The Social Role of Sport in the 21st Century

The Social Role of Sport in the 21st Century
Published: 2020-09-03

Sport is one of the most important phenomena in the contemporary world, present in the daily lives of practically all human beings. The potential for personal and social transformation of the sport is highlighted since its emergence in 18th century England to the present day. Initially, the social role would be the personal civilizing transformation that the practitioner would undergo when submitting to codes, rules, fair play. This potential mobilized the Olympic movement, through the leadership of Pierre de Coubertin, who believed that the dissemination of sports could contribute to the pacification of people and the reduction of conflicts between nations. In addition, of course, the practice would also bring everyone the benefit of health through constant physical exercise.

However, another potential of the sport became evident throughout the 20th century, especially after the Second World War. By mobilizing so many people, not only as practitioners but also as spectators, their commercial possibilities grew, the sporting spectacle became an object of increasing interest in the media. The practice prioritized the competition and incorporated new values, such as professionalism. While training methods for the preparation of athletes have been improved, the concern with offering sports practice to all has been losing ground to making the competitions available on television. The remarkably high selectivity provided by the criteria adopted to train great athletes has distanced most people from sports practice and its benefits. From practitioners, people have become fans, spectators, and consumers.

Thus, if the initial emphasis was on expanding sports practice, so that people came to enjoy the benefits of their experimentation, with personal and social civilizing gains, the second moment can be understood from the importance of the massification process, the idea of sport consumption through the media aiming at its popularization and the dissemination of a way of life that naturalized values and ideologies of the consumer society.

It is not intended here to judge sport by condemning it for the phases it has gone through in history, but to understand it as a human and social phenomenon that changes over time, suffers influence, but is also capable of influencing. The idea is to contribute to the reflection on how sports practice could contribute to overcoming challenges that face humanity in the first decades of the 21st century.

These current times seem to be marked by the relativization of the importance of democracy, with civilizing setbacks such as the lack of commitment to the truth, authoritarianism, intolerance, racism, and sexism. Times marked by the reduction of what is human to the economic dimension, in which human dignity is linked to the accumulation of money, the ability to buy, becoming a privilege in the face of giant social inequality. Reductionism that also strengthens the unbridled attachment to power, feeds the lack of transparency, nurturing corruption. Times that present a paradox of extreme complexity as our way of life produces unthinkable technological advances and enhances the quality of life, but at the same time it depletes the planet's natural resources and causes enormous imbalances in the climate that threaten the human species itself.

Sport, as such a relevant practice for humanity, is inserted in this same context and must think about how it could contribute to overcoming these challenges. Increasing the participation of athletes, coaches, scientists, fans in decision-making processes could contribute to the enhancement of democracy. Ensuring greater turnover of managers in positions could inhibit temptations to become attached to power and corruption. Adopting public accountability practices, governance and compliance rules would help to increase society's confidence in fair play both on and off the court.

The adoption of policies for ethical and equal treatment with regard to sex, gender and ethnic-racial issues could promote the construction of healthier relationships between men and women and people of all origins, avoiding episodes of sexism and racism in sports and making a stand as to what is acceptable or not, in view of the sport's commitment to human dignity.


In addition, with the great capacity to mobilize the population it has, the practice of sports could contribute to raising environmental awareness and, by adopting ecological practices, promoting individual and collective attitudes that are environmentally responsible. Not getting involved with the most important issues of the present time, would make sport run the risk of emptying out of meaning, losing relevance in society, moving away from people's daily lives. Sport can and should be more!

Thinking about contributing to this reflection, I briefly present some experiences lived in the coordination of sports in a social project called Espaço Criança Esperança, (Space Children’s Hope) in Belo Horizonte, carried out by the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais in partnership with the Belo’s City Hall, Globo Television Network and UNESCO. Before, however, I make it clear that the facts narrated also had the participation of other managers, teachers, and coaches, thus being the result of collective work.

The project served the population of the largest agglomeration of slums in the city, where about 50 thousand people live in situations of social and economic vulnerability, exposed to high levels of inequality, precariousness, and violence. The experiences that will be shared below deal with the potential of sport in relation to the organization of the lives of practitioners, its ability to interfere in urban violence and the life expectancy of practitioners.

1- Sport and citizenship: for participation in the project to be possible, especially in relation to sports activities, often related to registration for events and trips, it was necessary for children and adolescents to have their documents regularized. Many of them, when faced with this need, asked their parents or guardians to inform them that they themselves did not have the documents in order. Birth certificates, identity cards, work cards, vaccination cards, passports were made or updated. Thus, it was necessary for the project management team to assist families in regularizing the records and documents that are essential for the exercise of citizenship.

2- Sport and civility: the experience with sport for members of that community-generated different emotions. The possibility of playing on the dirt streets was one of the few alternatives for leisure and moments of joy. On the other hand, just a few meters after the end of the favela, was one of the richest neighborhoods in the city, where they were not welcome. When the project said they could play sports at the university's sports center, it was a mixture of joy and fear. They were afraid of that world that was not part of their life, so distant, formal, civilized, hostile. We got money to pay for the transportation of those boys and girls who would cross the city by bus and spend the afternoon training the modalities of their preferences at a private university, with high-quality sports equipment. The first few times, we realized that fear turned to revolt. The interior of the buses was destroyed, dirty, torn, scrawled. The changing rooms used by them after training also suffered. It took a lot of negotiation with the other users of the sports center and with the bus companies for the activity to continue. It was also necessary a process of sensitization, awareness and education for civility carried out by coaches so that they started to look at the city where they lived with less fear and revolt and for the university as a place of encounter with joy, friendship, opportunity.


3- Sport and life: when we started each year of work on the project, we asked children and adolescents what they expected from life, what expectations they had in relation to adult life. The most common responses, at the beginning, were reproductive of the life they had in that community. Some wanted to do what their parents or older siblings did. In general, very simple activities such as working as masons or cleaning ladies. For a good part, shocking as it may seem, with the illusion of power and success in that place, the desire was to become a robber, a drug dealer. Some girls said they wanted to be drug dealers' girlfriends. It was necessary that our work with sport was capable of presenting other possibilities, empowering, sowing hope. Over time, after living with the university environment where training took place, with participation in competitions and experiences with victories and defeats, with national and international trips, in our conversations, we registered that what they expected and desired in life was being transformed. Many already dreamed of university-level professions. Several were, in fact, our students in undergraduate and graduate courses. Sport represented for them opportunities for a life very different from what they would probably have.


Today we see a great deal of attention because of the sports activism along with the most recent social movements. Athletes are among the heroes of our time, but the sports movement has been for too long alienated the injustices from its agenda.  Sports in the XXI century will be defined by its role in the historical social movements that are happening in front of our own eyes and the sports community cannot and should not turn away from them. Instead, it should confront and bring alternatives to initiate an honest conversation about solidarity, compassion, grace, and truth towards the pillars of our society: education, social justice, democracy, freedom, and peace, the five rings of possibilities.