Sport, in its best moments, has the power to unite. Can it do the same for a world bitterly divided by today’s record number of refugees?
It’s one antidote, at least, to the frustration and lethargy that hang over most refugee camps. The UN refugee agency — which counts among its partners Nike and FC Barcelona among others — says sport helps counteract psychosocial problems, stress and loneliness, and benefits social integration, not to mention physical fitness and health. Earlier this year the UN and the International Olympic Committee pledged $400,000 to support sports programmes in Rwanda’s camps; smaller-scale efforts have brought football and other games to the Calais jungle; sport is used in Jordan and elsewhere to promote better relations between newcomers and host communities.
But what about everywhere else: could sport shift how refugees are seen from living rooms in England, from town halls in the US? That was the hope pinned on Team Refugees, whose participation in Rio 2016 was supposed to show that “anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit”. The ten athletes were widely applauded as Olympic fever spread. But it’s early to say whether their inclusion in the Games, historic as it seemed, changed much for the average spectator. For some, the answer is already clear: “The glorification of Team Refugees and the vilification of refugees coexist”, wrote one New York Times commentator at the time. “It’s the old principle: Not in my backyard.”
Some still believe sport can overcome that. Held in September in the French camp of Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk, the Liberté Cup set out “to change how refugees are seen in the media”. Football teams travelled from around France, the UK, and Ireland, I heard at a panel discussion about refugees and football last week. In the spirit of overcoming the focus on place of origin, teams were mixed up for the tournament; each was captained by a refugee. Each team also included at least one female player — which didn’t go down too well among some teammates, apparently: some cultural differences don’t melt away just because you’re on the pitch.
The Liberté Cup was driven partly by a team of creative agency folk; it was less charity effort and more brand campaign. The story was picked up by media near and far, including in Spain and Argentina. Messi talked about the event on his Facebook page.
It was a start, but the organisers want more high profile support. Few sporting heroes speak out about political issues (with the recent exception of Gary Lineker, which didn’t go down well); there are too many sponsorship deals at stake, for one. Former human rights lawyer Kat Craig hopes to change that, and has founded Athlead, which will help professional athletes to identify and fight for causes they care about. Nowadays athletes can circumvent their PR people when they really want to, she said at last week’s panel: “I’m hoping for a new generation of athlete activists”.
There’s optimism from fans, too. Yorkshire St Pauli supporters’ club organises informal football sessions for locals, refugees and asylum-seekers. The club was itself inspired by the original St Pauli football club in Germany — whose fans pioneered a political activism and ethos of non-discrimination that Chris Webster, who cofounded the Yorkshire group, says is much more widespread here in the UK than when they first started. The sport’s tribalism can clearly be negative. But it can be positive too, the event’s panelists agreed: fan culture creates a sort of collective identity that — as people either leave their home far behind, or find their community changed beyond recognition by new arrivals — may be much-needed.