Yuko Arimori

Finding Strength in Sports: Making a world fit for adolescents

I met a young girl in Cambodia who was working in a brothel. I asked her, “When are you happiest?” With downcast eyes, she answered, “When the police are not patrolling the neighbourhood.” Though I was at a loss for words, thoughts ran through my head. How did we as a society fail this girl to the point that she looked with dread upon those whose purpose is to protect? As I stood there feeling sorry for her, I was compelled to take action.

How can we prevent this outcome? Providing education, development opportunities, equal treatment and protection are a good start. I teamed up with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and looked to what has always helped me in hard times: sports. Some may ask, “What good are sports in a country where people struggle to survive from day to day?” Sports have the marvellous power to lift our spirits, give us hope and restore our lost courage. I believe sports also strengthen our will to live.

Let us help children replenish their energy through sports. While financial or medical assistance saves lives, think of how one soccer ball can make children play and laugh. I am convinced that this energy empowers them and enables them to be independent and self-sufficient. They are then better equipped to go to school and stay in school, as well as to recognize and pursue opportunities to develop in life.

Sports also build teamwork, camaraderie and social support. Adolescents – girls especially – need programmes in literacy and life skills. They also need health information and services to promote reproductive health and prevent the transmission of HIV. Girls deserve protection from violence and exploitation, and they should be taught how civic participation can improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Funding programmes such as those supported by UNFPA, UNICEF and their partners must be a top priority.

When sports are combined with these types of programmes, a girl’s nightmare can be turned into a hopeful dream. Participating in sports helps adolescents reach out and make friends, be healthier and safer, and come closer to reaching their full potential despite the many obstacles life may present. I am fond of the saying, “Dreams will come true if you keep believing in them.” We know how hard it is, at times, to be optimistic and keep believing, especially for young people like the girl I met in Cambodia. Still, even if we can only move forward one step at a time, the idea that we will reach our goals someday helps us realize our dreams.

A world fit for adolescents would be one in which their rights are promoted and protected. It is a world in which girls and boys have equal and optimal opportunities to develop; to express themselves freely and have their views heard and respected; and to live free of poverty, discrimination and violence. Through persistence and teamwork, I believe such a world can become reality.

Creating a better world is a challenge similar to running a marathon. As a UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador, I know I am not running this marathon on my own. We are running as a team, like the ekiden (long-distance relay races) popular in my native country, Japan. My hope is that the tasuki (sash) or baton will be passed from one person to the next, from one generation to the next across the globe, so that we reach the goal as one team. It will be a long and tough race, but I am certain that we will be welcomed by smiles at the finish line. I hope those smiling faces will belong not only to girls, but also to boys, and to adults, both men and women.

UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador since 2002, Yuko Arimori won a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 and became the first woman medallist in the history of women’s marathons in Japan. She established the non-governmental organization Heart of Gold, which encourages hope and courage through sports for people who are handicapped. The organization supports self-help activities for war victims in Cambodia and other countries.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.