Where policy, religion fail, sports can lift spirits, say speakers

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Wherever public policy, communities
and even religions may have failed, sports and recreation are ready and set to
lift wounded spirits and build cooperation and peace in the world, said a
number of speakers at a Vatican conference.

“Sport is the medicine my mother couldn’t give
me” to counteract the bullying and exclusion growing up in York,
Pennsylvania, one Special Olympic champion said.

Despite growing up poor, partially blind and mentally
challenged, “I could do Double Dutch like no one else” with jump-ropes and could run faster than the others, Loretta Claiborne said during a
global conference on “Sport at the Service of Humanity,” hosted by
the Pontifical Council for Culture Oct. 6-7.

Maria Toorpakay Wazir — a professional squash player who
grew up in the Taliban’s “hotbed of terrorism” tribal regions of
Pakistan — told the audience “it was an accident” and a blessing
“I got into sports.”

“When I realized at 4 years old, boys have more
freedom than girls,” and social practices would forbid her from playing
sports, getting an education and leaving the house, she said, she burned all
her dresses.

Seeing the mound of fire, her father said he would be her
No. 1 fan and from then on call her Genghis Khan, helping her pretend to be a
boy so she could follow her dreams.

After competing and placing second in the “under
15” boys’ division in weightlifting, she said, she turned to squash
because lifting weights alone all the time became “boring.”

Her father favored the switch, too, because she was
getting into fights with boys a lot and she said he told her, “Now you
won’t hit people. You will hit a ball against a wall.”

But, a requirement to show a birth certificate for
training meant everyone found out Genghis was a girl, which led to abuse,
harassment, attacks and “extreme bullying for years.” No matter what
other people said or thought about her though, “I knew I was strong,”
she said. “I knew I was perfect.”

Despite receiving support and a security detail from the
national government and winning third in the world junior women’s championship,
she and her family faced huge threats, which forced her to stay confined to her
home for three and a half years. She said she spent those years smashing a ball
against the walls and doggedly emailing people “all over the world”
looking for a sponsor to get her out of Pakistan.

Living in Toronto since 2011, “I’ve played in
freedom,” winning top rankings and becoming “a better player and
human,” she said.

After seeing how people of many faiths can respect each
other, she said the world’s problem “isn’t a clash of civilizations and
religions, it’s a clash of ignorance. We are ignorant about each other.”

People learn to understand and respect others after they
“connect emotionally,” she said, “and sports did that for

Sports and recreation also have turned life around for
thousands of vulnerable and isolated people in Australia, including as ethnic
minorities and people suffering from substance abuse, economic hardship, mental
illness or homelessness, said Peter Cullen, founder of RecLink.

The organization brings public servants, private
companies, charitable groups and volunteers together to organize and run
activities that “create a sense of community, help people feel better,
improve their health, and feel like they belong,” Cullen told Catholic
News Service.

He said their strategy is a low-cost, replicable model
for any community. For example, a RecLink volunteer might get a police officer
to volunteer to coach or manage a team, a welfare or probation officer to
canvass potential players and a news outlet to draft players, provide publicity
and track results.

The larger community experiences change, too, he said.
When people attend nationwide events and exhibitions showcasing people’s
achievements, they no longer see a prisoner, a drug addict and all the
prejudices that often go with labels, Cullen said, but a human being.

Jesuit Father Patrick Kelly, professor of theology and
religious studies Seattle University, told CNS that Catholicism is a natural
advocate for promoting the importance of play for the integral good of every
human being.

On the one hand, Catholicism understands “that the
person is a unity of body, mind and spirit” and it recognizes that virtue
is about moderation.

St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, strongly endorsed the
virtue of play and the sin of excess, which includes an excess of work or
study, said the priest, who authored “Catholic Perspectives on Sport: From
Medieval to Modern Times.”

“We tend to value work almost as the ultimate
value,” he said, forgetting or disdaining the benefits of play.

Even the world of sport has become excessive in some ways
with an overemphasis on winning, fame and fortune at all costs.

“My feeling is the play element gets marginalized
and lost in the sports in the United States,” he said.

Even some parents lose sight when they “look at even
children’s play instrumentally, as a means to a college scholarship,” and
so they may push their kids starting at a young age to work year-round in order
to standout in a particular sport.

Catholic institutions and their sports programs need to
be careful not “to fall into the same mindset that’s predominant in the
culture of viewing sport instrumentally as a means to an end,” he said.
“Because that’s a very small step then to viewing our students as means to
an end.”

Taking part in a sport, he said, has to remain “an
educational experience that leads to the development of the full person.”

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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