit and fairness, lead to a murder? Does football reflect the state of society? How can the power of football be used in a positive way?”

Jürgen decided to show that football has an unlimited ability to bring people together to overcome problems. That football can unite instead of divide. He started his first project, “Football for Peace,” in one of the most dangerous and violent cities at the time, Medellín. In the midst of a spiral of violence that had gripped everyday life in Medellín, he was successful against all odds in a short time. Five hundred teams consisting of more than 10,000 boys and girls were now playing where gang conflicts had taken place. The kids accepted and committed to establishing innovative rules such as no drugs, no violence, girls were to be actively included, no referees, no weapons before entering the area of play, and so on. Soon after it began, even security measures surrounding the playing fields were lifted.

"When I heard the news about Andrés it was about 5 in the morning and it hurt so deeply. . . I knew I wanted to do something with football, but it took some time to work it out in the specific context. The “Football for Peace” approach means we play only with mixed teams, without a referee so that each player can learn how to handle right and wrong on their own. Fair play is an essential part of the rules. I think in Medellín it was the first time people from a background of conflict were brought together, and it was football that did it. We have aimed to make possible the impossible.” Jürgen said.

He believed if it worked there, it would work everywhere. He envisioned a worldwide network of citizen organizations using football as a tool for social change, helping them to find new partners, and opening up the resources and recognition of the professional football industry and the broader public. Jürgen’s global network brought dozens of organizations together using the football industry, governments, foundations, and other citizen organizations, to leverage their work and enhance their ability to serve society. Its multi-purpose uses, availability, and strong emotional element make “street soccer” a powerful unifier for all players throughout society, while engaging the business and social sectors.

After “Football for Peace”, Jürgen further developed his successful approach for a different context and framework in Germany. With Germany facing a new wave of xenophobic right-wing attacks ten years after reunification in 2000, he set up the Football for Tolerance project in Brandenburg. The initiative aimed at integrating disenfranchised youth with others prone to violence by using football to mitigate strong right-wing tendencies and actions. In spite of initial resistance, Jürgen made it a successful model and handed it over to local leadership. He decided to dedicate himself to overcoming the structural challenges he had witnessed during his first two endeavors: The lack of a globally integrated and recognized field of football for social change.

Citizen organizations around the world use football as a way to reach out to young people. While these groups have various goals - safer streets, better schools, improved health, a cleaner environment - they have a powerful tool in common.

By connecting carefully selected citizen organizations that use football as a tool for social change in a variety of fields, such as HIV prevention, environmental protection, integration of immigrants, peacebuilding, or gender equality, Jürgen enables them to exchange best practices and form a basis for collaboration on a global scale. More than a network, his organization, Streetfootballworld, links its members with other community organizations in their fields and with local governments and foundations. He matches them with corporations, such as Nike, and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), channeling new financial and professional resources into the social sector, while increasing social awareness and changing the policy of FIFA and the football industry. Jürgen facilitates events like the global Streetfootball Festival, which he founded to change the self-perception and identity of participants and that of the public. He has brought youth from all over the world involved in football for social change together, both online and offline, to form a global community.

As Jürgen adds more members to the global network, he builds a united movement around football as a powerful instrument to improve the efficiency of citizen organizations and increases their ability to reach and impact millions of children.

Balsam and Lulwa Al-Ayoub

are empowering girls from the Middle East. They have proven that women can work in the same arenas as men, and excel. They are professional fencers and two of the few women dedicated to professional sports in the Gulf region, where laws and tradition inhibit girls from competing in sports. By competing in international tournaments and mentoring young female athletes, the Al-Ayoub sisters are showcasing women's talent and strength to a society that has traditionally confined women to the home. By lobbying for the amendment of the professional sports law which does not consider women athletes, they are opening the gates for others.

The Al-Ayoub sisters grew up in an athletic family that believed in sports as a tool for self development. The sisters were encouraged to pick a sport from an early age by their father, a devoted football player and swimmer, and their mother, a physical education teacher. In addition to constantly encouraging the girls to pursue a sport, their parents took them and their siblings on road trips to Eastern and Western Europe, to more- and less-privileged places, so they could learn to appreciate diversity and broaden their horizons. Their mother had a two-pronged influence on them, in the realm of sports, in empathy and in human understanding. She strongly believed that sports developed character. Although they grew up with a conservative background, they studied abroad and competed in basketball and volleyball tournaments throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Balsam received a degree in Physical Education and Lulwa a degree in Linguistics and Translation. After years of living abroad, both are again living in Kuwait.

