[Viewpoint] The power of sport in the darkest times

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[Viewpoint] The power of sport in the darkest times

In a speech at a recent symposium, I posed this question to the audience: What would you do if half of Seoul’s population were wiped out due to a disaster?

Yes, it is also a question we could ask ourselves after watching the movie “2012.” If we consider all the natural disasters around the world combined that occurred in the past 10 or 20 years, the magnitude is similar to what was shown in the film.

Whatever form it may take - natural or artificial - it is impossible to predict when or where a disaster will happen. But if we’re sure about one thing in this millennium, it’s that the increasing frequency of disasters has affected millions of people across the world.

Many governments and non-governmental organizations are taking measures to prepare for and respond to disasters more effectively. Disaster relief units have been established to train response, relief and aid workers as well as educate people on disaster preparedness from pre-impact to post-disaster phases. Even some academic institutions in the Philippines and Korea are now offering related courses and degree programs on disaster management.

Some countries have built structures or identified sites where people can run for safety if and when a disaster occurs. First aid equipment and survival kits are installed in public places as well as sold commercially. For the rescue phase, a network of organizations (NGOs, military units, the United Nations, medical teams) has been identified for more systematic disaster management.

Given the appropriate resources, work especially at the physical location of the disaster after it has occurred could be hastened, as in the case of clean-up and rebuilding infrastructure. But there is more to it than rebuilding the physical community. The social disruption and psychological distress among survivors may result in some form of “long-term disaster” - homelessness, unemployment, anti-social behavior, civil unrest, grief, guilt, stress and trauma.

Immediate and long-term recovery processes should therefore be well-planned. Indeed, post-disaster intervention is more than just simply distributing relief goods and building temporary shelters. The true challenge of the aftermath is in the necessary psycho-social intervention to build internal coping mechanisms and resilience among affected individuals and communities. Traditionally, this is managed by a team of mental health specialists, psychologists and social workers.

But recent trends show that the best approach is multi-disciplinary with regard to psycho-social intervention. And this includes the discipline and profession of sports and physical activity.

How can sport and physical activity help people overcome disaster trauma? After the emergency phase (provision for physical needs) has been stabilized, trauma-healing interventions through sport should follow.

First, we ought to look at sport as defined by the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace (2003): “all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction. These include play; recreation; organized, casual or competitive sport; indigenous sports and games (from kite flying to organized-competitive sport).”

The positive health benefits of sport and physical activity are well-documented in research. In post-disaster intervention, sport provides an environment where one can share emotions both verbally and non-verbally. This form of communication builds social cohesion and community interaction.

Relaxation phases in any physical activity provide healing, diverting attention away from the experience of loss. Competition and winning is a big “no” in post-disaster intervention. Physical activities therefore should focus on establishing a cooperative and supportive environment among participants.

For children who have lost their time and space to play, play-based interventions could help them relearn social and emotional skills, building self-esteem, resilience and teamwork. While safety, security, age, gender, culture and disabilities should be considered in a psycho-social sport program, training local sports leaders and caregivers to lead activities is one way of recognizing the people’s capacity to rebuild their own community. This leads to empowering communities towards long-term community reconstruction and development.

Physical activities should be acceptable and familiar to the community (e.g., traditional games or the most popular sport). Activities in a variety of group sizes that will enable bonding are possible in such a way that they avoid the focus on winning and losing. There should always be room for changes especially in relation to the playing area (i.e., whatever surface and size of space are available). Creativity and resourcefulness are needed in coming up with equipment, like using rolled paper as balls.

Here are some cases of why and how sport has been utilized in post-disaster interventions. Football, a popular sport in Iran, was reintroduced to traumatized children after the 2003 earthquake. During the kick-off to start the game, the children simply stared at the ball and the field - the trauma brought them to a state of not even remembering how to play, a normal occurrence during the first months of intervention.

Teenagers in Uganda who were abducted for years by rebels and later escaped also joined football programs. As returnees in their communities, they had no friends and were lonely. Football taught them the value of teamwork and brought them social contacts. They later became role models and popular figures in their villages.

A homeless and unwanted 8-year-old child drew pictures of despair and death. After participation in sport, she felt wanted and later her drawings were of sunshine and color.

Even after months or a year of rebuilding resilience and trying to cope with situations, individuals can still experience some emotional responses to the trauma - anger, blame, despair, fear and vulnerability. When one participates in sport and physical activity, it is possible that these emotions are displayed. Thus, sport is important in recognizing these emotions and eventually overcome them. A sustainable sport program is therefore necessary.

In recent years, India, the United States, China, Uganda, the Philippines, Japan, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia have experienced various catastrophes, conflicts and complex emergencies. Korea has not been stricken with natural disasters for quite some time, though the possibility of technological disasters is there. Nevertheless, Korea’s disaster management system is in place.

As a country that has shown its strength in sports internationally, will Korea take on a viable sport program in post-disaster intervention when that time comes? For Filipinos who are known to be resilient, will sport in post-disaster intervention enhance the true sense of our ability to cope?

Whatever the answer to these questions, one thing cannot be denied: sport rebuilds lives.


*The writer is a visiting professor in the Department of Sport and Fitness Management, Woosong University.

by Gilda L. Uy
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