Is it too much to expect Critical Evidence-based Coverage of the Cliche of “The Power of Sport”?

During the IOC’s recent evaluation visit, the South Korean Prime Minister claimed that if Pyeongchang is chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympics it could “improve relations on the Korean Peninsula and thus help promote peace and prosperity throughout the region”. This follows only a month after the International University of Monaco and the United Nations mandated University for Peace in Costa-Rica launched a Masters in Sustainable Peace through Sport, claiming “sport is potentially a key driver in establishing and maintaining sustainable peace throughout the world”.

These are pretty significant claims for “The Power of Sport” that we appear to be happy to accept uncritically. Yes, there is evidence that sport can contribute as part of a wider economic and social programme to social outcomes. But the idea that sport will help drive the establishment and maintenance of sustainable peace throughout the world, or that it will specifically promote peace and prosperity between North and South Korea, is a gross overstatement of sport’s potential, fuelled by a lack of understanding of the limited available evidence. There are some examples – post-conflict Northern Ireland is one – in which sport has flourished between communities previously in conflict. But isn’t it more likely that the growth of sporting interaction between such communities is an OUTCOME of peace rather than the CAUSE of it?

Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t question these claims is that they are reported uncritically. There certainly hasn’t been a rush to question or debate the South Korean Prime Minister’s claim that sport might bring reconciliation to North and South Korea. Is it too much to expect critical evidence-based coverage of the cliche of “The Power of Sport”?