Our Olympic and professional athletes benefit not only from targeted funding from Own the Podium and national sport organizations, but also from decades of support from the backbone of the Canadian sport system — committed hockey dads and soccer moms, local business sponsors and fundraisers, and volunteer coaches and officials.
With 34,000 organizations across the country, most of them run by volunteers, sport and recreation make up a significant portion of the community sector in Canada. But good community sport programs, based on values Canadians believe in, are under-appreciated as tools for making our kids healthier and for developing skills that will serve them well in life, long after they have hung up their cleats.
Politicians should hang out in a locker room or at a sports field. On one of my son’s soccer teams, the boys seamlessly switched back and forth from English to French and did not care if their Sikh teammate wore a turban, as long as he was a good team player. The players and their families came together as neighbours and left as friends.
Let’s not be naïve; there are a lot of examples of bad sport around as well. Our young people are exposed to bullying, cheating, and exploitation, some of which can be attributed to ‘bad apples’, but much of which has become embedded in a culture of win at all costs, particularly in high paying professional sports. Indeed, three of the biggest sport stories of the past few years included Lance Armstrong’s elaborate doping scheme and cover up; the growing recognition of the long-term consequences of concussions in contact sports; and a pattern of domestic violence perpetrated by pro athletes. Teenaged athletes in the US generate millions of dollars for their colleges in TV contracts, but few finish their degrees or move on to become professionals.
To reduce bad sport, we have to become more deliberate about promoting and practicing good sport. Good coaches recognize that they are important role models, not just between the lines, but also in their interactions with parents, officials, and the community. Pour 3 point, an innovative training program for coaches, emphasizes the role of coaches as citizens who mentor young people and build stronger communities.
Given the many benefits of good sport, it is unfortunate that many sports programs are inaccessible to lower income families and remote communities. Equipment and travel costs, lack of facilities, registration fees, and volunteer commitments all constitute barriers for many families. Organizations such as KidSport and Jumpstart have focused on subsidizing direct program costs, but governments need to do their part in building and maintaining sport infrastructure. In some communities, volunteer culture and networks need to be nurtured.
The revised Canadian Sport Policy recognizes the community-building capacity of sport as one of its main attributes. Known internationally as sport for development, this approach intentionally uses sport and recreation to achieve a range of social goals. For example, Right to Play and Motivate Canada use sports to engage youth in HIV /AIDS education, to build bridges of respect across cultural divides, and to give youth the drive to stay in school and get involved in their community.
In the Foundation publication, Good Sport: Stories about Sport for Development across Canada, award-winning author Silver Donald Cameron chronicles inspiring stories about sport’s ability to shape both individual character and communities within Canada. We are introduced to sport for development in a variety of forms: single mothers in the Downtown Eastside who created an innovative sport leadership program for idle youth; a recreational basketball team funded through a parole program; and GEN7 Messengers who inspire a generation of young Indigenous athletes.
As you settle in to watch the Superbowl or the Stanley Cup playoffs, let’s celebrate athletic excellence, but also recognize and support good community sport for its role in fostering personal development and community vitality.