Russia’s Natalya Antyukh and I have competed against each other many times on the biggest of stages. We respect each other as competitors, and when the race is over, we know the best woman on that day won.
(August 31, 2011 – Source: Michael Steele/Getty Images AsiaPac)
We are all well aware of the recent events in Ferguson that have sparked an uproar surrounding police brutality and racial discrimination. I’ve watched the news practically every day since the day Michael Brown was murdered, and it is disheartening. This is a touchy subject to talk about, but I believe that for things to change at all, it begins with a conversation.
I have friends of different races, and I don’t think that’s uncommon these days. But while it may be easy for us to overlook the racial tension in America on a daily basis, it clearly still exists. No matter how far some of the country has come, the problem is still a big one.
What can we do to fix it?
So often we look to political or community leaders to figure out a solution – trust me, I watched the news waiting for some solutions to be proposed! But we have to hold ourselves accountable as well. We may not all be part of the problem, but we can be part of the solution.
As I watched the events unfold in Ferguson, I thought a lot about how someone could get to the point where he or she is so disconnected from another human being that something like this could happen. I thought about my childhood and the people I interacted with and how that affected my view of other people and of the world. I realized how much of a social impact sports had on my life; how much of an equalizer it was for me and the other children I played with.
No matter what sport you play, you come into contact with people of different races, cultures, economic backgrounds, sizes, personalities, and the list goes on. It’s inevitable. It’s a controlled environment where kids experience other kids who may look, speak and act differently than they do. Tolerance, then, is ingrained in them from an early age, as long as it isn’t reversed at home by the parents. Kids naturally are curious and want to get to know other kids. They are innocent and therefore don’t assume things about people because of their skin color.
Playing sports promotes that natural acceptance of others and encourages kids to work together as a team towards a mutual goal. It frames competition between individuals or teams as something that is done according to rules followed by all participants, in which the participants respect each other, even though they are trying to beat their competitors.
Playing sports also teaches kids to deal with adversity, defeat and most importantly, conflict, in a constructive manner. Conflict is a part of life; it’s reality. On the playing field, you have to find a way to deal with it, because the other kids on the field will be your training partners and teammates that you’ll see on a regular basis. It’s human nature to adapt to your surroundings; why not emphasize social adaptation from a young age?
Track and field has been a major influence in my life. I’ve competed all over the world and have come in contact with so many different people and have been exposed to a variety of cultures. Take the Olympic Games for example: this is the biggest stage in sports, and it gives you a front row seat into the lives of people you probably wouldn’t come in contact with otherwise. It’s hard to understand someone else without having any contact with them! Through track and field, I’ve had glimpses into the culture and lifestyle of people from Africa, Russia, Asia, and the list goes on. The Olympic stage goes way further than being primarily a sporting event; it’s also a stage for humanity. For that month of competition, people from around the world leave the the stereotypes, prejudices, and biases at the door and appreciate the beauty, finesse, and amazement of mankind. While I realize not every kid who participates in sports will end up being able to experience it on such a grand stage, the exposure to different people and cultures will occur regardless, and therefore so will the opportunity to learn more about the world around them.
Why not help children learn how to find common bonds with other human beings instead of divides? Why not teach them how to RESPECT, and not FEAR, each other?
I think every single kid should participate in some type of sport, if at all possible. While school and academics are extremely important, I think we fail to recognize how important sports could be for the social development of our future generations (not to mention their physical health!) School can sometimes be a divisive institution, and it is heavily regulated. Sports is the perfect equalizer; it’s already an outlet for so many kids. It’s more than entertainment; it’s a metaphor for the real world they will face when they are finished with school.
What’s my solution to improving racial relations in America? Let’s start with sports.
Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.
– Nelson Madela