Sports in Development & Diplomacy: Empowerment of the Human Spirit

By Ernie Bower

Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO, The Coca-Cola Company, and SpeciaI Olympics International board member; Ben Haack, Special Olympics Australia athlete; and Clarence Seedorf of AC Milan. Photo courtesy Special Olympics.

Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO, The Coca-Cola Company, and SpeciaI Olympics International board member; Ben Haack, Special Olympics Australia athlete; and Clarence Seedorf of AC Milan. Photo courtesy Special Olympics.

Nixon and Mao opened United States China relations with ping pong. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner sought answers to the debt ceiling impasse on the golf course. Sports can be a powerful convener and a window into the human spirit. Still, governments have not fully embraced this incredible vehicle to advance goals in development and diplomacy. They should.

This is particularly true for the United States. At a time when engagement is the world is absolutely vital to our economic recovery and national security, we are under pressure to reduce foreign aid. Partners and competitors alike are making assessments of American power – do we have the financial capacity to lead; do we have the political commitment to remain engaged; do we have the military might to provide the ultimate public good of peace and stability?

The answers to those questions remain positive, though many nations have begun to hedge. One area in which there is no question and no hedging is in the area of soft power. The United States is perceived as a symbol of freedom, empowerment and the pursuit of happiness. Sports are core to this message and they connect people around the world regardless of race, religion, economic status or nationality.

This is the reason that one of the most effective steps toward creating a sense of identity among the citizens of the 10 nation ASEAN has been the ASEAN Basketball League. The concept of a joint ASEAN bid to host the World Cup went viral around the region. Sports brings people together and lifts the human spirit.

Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, is an inspiring man. He asked me to get involved in SO and I asked what I needed to do. He said, “Just come and play, play with the athletes.” I thought that was a small thing to ask, but when I bowled with Special Olympics athletes in Manila (and got beaten very badly, by the way) I was hooked for life. The humanity of play, the power of levelling and human spirit cannot be understated.

As President Obama and his team prepare their package of deliverables for the upcoming APEC and East Asia Summit meetings, I would like to see sport in development considered – ideally by embracing and supporting the already strong Special Olympics programs around Asia and the U.S., but also in other ways. I would also recommend including support for sport added in our development and capacity building programs, teaming with nations who have advanced their thinking in these areas such as India, Australia and Vietnam.

Please read the note below written by Ben Haack, an Australian footballer. If you aren’t inspired, I ask nothing further of you. If you are, get engaged and let’s develop these ideas.

Hi my name is Ben Haack. In 1998 I was diagnosed with Aspergers when I was Seventeen and in Grade Ten at High school. I was diagnosed by a Disability Officer who watched me in English at High school.

My entire life before that I was nothing, that is according to Society, to Teachers, to Coaches, and to my fellow peers. I was bullied, urinated on, abused, misunderstood, and neglected. My worst two days of my life were when I got my Nose broke by a kid who slammed my head against a post. I fought back and hit him numerous times and despite the Blood pouring over me and a lot of other people I kept fighting until the Bus Driver threw me out of the bus. I was then told to go to the Office and I trudged away with everybody yelling abuse and insults. I went into the Office and the Principle asked who started it. Typical of me (I’m very truthful.) I said me. Well, the Principle just got stuck into me about not starting Fights etc etc. Next morning I got up and got ready for School, (You see I am a routinal person.) mum told me I wasn’t going. I said that I was. My Brother stepped in and said its okay I’ll look after him and off I went. Well, let me just say there were a whole lot of Kids who gave a very clear indication they were going to Flatten me. You see that kid was in Grade Eight and was popular, I wasn’t. I ended the Day in English Class with a Double Broken nose, a ripped shirt and a black eye. The reason why I have wrote this is because this sort of story is incredibly common for someone with Aspergers, diagnosed or undiagnosed.

