Psychology at the UN

The Olympic Truce: Sport promoting peace, development and international cooperation

This column discusses the value that sport can have in enhancing the well-being of individuals, communities and societies.

By Juneau Gary, PsyD, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP

The Olympic and Paralympic Games of summer 2012 demonstrated the value of international friendship and cooperation among the participating athletes and the countries they represented. These organized sports have enjoyed an honored tradition of promoting peaceful international relations among diverse peoples as nations compete without strife and in spite of geopolitical differences.

Standing on the shoulders of the Olympic Games franchise, there is a growing body of literature supporting the value of sport in enhancing the well-being of individuals, communities and societies (Beutler, 2008; Darnell, 2010; Giulianotti, 2011). In the 21st century, the United Nations (U.N.) has become increasingly committed to communicating its vision of global human rights through the implementation of athletic programs that promote peacemaking initiatives, tolerance and reconciliation while decreasing tensions, inequity and prejudice (Giulianotti, 2011; UNOSDP, 2011). The U.N. Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) supports sport and athletic programs that impact development and peace. Many of the U.N.'s programs are coordinated through the U.N. Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace and the U.N. Communications Working Group on Sport for Development and Peace. Over time, these groups have been engaged in supporting the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, the Paralympics, the World Cup and the Youth Olympic Games (Beutler, 2008). These games are noted for assembling individuals and countries, some with opposing philosophies about war, peace, negotiations, resources and power, in the name of friendly and peaceful rivalry, through sporting events.

The Olympic Truce

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon carried the Olympic Torch during the final leg of its journey to the 2012 Olympics. He was in London to participate in a meeting commemorating the Olympic Truce and Sport for Social Change. In 1993, the General Assembly of the U.N. revived the Olympic Truce, an ancient tradition dating back to the 9th century B.C. Originated by Greece, the Olympic Truce provides safe passage for athletes, families and pilgrims traveling to the Olympic Games. For seven days before, during and seven days after the Olympic Games, in the spirit of peaceful cooperation, participating countries agreed to cease all conflicts (U.N. News Centre, 2012).

On Oct. 17, 2011, the 66th Session of the General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/5: "Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal" sponsored by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (United Nations, 2011a). The Olympic Truce was signed by all 193 Member States of the U.N., agreeing to observe the Olympic Truce for a 45 day period from the opening ceremony of the XXX Olympic Games to the closing ceremony of the XIV Paralympic Games, which followed in London (July 27 through Sept. 9, 2012).

We applaud the work of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his officials, notably his Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, Wilfried Lemke, and his team. With IOC President Jacques Rogge, they are finding new ways to develop communities and build peace through sport. In particular, we are grateful for their promotion of gender equality, inclusion of people living with disabilities, prevention of HIV and AIDS and other diseases, environmental sustainability, and peace and conflict resolution (UNOSDP, 2011, p. 10).

Lord Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, General Assembly, New York, USA, 17, October, 2011

While the reality of the Truce remains an ideal, it provides the U.N. and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) an opportunity to underscore the power of the sport development and peace (SDP) initiative to reduce violence and enhance the well-being of vulnerable people throughout the world. Yet, during this Truce period, Syrian officials violated the Truce agreement and the world watched in horror the siege of Aleppo, Syria by Syrian troops. The support of the sporting community's IOC added another voice to the growing international community's attempt to protect the citizens of Syria and address its growing humanitarian crisis.

Sport and geopolitics

Faced with so many compelling 21st century challenges, why should the world community invest time and resources in sporting activities? In an effort to bring urgency to compelling global issues, the U.N. establishes international days, years and decades to focus the world community's attention and resources. Since the U.N.'s International Year of Sport and Physical Education in 2005, momentum for the utilization of sport and physical activity has been building. There is substantial available evidence that sport programs contribute to sustainable development and peace building through initiatives coordinated by the U.N., government agencies, and NGOs (Darnell, 2010; Giulianotti, 2011; U.N. Inter-Agency Task Force Report, 2003). There is increasing recognition of the efficacy of humanitarian programs that employ sports as one of their tools for development in geopolitical and cultural contexts (Darnell, 2010). From a global perspective, sport has the potential to maximize the effect of humanitarian interventions by assembling diverse individuals, as players and spectators (who may be experiencing social inequality related to ethno-religious strife, ethno-nationalism conflict, gender inequity, social breakdown or classism), to participate in group-based sporting activities at very low cost but at high impact (Giulianotti, 2011). The egalitarian spirit of sport offers "a meritocratic activity and a space from social injustices... People that come from different backgrounds... they're all the same level. No one cares at all if your mother died of AIDS or cares if you're raising your three kids at home even though you're only 13 years old...They care about getting the ball in the net and whether or not you're a good basketball player...It offers a brief respite through which to level the metaphorical playing field" (Giulianotti, 2011, pp. 63-64).

