Sport and Intercultural Dialogue


Already accepted as a tool for social integration, sport is also seen as a means of promoting intercultural understanding in an increasingly diverse Europe.

The integration of different cultures into European society is under the spotlight this year in the context of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue (EYID 2008), which seeks to help citizens deal with a "more open and complex" environment. 

According to the Commission, successive enlargements of the EU, as well as increased migration and interaction with the rest of the world through trade, education and leisure, have "increased the multicultural character of many countries, adding to the number of languages, religions and ethnic and cultural backgrounds found on the continent".

The EYID 2008 initiative has an overall budget of €10 million, which will be used to fund projects and events aimed at promoting dialogue between cultures on relevant policy areas, including sport. Examples of projects in the sports domain range from establishing specific sports networks to drafting a sports charter for intercultural dialogue, as well as street soccer or special initiatives run by sports clubs.

Intercultural dialogue as such is not a specific legal category and thus no international, European or national laws on the issue exist. However, it is argued that constructive dialogue can only take place in an environment guaranteeing equal opportunities, freedom of expression, safety and dignity.

Regarding the contribution of sport to intercultural dialogue, a declaration annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) "emphasises the social significance of sport, in particular its role in forging identity and bringing people together". In addition, politicians and sports stakeholders agree that sport can act as a tool for social integration. 

Several Eurobarometer surveys show that almost three in four EU citizens view sport as a means of promoting integration, while two thirds perceive sports as a means of fighting discrimination.

Back in 2003, the European Commission ordered a study to examine "the contribution of sport, as an instrument of non-formal education, to the multicultural dialogue between young people" as well as "the part it plays in promoting the integration of recent migratory flows". 

The study on Sport and multiculturalism, published in 2004, evaluates the ways in which sport has been used to reduce intercultural tensions in the then 25 EU member states.

Based on the four models of nationality and citizenship that are illustrative of the range of approaches in the EU - the French republican model, the German ethno-nationalist model, the Anglo-Saxon pluralist model and the emergent Polish/post-Communist model - the study found five typical policy approaches in relation to sports policy for ethnically diverse populations:

  • Three of them emphasise or reinforce diversity and cultural pluralism:
    • interculturalism: promoting intercultural exchange with equality of emphasis on each culture (i.e. funding cultural sporting exchanges); 
    • separate but equal development for ethnic groups (i.e. direct funding of ethnic minority associations); 
    • market pluralism: diversity through fostering of commercial and voluntary sector activity rather than by direct public sector provision (i.e. reliance on commercial and voluntary sectors to meet social needs). 
  • Two of them emphasise cohesion rather than diversity, with 'unitary' notions of national culture.
    • assimilationist policies, which seek to incorporate groups into existing national culture (i.e. sport as a vehicle for tackling problems of general social exclusion or urban renewal); 
    • non-intervention, where populations are regarded as homogeneous and there is no perceived need for provision (i.e. no perceived need for action). 

The study provides policy recommendations on increasing the use of sport to promote intercultural dialogue as well as on issues related to refugees and asylum seekers and the use of EU structural funds . It gives examples of good practice for sporting organisations serving culturally diverse communities.

In the framework of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the European Institute for Comparative Cultural Research (ERICarts Institute) is currently finalising a study analysing how different sectors, including sport, promote intercultural dialogue. 

The ERICarts study's executive summary, which is already available, states that national approaches to promote intercultural dialogue in sports are often "challenge and/or target group oriented," such as combating racism and xenophobia or encouraging post-war reconciliation. It also states that "there is a heavy burden placed on local and voluntary associations to promote the social inclusion of specific target groups" such as immigrants, children and Muslim female teenagers.

In the framework of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, a special award was given to a basketball league operator based in Slovenia. The award acknowledged the league's efforts and achievements in bringing diverse cultures together through sport in the former Yugoslavia, as it brings together several teams from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro. Delivering the prize, Slovenian Minister for Sport Milan Zver  said sport could break all stereotypes. "Each experiment of uniting nations in this region is even more important and the international, regional-oriented basketball league ABA Sidro NLB has managed to realise it in the great project through the most genuine way of connecting people's values," said Zver. 

The International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA), which contributed to the Commission's upcoming 2008 study entitled "Sharing Diversity - National approaches to Intercultural Dialogue," argues that current methods of using sport as a tool for promoting intercultural dialogue in Europe lack an overall strategy and policy and are based on good practice rather than evidence-based research. 

It underlines the voluntary character of the settings in which intercultural interventions are implemented, such as sport associations and clubs, and argues that few of these civil society organisations are "beyond the critical mass when it comes to involvement in work with integration through sport". However, it argues that in volunteer-based NGOs, critical mass is important both in shaping the internal and external profile of such organisations and in attracting human and financial resources.

Regarding the informal "intercultural learning dimension," ISCA argues that "it takes more than sport and physical activities to facilitate a useful and valuable intercultural dialogue." Namely, an objective beyond the sport activity and an educational perspective are needed, along with "proper settings where the [...] perspective is transformed into action".

ISCA President Mogens Kirkeby regrets that the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008 was launched without the involvement of the European sport sector. "It is an unfortunate missed opportunity not to support and highlight the sport sector's capacity to assist intercultural dialogue and integration," he said. 

"It is the goal to make 2008 a grass roots-oriented campaign year. What is more grass-root oriented and widespread than this civil society sector - the sport sector? The sector – especially 'sport for all' - has operational structures locally, nationally and internationally, with more than 70 million Europeans directly involved."

ISCA recommends that the increased interest in intercultural dialogue among civil society organisations and sport associations be further strengthened with the support of European funding. It calls for a European programme to be developed to facilitate national strategies and local interventions. Furthermore, it recommends that "European and national campaigns should be directly connected with local implementation settings". 

UEFA president Michel Platini said: "European sport has always been a powerful catalyst for social and cultural integration. Millions of children from all parts of the world have become and continue to become European by kicking a ball around a muddy pitch in our towns or countryside before going to school [...] Grassroots sport is an extraordinary catalyst for ethnic intermixing and integration. Football in particular is a welcoming, protecting and integrating sport." 

However, Platini regrets that many social problems, including violence, are "unfortunately" also a part of sport and in particular football. "Society has also passed other scourges on to the world of sport: money-laundering, match-fixing, illegal betting, racism and xenophobia, doping and child trafficking," he said. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) aims to promote the development of the culture and Olympic education agenda through sport at national, regional and international levels, as well as at the Olympic Games. IOC policy aims to "develop the link between sport and culture in all its forms, encourage cultural exchange and promote the diversity of cultures". Secondly, it aims to promote Olympic education and supports other institutions which promote the values of 'Olympism', which is described as "a philosophy of life". "Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." 

The first Youth Olympic Games, which will be held in Singapore in 2010, "are the flagship of the IOC's determination to reach out to young people. These Games will not only be about competition. They will also be the platform through which youngsters will learn about the Olympic values and the benefits of sport, and will share their experiences with other communities around the globe," said IOC President Jacques Rogge.

The goal of the Olympic Movement is "to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play," states the movement.


Life Tackle

Life Programme

LIFE TACKLE is co-funded by the LIFE Environmental Governance and Information Programme of the European Union - Project Number LIFE17 GIE/IT/000611

Subscribe to our newsletters