Team sports: a beacon for advancing children’s rights
Since ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, Sri Lanka has further extended its long history of promoting children’s survival and development, aimed at protecting children, and their right to education and access to proper health care for mothers, newborns and children. Recognizing the right of children to engage in play and recreational activity is, I believe, equally central to their development, as well as to our country’s development in the aftermath of a civil war spanning more than two decades.
Cricket is ostensibly played for fun. Its significance in Sri Lankan society and the lives of its citizens, however, is often underestimated. The sport has given me self-confidence and taught me invaluable life skills. From a wider perspective, it serves as an important tool for community-building in Sri Lanka and provides a powerful vision of social harmony for the future.
Unity in team life
I count myself most fortunate to represent my country as a professional sportsman. As a child, I was a sports junkie, enjoying tennis, badminton and table tennis. Because I loved team sports, as a teenager I decided to focus on cricket. At the time, I had no expectations of playing for the national team. Looking back, I savoured the togetherness of team sports, being a member of a group and sharing experiences of joy and heartache.
While I knew the names and faces of my teammates, I did not pay attention to their religions or ethnicities. We existed as a unit, bound by our desire to practice and win. Nothing else mattered to us. The simplicity of that kind of existence is a unique lesson in a world where ethnicity and political affiliation are often divisive factors, contributing to tension, conflict and destruction.
Team sports play the particularly important role of social healer in Sri Lanka. After a 26-year civil war, I was fortunate to witness the transformation in Sri Lanka from combat to peace. Sport is an integral catalyst for harmonious social communication, integration and representation. My team is a microcosm of an ideal Sri Lankan society: Cricketers of several religions and ethnicities play together, united as one family. We play on the global sporting stage to bring glory to our collective national identity. We are trusted and measured only by our character, attitude and performance.
In this regard, Sri Lanka’s cricket team is a beacon of hope for the future. As millions watch us on television, families and even entire villages are pulled together by their love for the game. A powerful message of brotherhood emerges every time we walk onto the field. They see 11 people – of many backgrounds and personalities – joined together by their commitment to one another and by a desire to win.
Athletics as a healing agent
At a community level, sports also play a crucial role in development. I have seen this first-hand in the Foundation of Goodness, a remarkable grassroots charity in southern Sri Lanka run by Kushil Gunasekera and championed by Sri Lankan cricket legend Muttiah Muralitharan. I first learned of the Foundation after the Asian tsunami while participating in emergency aid convoys organized around the island. In the tsunami’s aftermath, the Foundation successfully harnessed sport to bring together villages and provide crucial education in nutrition, sanitation and health care. I was surprised to see the psychological impact of such devastation softened by sport. Disaffected and despondent children found a new vigour for life through playing games.
Throughout the years, the Foundation of Goodness has used sports to address social and economic problems. It promotes a holistic and sustainable development strategy that focuses on education and community development. By dramatically increasing the opportunities to participate in sports at school, the Foundation has taught children the importance of adequate nutrition and helped them maintain healthy bodies and minds.
The Foundation advocates sport as an essential component of better health. The impetus to succeed provides children with an incentive to learn about healthy eating and, in turn, to go home and tell their parents what they would like to eat. The best food is often village food, so this can sometimes come down more to a question of education than expense. Health is more than strength or fitness, however; it is also related to one’s lifestyle. Children have little control over their lifestyles, especially when they live in poor households and communities. They must often cope with work at home as well as pressure to study and excel in school – all on a diet that may be insufficient for their nutritional needs.
An investment in sport: surmounting obstacles
It can be demoralizing when a village cricket team is confronted by well nourished opponents equipped with all the latest gear. The Foundation has found that self-confidence helps a team succeed more than any brand of athletic shoes can. Sport can bring into focus anyone’s tenacity, determination and will. For children and young people in rural areas, there are few opportunities to follow their ambitions and reach for a better life. Traditional work here is frequently passed down from generation to generation, and rarely requires formal education. In addition, without opportunities to learn English, upward mobility is difficult. For some, however, sporting prowess can enable them to overcome these barriers through scholarships, the chance to travel internationally, recognition and sponsorships.
Today’s challenge in Sri Lanka is to recognize the immense power of sport as a right of children, and to tap this positive resource. In order to develop athletic prowess island-wide, we must create a comprehensive sports curriculum with suitable equipment, facilities and expertise. Encouraging greater participation in a wider variety of sports ¬– and reducing our somewhat myopic affection for cricket as the main sport – would also unlock the potential of our athletes in rural areas.
The advantages of such an investment would be tremendous. Reaching our children in their formative years would empower them as agents for change, not only in their lives but also through team communication within their homes and beyond. This is a challenge sporting administrators and governments must consider paramount in order to properly fulfil their social responsibilities to Sri Lanka’s children and young people.
Captain of Sri Lanka's national cricket team since April 2009 and a student of law at the University of Colombo, Kumar Sangakkara has also committed to several social projects and initiatives. He is an ambassador for THINKWISE, a joint initiative between the International Cricket Council and UNAIDS, as well as a patron of the Foundation for Goodness, a grassroots community-based charity championing sustainable development and youth empowerment throughout Sri Lanka.
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