Sports as a social and cultural phenomenon have notably grown worldwide. Latin America is no exception to this expansion. This is in part because of the large industry built around sports through mass media, apparel manufacturing and the organization of major sports events. As a result of this growth, world-class athletes have become very popular figures, appealing especially to children and youth, who try to emulate their hero’s feats in their own games.
Because sports and recreation have a strong educational impact on children and adolescents, we do not consider these activities as a means to an end, but rather as citizens’ rights. This is especially true for youths from low-income communities who engage in sports activities; they should be entitled to fun and play as a social right.
Sports have developed principally as a popular expression. In some cases, they are linked to classic civil society institutions such as the characteristic neighborhood club (“club de barrio”) typical of Argentina, Uruguay and to a lesser extent Chile and Peru. In other cases, non-governmental organizations provide sports activities with a focus on children and youth. And finally, either independently or institutionally, initiatives taken or financed by public organizations massively spread the practice of sports.
Furthermore, in a more informal manner, public places such as squares, village commons, parks, vacant lots, beaches or streets turn into arenas for all sorts of games, especially soccer—activities that spontaneously engage every social class, again involving mainly children and youth.
To summarize, the social actors that promote sports practice in communities with a high poverty rate make up a very complex and diverse group. They include, among others, well-known sport players (active or retired) and community leaders, international organizations as well as non-government organizations, business enterprises and state institutions. In all these cases the word “sports” is usually accompanied by the word “social,” but the meaning and action embodied in this concept may differ widely.
I would like to challenge the widespread assumption that sports and recreation for poor people must provide a moral lesson, or an added value, whereas sports recreation for middle-class youth carries no further objective aside from fun and practice.
Popular beliefs and mass media images convey the remarkable convening power of sports and the values usually attributed to it, converting sports in general and the so-called “social sports” into one of the many remedies for a variety of ailments of modern societies: sedentary lifestyle, lack of alternate spheres for socialization, school dropout levels, rescue of youths in “situations of social risk.” This last euphemism is one of the many coined to allude, in a politically correct manner, to the youth population that lives in poverty, consumes illegal drugs, has conflicts with the law or suffers a high level of teenage pregnancy.
From this socially consecrated standpoint springs the idea, which is repeated mantra-like in most fields, that sport is always praised as a good way of conveying “values,” a term seldom defined, as if the challenges that young people face could be reduced to a question of mere lack of “values.” In other social spheres sports are praised because they exalt the notion of effort, competitiveness, self-improvement and team work—traits usually evoked by the business sector as basic conditions to access to the labor market. But it seems that these virtues, which compose one of the corner stones of the middle class, “common sense” are not guaranteed to emerge as a consequence of the mere practice of sports.
Sports activities do not operate in a void but rather in highly complex social contexts with the exasperating social inequalities that are embedded in Latin America and in societies where the desired lifestyle is plagued with a strong individualism, esteem for competition against another person, fear of other people and also, even though “well intentioned discourse” claims otherwise, discrimination against people who are perceived as different.
Nevertheless, several countries in Latin America provide examples of how sports and recreation may help in the development of a whole community, strengthening its abilities to organize itself in a way that influences relevant public issues such as transportation, sanitation, education and health.
This relative optimism about the usefulness of sports arises from the analysis of a quite long initiative in sports and recreation, developed in the Civil Society, Culture and Development Department of CEDES, for the promotion of social participation and local development of youth, supported by the WK Kellogg Foundation in some Latin American countries between 2002 and 2010.
These programs were envisaged from a mainly educative perspective that prioritized the development of recreational, physical and sporting activities in a framework of integral formative proposals. These efforts tried to move away from focusing on the organization of tournaments, on the recruiting of young talents for professionalized sport practices, and on the promotion of one specific sport.
If we are in agreement that sports are a citizens’ right, and that such right is very often denied even by socio-community projects, either because access to recreation is not a priority and/or because it is linked in an exclusive way with success-oriented, superficial, commodified messages and practices, we should also concur that sports do not need to be justified on the grounds that, for example, they help reduce the use of drugs and alcohol. We should emphasize, above all, the opportunities that sports provide for building relationships with others and for taking care of themselves and the place where they live.
These experiences on the playing fields are privileged opportunities to teach and learn about solidarity and to put in practice collective accomplishments that are also important in terms of critical thinking, mobilization and social involvement. That is to say, sports may have the power to transform when, as with the arts, they involve relevant experiences both at individual and group levels, resulting from high-quality programs and well-thought out points of view.
The efforts of CEDES take account of the transmission and revaluation of ideas, practices and traditional games particular to each different local culture, so our actions have been geared to recover public spaces in specific localities and to offer hundreds of youths the opportunity to gain access to recreation, leisure, enjoyment and personal and collective strengthening.
At the same time, to bring our programs to fruition requires a collective effort on all fronts in the areas where a project is to be launched.
That is why our intervention has emphasized new ways of observation and new social practices that confront stereotypes and preconceived ideas that are embedded in the world of sports. As long as these preconceptions are not challenged, they weaken the rights of individuals or groups—particularly of women, disabled youths, poor people and immigrants, among others.
Our approach acknowledges contributions from non-formal education and from recreation as a field of pedagogical work. It differs from standard approaches that usually focus on the provision of some material resources and/or big tournaments that are often designed to foster the prestige of mayors and other authorities. That is to say, we favor arrangements with community organizations, other civil society organizations and, sometimes, local authorities and schools.
The concepts, skills training and technical assistance for civil society organizations in Latin America that we have promoted try to capacitate key actors in the organization and development of local sporting and recreational activities. We aim to create or strengthen groups that could collectively participate through their commitment and interest in social transforming processes.
The objectives of our intervention focus on strengthening of groups of young people active in their communities, offering them alternatives and broadening the field of participation in their own community context. We have also attempted to widen and diversify the available choices of non-formal education as well as recreation and sports. In addition, we seek the expansion and consolidation of networking at the local and regional levels, starting or deepening relationships with institutions or organizations with related objectives (for example, art and culture) both in governmental and non-governmental areas.
The work and the initiatives that CEDES endorses are focused outside the context of the educational system. Nevertheless, the principles, the strategies themselves and the scope of our proposals are relevant and provide a meaningful contribution to reevaluate and participate in the sphere of formal education.
The experiences that we have gathered as a result of our programs allow us to ascertain that an integral vision of sports, i.e. as embedded in a wider social context, is a powerful tool to encourage juvenile leadership, to promote cooperation and solidarity, to boost integration and permanence of children and youths in formal educational programs (achieved through cooperation between schools and grass roots organizations), to discuss the sources of violence, intolerance, marginalization and discrimination, to foster horizontal and democratic relations and the interaction and integration of gender issues, to stimulate healthy lifestyles—in short, to contribute to the effective exercise of citizens’ rights and to trigger the social transformations that are much needed in Latin America.