What is sport? It is typically defined as a competitive physical activity, or activities based on physical athleticism. We know of sports in many forms involving individuals or teams plating with balls or nets or race courses of come kind. They are often thought of as activities we participate in during our leisure time. But I want to point out some ways in that sport is much more than this.
Sport forms an interesting intersection between the individual and the community. For individuals a sport is a testing grounds for not only physical traits such as strength, endurance, coordination, fitness, and specific skills, but also the mental traits of the inner athlete. The differences that make a master or a champion are mental and emotional qualities that allows the athlete to overcome deficits or obstacles.
For communities sport becomes a venue for informal social connections. It is a place where people can become part of a group that defines you as a team member, and overcomes all other social division such as race, religion, ethnics, etc. Sport for a community can be a media that connects its citizens in a meaning way.
History shows us that sport has been a part of human civilization since before recorded history. Well, unless you count cave paintings as recorded history where the oldest known sport of wrestling was depicted as far back as 15,300 years ago. Running was the first recorded sport of the first Olympics in 776 BC. Javelin throwing then became part of the Olympics in the 700 BC time frame. Polo is a team sport where horse riders try to score goals with a small ball. This is known to have been played in Persia as early as 316 AD and was also played in Mongolia, though of a different sort. Images of people playing field hockey have been dated back as far 600 BC. There are many more examples of ancient sports, and indigenous sports. This illustrates that sport has been a part of human culture for a very long time.
In modern times some social scientists have started to question the origins of sport and its relation to social constructs. One of them is Robert D. Putnam who wrote the book "Bowling Alone." To summarize this work, Putnam studies a lot of data to show a correlation between the vitality of communities and its level of participation in sport. He proposed that the connections made between people become a form of capital that is shared, saved, and spent on one another. There are several different ways to measure the connections between people in the guise of social capital, among them the strength of the ties, the number of ties one has, the frequency in which the ties are accessed, and the importance of the them, as in a tie with a person higher up in the social order. His studies showed that a decline in American social capital happened at the same time that participation rates in sport declined. Now it is difficult to say with any correlation what is the causation. But there is an argument to be made that artificially using sport in a way to develop more social capital can enhance communities.
In fact, there are hundreds of Non-governmental organizations around the world that perform projects to improve communities through sport. In addition, the United Nations has a special division set up to support projects that use sport to help solve their development goals. There are schools in Africa that use sport as an incentive to get kids to attend. There are peace projects that bring together children of Israeli and Palestinians to play soccer together in hope to engender future peace. There are many ways that sport can be used to improve communities.
In big municipalities in the US, sport is used as an economic driver, They build large stadiums and coliseums for professional sports because they cause a job growth factor. The job they purport are not only the ones inside the stadium, but also restaurants, bars, hotels, and souvenir shops.
Sport is an amazing invention of humans. It can improve the individual, and it can improve communities. Of course the disclaimer is that it is not a fix all and nothing is void of corruption. But sport has been a part of the human experience for as long as we know humans. Its not just merely some leisure time activity. It is an informal space where people can make connections, and test themselves against others to know how they compare. It is the struggle through competition that allows us to know whether our training and practice is good for performance. And maybe we should look at it as a measurement of our communities and cultures?