Galloping commercialism and the voracious demand from fans, sponsors, broadcasters and organisers to keep serving it king size may have made top-flight sport an inexorably elite pursuit. However, the real catalysts of change are those who rewrite rigid norms at the grassroots.
In 1993, champion Norwegian skier Johann Olav Koss was moved after seeing how boys in strife-torn Eritrea made a full-sleeved shirt into an improvised football to overcome trauma by playing the 'beautiful game'. He founded the 'Right To Play', an international movement that uses sport to empower children in places like the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where the zing of bullets is heard more often than the thud of a free kick.
Among the tools 'Right to Play' coaches use are coloured footballs to help children imbibe leadership lessons, using sport as a medium to communicate, encourage peace and gender equality. Ghada Rabah, 'Right to Play' country manager for the Palestinian Territories, explained at the recent Doha GOALS (Gathering of All Leaders in Sport) forum on using sport to change society.
"We have dodged bullets in these areas for a long time, but what matters is how these boys and girls respond, how it gives their lives a new direction," she told HT.
The methodology helps raise self-esteem, resist peer pressure and teach the young ones to resolve conflict.
"Homeless World Cup" is a group of 73 international bodies that uses football to improve the lives of homeless people across the world. Founded in 2001, it supports a grassroots level football programme, while its World Cup enables displaced youth to find fresh direction in life.
And if one man can hold forth on sport's power of transforming society, it is Francois Pienaar. The former South Africa rugby captain was the catalyst for Nelson Mandela's mission to integrate a nation torn by racism. He led the Springboks to World Cup victory at home in 1995, a tournament Mandela used to unify the nation. The momentous effort inspired the Hollywood film, 'Invictus'.
Pienaar is proud of the role he played. He recalled how it became the springboard for the nation, treated as an outcast for its apartheid policies, to become a global sports hub.
"I don't think we could have asked for a more powerful start," the flanker told HT. "And the pinnacle was the soccer World Cup (2010). The naysayers said 'can't do it', 'won't be ready', 'won't be safe'. Now there is a can-do mentality and how sport has to be integrated to the society. When the Springboks play now, everybody supports them. When we used to play, 10 percent of the nation supported us. That is the difference. That is our achievement."
South Africa is still searching for the ideal way to integrate society through sport. Quotas in sport divide opinion, but Pienaar pointed out the positives.
"Hashim Amla, he is unbelievable," he said. "Because of what he has done, he is a hero to many. Kids when they grow up don't see a quota system. They see a star. And they would aspire to be like their star; wear what he does; a rugby jersey, a cricket jumper or a football kit."
Pienaar believes supporting sport at the lowest level was crucial.
"I would agree (top flight is elitist). But to become elitist, you also need to have a strong grassroots set up. See Carl Lewis, where he came from and what sport did to him. I have a similar story, sport gave me education. It is elitist in South Africa because the best come from private schools. But in these schools now there are athletes from disadvantaged communities as they are given scholarships. Investment in administration and coaching is far more needed at that level as that is where the jewels will be found."
But rekindling the romance is vital. "What comes to me is mass participation, making sport safer, more accessible and fun. If you only take care of the professional element of sport, the negative effect is that less people will play."
"In sport, like in life, you want to raise the bar. But it is also about raising the floor. The floor is grassroots. It stays where it is, then there is this disparity."
All around the world
Cricket soothes frayed minds and bodies
Cricket has been the balm for battered lives in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and West Africa's Sierra Leone. It unified people during the Lankan ethnic war. Many Afghanistan players honed skills in Pakistan refugee camps, going on to get ODI status. Sierra Leone players picked up the pieces after a 11-year war left over 120,000 killed.
Football’s peace ambassador
Former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba is credited with ending a five-year civil war in Ivory Coast. After the African nation qualified for the 2006 World Cup, he made a successful plea to the warring groups, who responded by announcing a ceasefire. He later helped move an African Cup of Nations qualifier to the rebel stronghold of Bouake.
The man who heralded a new era in running
Kip Keino showcased the reserves of stamina built in the hills of Kenya as he broke world records and won the 1,500m Olympic gold in altitude at the 1968 Mexico City Games and the 3,000m steeplechase at Munich in 1972. He is still the inspiration for the formidable track runners of Kenya.
Women’s hopes go up in Saudi society
For the first time, Saudi Arabia agreed to send a mixed team to the Olympics, fielding two women at the 2012 London Games. It is seen as a remarkable first step that will allow more women to take up sports in the future. Judoka Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and 800m runner Sarah Attar did not qualify but took part as special invitees by the IOC.
Freeman lights the fire in the lives of countless Aussies
For all its achievements, particularly in sports, Australia has been defensive about its old policy of taking Aborigine children away from the families on grounds that they needed protection. The children of the ‘stolen generation’ has been a touchy subject. Thus, Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman lighting the flame at the 2000 Sydney Games and then going on to win the 400m gold was seen as the state looking to make amends. Freeman was one of the inspirational figures at the Games and her achievements on the track are regarded among the best by Australian women athletes.
Manipur, the other big success story
For a trouble-torn state like Manipur, sport is a way of life. It’s the route to overcoming poverty and hardship. If Dingko Singh inspired Mary Kom to take up the sport, Mary Kom has inspired a generation of boxers. Kunjarani Devi showed the way in women's weightlifting. Likewise, archer Bombayla Devi is an icon. Football and hockey are the other two sports where Manipur dominates.