Sports, Peace and Society
By: Manal El Tayar
“He caught me right before I started my 30-minute warm up. “I have bad news,” he said as his normally cheerful eyes turned into weary ones. I stood there not knowing what to expect. What news could it be? “The French federation won’t allow you to participate in competitions”, Fred paused then said, “I am disgusted”.
I still had to do the training. I still had to go with the group of girls and do our 5k warm up next to the river. But I was silent. I could not utter a word. I wasn’t sure what the name of the feeling I was experiencing was: Disappointment? Frustration? Anger?
Whatever it was, I tried to shove it down and silence it.
As I sat on the bus on my way back home, I could not keep my tears from strolling down my cheeks.”
These were the words that I sent in an email update to my family and friends in 2012. At the time, I was studying and training in France. As a Lebanese national champion that had competed regionally and internationally, I dreamed of making it to the Olympics. This episode in France was one of the many hurdles I faced as I sought that dream.
The years went by, and that dream seemed increasingly unattainable. By the end of 2016, I decided to stop running competitively.
However, as I faced the painful disappointments, I was encouraged to embrace the grief. Not to harden my heart, but to actually enter into the grief. I was challenged to grieve with hope. And I began to hope and dream about the next generation: could I ever provide the youth in my country with the opportunities I was denied?
This summer, and through my Duke Rotary Peace Scholarship, I dared to take steps and knock on doors I never had before.
I applied and was thrilled to be accepted into various elite-level sports and peace-related programs.
I spent the first part of the summer at the International Olympic Academy (IOA) in Greece. I, along with 24 other participants from 19 countries, had the chance to visit all the athletic sites where the Pan-Hellenic games took place. Our post-graduate program, on Olympic diplomacy and peace, allowed my colleagues and I to spend three weeks at the IOA premises in Olympia, where the ancient Olympic games took place. The program was designed in order to engage us both mentally and physically. I couldn’t ask for a more holistic research-based internship! Our days were regimented as follows:
- In the mornings, experts from around the world lectured us on topics related to Olympics, Peace and Diplomacy. Then, we’d each present the research paper that we had submitted to the IOA and receive comments and advice from fellow participants as well as from our professors. My research paper, entitled “Sectarianism and High-Level Sports: A case study of an inter-faith friendship in Lebanon”, is an autoethnography and a form of insider research. In it, I explored the conditions and factors that allowed for an inter-faith friendship to be both birthed and sustained over 10 years between two other elite Lebanese athletes and I.
- In the afternoons, professors made themselves available to us at the IOA café or library in order to discuss our papers and advise us on how to improve them.
- Every evening, we spent two hours learning and practicing a new sport together. This included karate, wrestling, tennis, volleyball and soccer. In fact, given that most of the participants in the seminar were elite-level athletes, we were the ones that taught each other our respective athletic disciplines.
Random/fun facts about my time at the IOA:
- On one of the last days together, we played soccer in our evening sports session. As you may know, I can be quite passionate in a soccer game! So, I broke my right wrist (the ulnar) while playing. My fellow colleagues were very generous and kind in helping me take notes, carry luggage and cut my meat steaks from that day on
- Another major accomplishment was that I probably ate more feta cheese in one month than I have in my entire life 😉
After my time at the IOA, I joined the Center for Sport, Peace and Society (CSPS), housed within the University of Tennessee, to initiate a global mapping around gender-related policies in sports.
Given the limited time, we chose to focus on three groups of countries:
- Those that consistently ranked in the top 15 for the years 2017-2018 across all three gender-related indexes considered. These countries are: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Denmark
- Those that did NOT consistently rank in the top 15 for the Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index, but surprisingly did for the years 2017-2018. These countries are: Namibia, Nicaragua,
Philippines, Slovenia and Rwanda.
- Those that are of interest for our research purposes. These are the USA and Canada.
The research I conducted helped me see the link between gender policies, sports and women empowerment.
Finally, by end of July, I flew to Cali, Colombia to participate in the Global Baptist Peace Conference entitled “Peace in our land: Toward a world without violence”. I was invited to lead a workshop with some 30 participants as well as share my experience in interfaith reconciliation in Lebanon and the larger Middle East in a plenary session with some 380 attendees.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that most, if not all, speakers were truly submerged in the reality and practice of reconciliation, peacebuilding and justice-seeking. It was especially encouraging to meet older women who were further along in the peacebuilding journey, and who had a lot of insight to offer. These women were coming from all corners of the earth and working on a multitude of inter-connected issues: an Italian speaker shared from her background in anti-trafficking, a Georgian bishop shared about her church seeking justice for the LGBTQ community, a mediator from Myanmar shared about her role mediating between the government and the armed groups, and a woman from the Philippines shared about her efforts in standing with the most vulnerable populations that are usually victims of misleading slogans such as “the war on drugs”.
It was these women that truly inspired me. I am so grateful to have met such superb role models.
Random/fun facts about my time in Colombia:
- An indigenous group of Colombians decided to dress me in their traditional clothing and asked me to conduct my workshop with their dress on.
- After my time in Cali, at the Peace Conference, I visited my cohort Peace Fellow, Sarah Champagne in Bogota. It was a real joy to be able to find each other at the end of our AFEs, and to debrief our summers together and plan for the next academic year.