Peace Through Sport: Prince: how sport can give peace a real chance
Jordan's ambitious project to unite conflicting nations
Sunday 16 July 2006
These are frighteningly critical times in the Middle East, but is there a glimmer of hope that one day sport might help bring about peace? Just down the dusty road from the Jordanian shores of the Dead Sea lie what used to be the seedy Biblical citadels of Sodom and Gomorrah. With all that is happening on and off the playing field these days it seems a rather appropriate base camp for a new sporting enterprise. Yet if it succeeds, it could turn out to be a veritable Garden of Eden.
Behind the revolutionary roadmap, aimed at helping unite warring nations through sport, is Jordan's Prince Feisal, the younger brother of the king who, when we met during our visit to one of the most sportingly ambitious nations in the Arab world, exclusively revealed what he terms his "Peace Through Sport" initiative. He has already laid the foundations for a pilot scheme, to be launched this summer, which will bring together in Jordan nations who traditionally have had conflict. He explains: "We hope the project will look across boundaries, showing that sport can teach teamwork and help us learn about each other.
"It is the Olympic ethos which tells you that the man standing next to you is not an enemy but a friend. We all share the same sorts of concerns, fears, worries and hopes. We want to build bridges across cultures and divides that existed in the past."
The idea is to begin with five countries: Palestine, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. After that, the world? Ultimately it might even see Arabs and Israelis competing together as one team, hard as that might be to envisage amid the present attrition. But then the prince remains sanguine. "Rather than compete as nations we want to meld them together. I think this will be the first time this has been tried across borders. I am hoping that in the not-too-distant future we can involve Israel once we have built a solid programme. We have already had talks with people in Israel about this. We must make sure we have the right formula that will also work with bigger issues.
"Sport has always been instru-mental in breaking down barriers. We have had ping-pong diplomacy, the cricket Tests between Pakistan and India - which if you had looked at it five years ago, they would have probably have ended up killing each other. Sport helped end apartheid in South Africa, and I have also heard about the progress it has made in Belfast. Now we have North and South Korea marching together in the Olympics."
One of the spin-offs will be to help establish Jordan not only as a sporting peacekeeper but a nation where the prince's long-term ambition to host global events will be realised. In May Jordan successfully hosted a spectacular Middle East Motor Rally Championship, hopefully a prelude to staging a leg of the FIA World Championship. It is a beginning.
Dominating Amman's main football stadium is a picture of King Abdullah, in a Jordanian team shirt, gleefully celebrating a victory over Iraq in a World Cup qualifier. Sporting passion runs high in Jordan's royal family. "Part of our mission is to make sport part of every day life," says the 42-year-old prince. "In the past few years we have come quite a long way, not only in the level of competition but in demonstrating that we are capable of hosting large sporting events. In the slightly longer term we are looking at the possibility of staging the Asian Games, which continue to grow and expand into one of the world's biggest sporting events outside the Olympics.
"It is important that sport plays its part in our society. So far there is only a limited amount of professionalism, but we need to create icons who could be positive role models for our youth. Half of our population is 18 or below."
Although an Islamic nation, Jordan openly fosters multi-culturalism, and unlike some Arab neighbours encourages the participation of women in politics, business and all sports. Prince Feisal's 16-year-old daughter, Princess Ayah, is an accomplished volleyball player, and he serves on the IOC's Women and Sport Commission. "In this country our constitution guarantees that women have total equality. We also have the highest level of participation of women in sport in the Middle East. Every sport here is open to women.
"When we went to the Olympics in Athens, half of our athletes were women."
The prince himself is a sporting all-rounder. "I think I played football in every position, working my way backwards from striker to goalkeeper. I enjoyed volleyball and swimming and, of course, rally driving. I picked up the bug for motorsport from my late father [King Hussein]. My brother, King Abdullah, has twice been the national motor rally champion, and I raced as co-driver for three years."
He added: "Look, we are not trying to reinvent the wheel here. Jordan has always been to the forefront when talking about peace and moderation, trying to build understanding, and this is a legacy we want to continue.
"West Asia is seen globally as a region of strife and conflict, but I believe that through sport we can start to change these perceptions. Maybe this is our contribution to making the world a better place."
Jordan's unique desert flower, the black iris, may yet become a symbol of sporting tranquillity as well as a marker for a nation with high hopes of making a name for itself in the world's sporting theatre.
The World Cup and Olympics may be a princely pipe dream for the moment, but as you stand atop Mount Nebos, where Moses is said to have looked across at the real thing, you can believe that sport's Promised Land in Jordan may not be that far distant.
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