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How sport brings us together in times of crisis

In early 2020, just before the entire world was overtaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia was being ravaged by some of the worst bushfires on record. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and millions of acres were ravaged by the massive inferno.

While the fires raged on the east coast of the country, the Australian Open tennis tournament was being held in Melbourne. In an effort to raise funds for the victims and honour the emergency service workers that were on the frontlines of the fires, the Australian Open leveraged their worldwide audience by holding an event called Rally for Relief.

According to a recent paper co-authored by Dr Steve Swanson, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management at Deakin Business School, sport has proven to be an important catalyst in repairing communities and helping them recover from crisis when they engage with society and leverage their influence.

The uniqueness of sport

For thousands of years, sport has been able to transcend barriers that would normally divide. When the ancient Greeks began holding a sporting competition every four years starting in 776BC, there was a truce put in place for the surrounding nations during the event so that spectators and athletes could travel safely to and from the games.

To this day, those same games still have a truce that is supported by the United Nations to ensure the safety of those competing and attending. This is all, seemingly, unique to sport.

Dr Swanson says that sport is useful in giving people a sense of place in the world and a connection to a cause that is larger than themselves.

‘Some of sport’s unique qualities relate directly to the concept of identity. For many, our connection with sport helps define who we are through participation, spectating, and community membership,’ he says.

‘At its best, sport really can transcend so many aspects of society – culture, race, social class, and generations – with people from all different backgrounds having a universal language to draw from and a common goal to support.’

'At its best, sport really can transcend so many aspects of society – culture, race, social class, and generations – with people from all different backgrounds having a universal language to draw from and a common goal to support.'

Dr Steve Swanson,
Deakin Business School

The role of sport in crisis recovery

Sport has been used as a tool for crisis recovery for individuals, communities, and cities. In August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey rained down untold damage on the city of Houston.

The NFL had a preseason game scheduled between the Houston Texans and the Dallas Cowboys in the city of Houston when the storm hit, and the game was called off due to the damage caused to the stadium.

The Dallas Cowboys and their affiliate television station decided to hold a telethon to support the relief efforts in Houston.

However, it’s not all about major, national, and international sporting teams supporting communities in crisis. According to Dr Swanson, local clubs and their members can play a major part in helping people recover.

‘Historically, sports clubs and athletes have played a significant role in providing tangible and emotional support to community members,’ he says.

‘Sport organisations and their individual athletes have also provided emotional support through recognition at sporting events, volunteering, and visiting affected communities, and initiating community activities to aid in the recovery process. These types of efforts provide psychological benefits such as encouragement and a sense of hope.’

The influence of sport during COVID-19

The pandemic and subsequent restrictions have caused a significant level of disruption to the health, both mental and physical, of millions of people across the globe.

This crisis has resulted in some of the most compelling examples of community recovery through sport, whether that be on an individual level or a much larger scale.

‘Many people have taken it upon themselves to start running and cycling during the COVID pandemic to stay fit and healthy during stressful times. We have also seen innovative approaches like rival clubs Manchester United and Manchester City join together to make large donations in support of COVID crisis victims in the local community,’ Dr Swanson says.

‘Throughout the COVID pandemic, top sport leaders have expanded boundaries of inclusiveness and shared identity to help unite communities and foster individual and community well-being.’

Sport on an individual basis

Sport can be an important part of overall health and having a connected community. Dr Swanson says that there are a range of benefits that stem from getting involved.

‘Beyond the obvious health advantages of physical activity through sports participation, there are several other ways that sport can enrich our life and enhance our well-being through participation, volunteering, supporting clubs, and spectating are other avenues for experiencing the well-being benefits of the sport environment,’ he says.

‘As we continue to navigate our way through the COVID pandemic with an interest in maintaining and enhancing our well-being, it’s worth considering the many ways that sporting communities can assist with living more healthy and meaningful lives.’

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Dr Steve Swanson
Dr Steve Swanson

Senior Lecturer, Sport Management, Deakin Business School

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