Women in the Gulf are not allowed to become professional athletes, and in some countries, they are not even allowed to play sports. The Al-Ayoub sisters are deconstructing these taboos in the Gulf area by using the sport of fencing to literally “cut through” society’s constraints. The sisters wanted to instill their belief at the national level, that being active in sports enables girls to grow proud, strong, fearless and expressive – regardless of their ultimate life’s goal.

The Al-Ayoub sisters are empowering women through a strategy based on three components. First, through their success in their field, they are setting an example as role models for many girls in Kuwait. They use their status to serve as mentors to aspiring fencers, whom they constantly encourage to compete in the same arenas as men. Second, they are creating a new perception of women as leaders and trainers, as they train young boys and girls in fencing. Third, they are promoting sports among young girls in schools, in order to break the walls of women’s social exclusion. In contrast to other regional programs utilizing more conventional approaches (like raising awareness), the Al-Ayoub sisters’ strategy is comprised of a set of modules that break down social taboos, instill the notion of female leadership, and promote greater inclusion of women. They believe that being professional female athletes in a patriarchal world will open doors for others to join all kinds of sports and thus be empowered.

Although there are very few community organizations in Kuwait, most if not all are government- controlled and funded. The Al-Ayoubs realized that for their idea to take root, they had to have freedom and sustainability. They did not want to associate their entrepreneurial idea for empowering girls and women with the traditional, fairly conservative perception of community organizations in the region. To date, they have managed to raise funds to sponsor themselves and their pupils, and have even competed in tournaments which they themselves have sponsored.

Gender empowerment has always been a controversial issue in the Middle East, and even more so in the Gulf Peninsula. However, in recent years, women traditionally confined to the home are now venturing into worlds they had previously known little about. They are increasingly working alongside men in banks, universities and public offices. At the same time, age-old traditions, laws, and a lack of public awareness about the role of women still hold sway, leaving women in the Gulf to face continued oppression.

In Kuwait women constituted nearly 40% of the country’s labor force in 2003, ensuring many women a proactive role in public life. Nevertheless, educated and professional women still faced social and legal obstacles that prevented them from being fully emancipated. Participation in sports remains a particularly difficult hope for many professional female athletes. In preparation for the Beijing Olympics, Olympic committees were set up globally to train athletes and fund their activities. Accordingly, the UAE, Oman and Bahraini women made their Olympic debut, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait still withheld this right, the latter claiming that men would have a better chance at competing.

This “paternalistic mentality”, more a natural epidemic than a hurdle facing the sportswomen of Kuwait, is actually encoded to a certain extent by the law: the label “professional sportswoman” does not exist. Nonetheless, the legal status of both sportsmen and sportswomen is clearly defined under International, European and Belgian National and Regional Law. Yet the Kuwaiti Fencing Federation does not exercise its role in providing a chance for women to represent their country abroad and raise their flags of victory. Women are not receiving the same efforts invested in men and thus are not able to reach their full potential, although they have the spirit to excel. The Al-Ayoub sisters are among the few Kuwaiti women entrepreneurs, having founded a sporting event management company, “Touché” - an obvious reference to fencing, yet also a subtle hint as to their success as businesswomen. Through their organization, the sisters advocate for better-quality, and more even-handed professional sport opportunities for Kuwaiti girls. On a political level, they are also lobbying with the Kuwaiti government to modify professional sports law so that women can be considered “professional athletes” thus participating in championships under Kuwait's flag.

Currently, the sisters are coaching and providing mentorship to two young girls who are practicing to become professional fencers: Mariouma Al Fahd and Dalal El Shaye’. They have also started a pilot program to introduce fencing as an extracurricular activity in one school, which has provided space for training, while the sisters have donated fencing equipment and gear that the students can use. The program introduces fencing as a sport and as an art, and trains girls and boys together. The pilot will be replicated in three other schools in Kuwait over the next five years.

Moreover, the Al-Ayoub sisters have managed to bring increased respect for Arab female athletes, by participating in an unprecedented initiative in the Arab world. Together the sisters delivered a series of training seminars aimed at men occupying senior managerial posts in the corporate sector, as part of their collaboration with one of their sponsors. The training, “From Championship to Leadership,” introduced the notion of female leadership in a non-traditional manner by building on the Al-Ayoub's triumphs in their competitions, then applying their strategies to the corporate world. They are currently laying the foundations for a sports academy that will cater to the needs of the female athletic community in Kuwait (both Kuwaitis and foreign nationals), thereby confounding the inequities to which Kuwaiti and foreign women are commonly subjected.

It is clear, these three athletes have used their sport to change practices in larger regions. Each of them is making a difference one person at a time. Each is using their sport to be a changemaker.

Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the President and Founder of an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, nonprofits and academia.