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Press release

UNICEF says children deserve a sporting chance

GENEVA / NEW YORK, 19 November 2002 – One day after international boxing star Muhammad Ali sent an open letter to the children of Afghanistan, UNICEF today praised the power of sport in children’s lives, saying that it is a key component in their healthy development and an increasingly important tool for reaching out to young people and adolescents.

“Children have an inherent need to play, and it is their right to do so,” said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. “But today this simple right is denied to millions of children whose lives are enmeshed in conflict, lost in exploitation, or stolen from them by preventable disease. The idea that many children grow up with no memory of play in their lives at all is a staggering reminder of how badly we have failed our children.”

“Today is Universal Children’s Day, when we celebrate the anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” Bellamy added. “This year I’d like to dedicate this celebration to the simple idea that all children everywhere have the right to play. Sports and games and athletics are crucial to every child’s healthy development, and we must recognize them as more than just child’s play.”

Bellamy cited the extraordinary welcome given to Muhammad Ali in Afghanistan earlier in the week as an example of the connection children have to sport and sports figures – a positive experience they carry forward into adulthood. She also praised the warmth and humanity of Ali’s “open letter” to Afghan children, which he issued at a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday, just before his departure after a three-day visit.

“Sports builds fellowship, character, and independence,” Mr. Ali said in his letter to the children. “I know that for many of you, it may be difficult to participate in athletic activity because you may not have all the opportunities now, but we must all work together to create more opportunities [for you],” he wrote.

“I can not think of a better role model for children that Muhammad Ali,” Bellamy said. “Not only because he is a great sportsman, but because he is a great man and a great humanitarian. UNICEF is very proud to have played a part in bringing him to Afghanistan and we fully agree with his idea that we adults have a responsibility to create opportunities for children to engage in healthy play.”

She noted that UNICEF has embraced sport in a variety of ways. Among them:

  • UNICEF AIDS awareness programmes in Kenya and Honduras use the convening power of soccer games as a way to reach young men and boys. Likewise in Ethiopia, UNICEF supports an HIV/AIDS prevention program in which a soccer league conducts HIV/AIDS awareness during half-time at football matches.
  • In Brazil, UNICEF sponsors a project in a detention centre for adolescents in conflict with the law. After classes, the adolescents play soccer, learn judo and gymnastics. Sport is used to help adolescents channel their frustrations and learn new ways to deal with frustration and anger.
  • On the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border, Afghan refugee children are playing soccer as part of educational activities undertaken by UNICEF. Since activities such as flying a kite and playing ball were banned under the Taliban, this has been the first time many of the children have experienced organized games and playful competitions.
  • And in Sierra Leone, sporting competition is a central element of a program to rehabilitate demobilized child soldiers and prepare them for rejoining their families and communities.

“In all these ways and many more, UNICEF has recognized that sport and development go hand-in-hand,” Bellamy said. “We would be foolish to overlook sport as a tool in convening people, in reaching out to people, in breaking down barriers between people, and in encouraging the values of dignity, respect, fair play, and peaceful conflict resolution.”

Bellamy also acknowledged the leadership and interest of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the power of sport in human development. Annan recently formed a Task Force on Sport, Development and Peace, on which Ms. Bellamy serves as co-chair. The Task Force has until next summer to produce a survey of how sport is being harnessed to overcome poverty and improve the lives of children and communities, with examples of best practices and suggestions for creative new efforts.

UNICEF also noted that sports figures are among its leading celebrity ambassadors, donating their time and fame to draw attention to the challenges facing children all around the world. UNICEF counts numerous former Olympians and soccer stars among its special representatives.

“If every child was given room and time to play, we’d be living in a much better world for children and adults, that’s for sure,” Bellamy said. “It’s a simple measure but one that rings true. Athletic competition and friendly play are in our DNA for a reason; we’ve got to tap into that spirit.”

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Note to Editors:

UNICEF’s annual report, The State of the World’s Children 2003, focuses further attention on the issues of children’s participation. Launched globally on Wednesday 11 December.

Note to Broadcasters:

For further information, please contact:

Alfred Ironside, UNICEF Media, New York (212) 326-7261
Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Media, Geneva (4122) 909-5509