As a consequence, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) now recognizes sport as a human right, asserting that the foundational principles of sport — teamwork, fairness, respect for the opposition and honoring the rules of the game — are all consistent with the Charter of the United Nations (United Nations, 1945).

The U.N. utilizes sport creatively not only to promote peace and international cooperation, but additionally for fundraising and raising public awareness regarding pressing human rights issues. For instance, numerous celebrity Goodwill Ambassadors support the programs of the UNOSDP, including tennis star Maria Sharapova (Russia) and footballers Renaldo (Brazil) and Didier Drogba (Cote d'Ivoire), among many others. The value of sport, then, is seen in its role in addressing the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDG's) by promoting the following initiatives (United Nations, 2011b):

  • health and disease prevention

  • poverty reduction

  • universal education

  • gender equality

  • conflict prevention and resolution

  • response to trauma

  • community mobilization

Sporting programs have been implemented effectively with vulnerable populations including refugees, persons with disabilities, persons living with HIV/AIDS, child soldiers and others. Local leadership and community resources may drive the process, allowing for girls as well as boys, women as well as men, to design and benefit from community-based initiatives. For example, a study of South African women demonstrated that respect for local tradition and cultural considerations may forge greater sustainability and gender equality (de la Rey, 2006). Local leadership initiatives are often supplemented by international support. For instance, over two dozen organizations within the U.N. system (e.g., UNICEF) are actively engaged in facilitating sport at grassroots levels worldwide. The U.N. system is joined by the IOC, International Labor Organization (ILO), and numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in designing sports-related programs to respond to emerging international crises (Darnell, 2010). The result, then, is the growing popularity and power of sport on the global human rights agenda.

Sport development and peace initiatives: Confluence of sport psychology and international psychology

Some have questioned whether the power of sport to impact human rights initiatives is supported by available evidence of success (Spaaij, 2009). Emerging social science research examining sport intervention programs underscores the value of athletics to enhance health, well-being, response to trauma and conflict resolution (Darnell, 2010; Giulianotti, 2011; Kirkcaldy, et al, 2002; Ward et al, 2007; Wessells & Monteiro, 2006;). For instance, Wessells and Monteiro have demonstrated the efficacy of athletic programs for children in Angola. Following times of political conflict, children participating in structured sport activities reported feeling more hopeful about their futures. Moreover, adults in the community observed extended capacities in the children for cooperation and conflict management. In a study of children in Germany, Kirkcaldy, Shephard and Siefen found that engagement in sports was associated with improving physical and emotional well-being as measured by a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Ward, Theron and Distiller studied South African children exposed to community violence, as witnesses or victims, and found that engagement in sports activities provided a protective factor that enhanced resilience in the face of overwhelming traumatic experiences. Although sport development and peace (SDP) is a growing field, and research on its psychosocial effects is in its infancy, these studies represent just a glimpse of the burgeoning body of psychological science demonstrating the efficacy of athletics to impact the lives of children and adults worldwide.

SDP initiatives, which support reconciliation and reconstruction as well as promote personal resilience and empowerment, might be the impetus for sport psychologists and for psychologists with international and human rights interests to collaborate on research to propel this emerging specialty into full awareness among psychologists, social scientists, and international workers. Their combined expertise might engender a leading role for psychology in advancing international peacemaking initiatives using the research, theory and principles of sport psychology.


While there is doubt that observing the Olympic Truce in 2012 has diminished conflicts across the globe, there appears to be no question that sport is establishing an increasingly significant role in promoting the mission of the United Nations in the 21st century. Societies, communities and individuals benefit in multiple ways from athletic and physical education programs in addressing crises as well as in building sustainability and well-being (Giulianotti, 2011; Darnell, 2010). Participation in sporting activities has the potential to develop resilience and feelings of efficacy in terms of self-esteem building, skill building and problem solving capabilities. In turn, these skills promote hope, development and conflict resolution capacities. A higher probability of sustainable peace building, therefore, is possible through the initiatives of SDP. When sport is used by sport psychologists and SDP professionals as a protective factor, its outcome creates the potential for communities, as well as individuals, to become less vulnerable and more resilient. In this way, the mission of the United Nations and the Millennium Development Goals are closer to becoming a reality.


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Darnell, S.C. (2010). Power, politics, and "sport for development and peace": Investigating the utility of sport for international development. Sociology of Sport Journal, 27, 54-75.

de la Rey, C. & McKay, S. (2006). Peacebuilding as a gendered process. Journal of Social Issues, 62, 141-153. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.200600443.x.

Giulianotti, R. (2011). Sport, peacemaking and conflict resolution: A contextual analysis and modeling of a sport development and peace sector. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34(2), 207-228. DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2010.522245.

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About the co-editors

Juneau Gary, PsyD (APA main representative to DPI) is professor in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University in New Jersey, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP (APA representative to DPI) is professor at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology of Argosy University in Chicago. Both are APA NGO Representatives to the United Nations Department of Public Information and are co-editors of this column.