You see the reality is is that the rest of the world except SO has a major issue with us. You see when it comes to Education we are expected to be a part of Mainstream Education, but Mainstream Education struggles with us, can’t understand us, doesn’t want to understand us and quite often moves us around from School to School because of this. Another thing is that we are expected to play mainstream sport, well with mainstream sport it’s quite often the same thing. Now look I know that with both they have agreements and inclusive contracts etc, but from what I’ve seen they’re clearly not working, across the board.

Now I get to Disability. Now we have major problems integrating into this. With Disability Sport, excepting SO, we do. The Paralympics doesn’t want us because they only allow people with an IQ of 75 or below which none of us has. I also know a lot of Disability Organisations who won’t accept us. I know that where I work we do accept but a lot of Staff find it very difficult. Bottom line is that beside SO, we are in everybody’s too hard basket.

Look, bottom line is that I have high Functioning Autism, which means I’m Autistic with Intelligence. I have had major Speech Therapy and Fine and Gross Motor Skills training when I was a kid. Basically I was a Chronis Stutterer and couldn’t catch a ball and kick a ball to save myself. I have major difficulty at time understanding instructions and interpreting things like Body Language and Jokes. This meant that in School I was the butt of Jokes and put downs. This also meant that I struggled with School work and understanding Coaches. This meant that I quite often got abuse and Frustration from them. I spent many Years learning how to walk properly because I walked on my Toes and faced permanent back problems and Tendon Issues.

This is a just a small example of the difficulties I had and when you combine that with the World’s major difficulties with me and with a whole lot of people not wanting to know about me and people with Aspergers, it is an incredible tough Disability to deal with.

Bottom line is that SO has saved my life because it has given me a fair go and I just want that to continue for all people with an Intellectual Disability.

Ernest Z. Bower is Senior Advisor and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.


6 comments for “Sports in Development & Diplomacy: Empowerment of the Human Spirit

  1. Lance boyd
    July 21, 2011 at 21:31

    Inspiring. Great analysis about the way sports levels the playing field of understanding and teaches us compassion

  2. July 21, 2011 at 21:42

    Three things that your piece made me recall:

    In East Asia, the emergence of countries in the region into the industrialised world and global prominence started with sports — Japan with the 1964 Olympics, South Korea with the 1988 Olympics, those two countries with the joint hostinig of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and China with the 2008 Olympics.

    During my term as ASEAN Secretary-General, I tried hard to have the Southeast Games re-named as the ASEAN Games.

    When he was President, Fidel V. Ramos proposed volleyball games in the Spratlys among the troops stationed there.

  3. Diana Guacena
    July 21, 2011 at 22:21

    Dear Ernie,

    Thank you for sharing sports in development and diplomacy. I just completed my volunteer work in Kenya we have used sports – in this case football for HIV awareness and behavior change among the youth and the community in general.

    Indeed, sports is a powerful force to bring people together for a good cause!!


  4. Martin Klein
    July 22, 2011 at 12:42

    Clearly, the Special Olympics program is widely beneficial to people with varying levels of disability. What happened in the life of Ben Haak is shameful, and Special Olympics appears to be, perhaps, the only refuge available to many, many people having ‘socially unacceptable’ disabilities. The people who form the Special Olympics management team are themselves powerfully ‘special,’ providing the love, compassion, and patience that can usually be discovered only from truly loving parents. I think it should be noted, however, that that level of love should not be ‘special,’ but rather, it should be common to all humankind, as commanded by God himself through Jesus, to: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” If that command were to be heeded by all people of good will, Ben’s story of hatred would not have to be told. All religions embrace this ‘golden rule,’ so let it be, in fact, everyone’s law of life!

  5. Angela Ciccolo
    July 22, 2011 at 14:06

    Thank you for giving so many the opportunity to read this inspiring story. You are the best.

  6. david rutherford
    July 25, 2011 at 19:08

    Ben is one of our outstanding leaders. He is a coach, a fundraiser, an APAC board member, an advocate, an athlete. He was recently on the evaluation team at our World Games in Athens.

    Anyone who wants to can join Ben and the rest of us in Special Olympics in any one of those roles. You just need to put your hand up and say “I’m in.”

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