Meet Joël Bouzou: The former French Olympian who now leads Peace and Sport’s campaign to change the world

Exclusive interview: This week former Olympic bronze medallist Bouzou will look back as well as forward, as his global Peace and Sport initiative celebrates its tenth anniversary

Luke Brown@lukedbrown
Tuesday 05 December 2017 15:23
Peace and Sport, founded by Joël Bouzou, celebrates its tenth anniversary this week
Peace and Sport, founded by Joël Bouzou, celebrates its tenth anniversary this week

For most athletes, winning an Olympic medal represents the pinnacle of their career. But Joël Bouzou is not most athletes. In 1984 the Frenchman won a bronze medal in the modern pentathlon at the Los Angeles Games, before becoming a world champion three years later. And yet it wasn’t enough. After years of hard work, Bouzou had risen to the summit of his sport, only to realise he had another calling. Becoming the best didn’t signify the end of his journey – but the start.

“There was a time when I was very focused on my own athletic performance,” Bouzou, now 62, tells The Independent. “But I absolutely knew what sport had done for me and I knew that I wanted to give back. I realised that I had the opportunity and that, because I had the opportunity, I had to do something, as otherwise I would not feel at peace with myself.”

And so began the next phase of Bouzou’s career. In 1991, he created the Rassemblement par le Sport (Together through Sport) organisation, which provided opportunities for young people without direction — often the children of struggling immigrant families in the bedraggled suburbs of France’s biggest cities. Encouraged by its success, Bouzou went on to foster the global initiative Peace and Sport 16-years later, in 2007. He remains its president to this day and this week the ground-breaking organisation celebrates its tenth anniversary.

Simply put: the initiative, which is a politically neutral organisation based in the Principality of Monaco, does exactly what it says on the tin. It uses the universal values of sport to promote peace, often in disparate areas across the world where traditional policies have failed to establish a dialogue. In Bouzou’s own words: “we create dialogues through sport.” And although the initiative was created just ten years ago, the idea behind it is far older.

“I remember when I was a kid, my father was a physical education teacher and my mother didn’t work at the time, so we were not a rich family,” Bouzou recounts, in between meetings preparing for this week’s international forum, which will welcome guests including Didier Drogba, Paula Radcliffe and Imanol Harinordoquy, not to mention umpteenth sports ministers from around the world.

“But despite this, my father bought sport equipment for other kids, kids who had nothing. And so I could see how sport could change a life. I was very admiring of that, because he devoted some of his resources to support other people. Today he is 86-years-old and still gives fencing lessons twice a week — it has never left his spirit and that helped to foster my vision for what sport can do.”

Drogba signed up as a Champion for Peace this year

So much of what makes sport so enjoyable, whether as a participant or spectator, is transitory and often even trivial. Scoring a goal, serving an ace, swinging a bat. But then there’s the deeper stuff. Sport has a funny way of educating us about the world – of breaking down boundaries and connecting communities. And Bouzou thinks it can do even more still. He contends that not only can sport bring people together, it can foster genuine and longstanding peace, too.

“I think that sport will play a key role in bringing stability to society — it has to,” he says. “Sport can be seen as a neutral, universal and mutual language and can help to solve some of the many problems faced by government leaders, whether they be inter-religion or inter-social or inter-ethnic problems. Communication and dialogue can be created through sport and it can be used as a diplomatic tool.”

This is just what Peace and Sport was set up to do — to “make the heads of sports federations and the heads of governments speak to each other through sport” — and, in its ten years of existence, it has been exceptionally successful. From facilitating a meeting between representatives of Israel and Palestine in 2007, to this year bringing together the women’s ice hockey teams of North and South Korea, Peace and Sport has promoted no fewer than 840 projects in 170 countries.

Peace and Sport makes sport a vehicle for tolerance, respect, sharing and citizenship

A key factor in Peace and Sport’s success has been their ‘Champions for Peace’: 90 high level sportspeople personally committed to the peace through sport movement. Drogba is one of the latest to sign up, explaining recently that “I take my role of ambassador very seriously and I hope that it will give me new opportunities to speak about problems that affect my country and my continent, which are so close to my heart.”

Bouzou explains that the champions are not recruited merely for publicity purposes – they have to sign a charter and speak around the world on the power of sport, as well as engaging in a host of field projects. “These people inspire the youth, but if they are used only to be present in the media then it just doesn’t work,” he says.

“So you have to connect them with programmes and then demonstrate and prove the success is because of their involvement – and then they are motivated. One of our aims at Peace and Sport is to inspire future generations, and there is no better way to do so than to use inspirational figures. We only work with those who understand and want to contribute and they work very well when they understand the power they have within their hands.”

Bouzou with Prince Albert II of Monaco

Peace and Sport’s base in Monaco has also been essential to its successes over the last decade. The principality is more than just a pretty location to stage the annual Forum; the initiative was formed under the High Patronage of Prince Albert II – himself a five-time Olympian – who remains an instrumental figure within the movement.

“Our organisation is anchored on the neutrality of Monaco,” Bouzou says. “And I would not have been able to do anything without Prince Albert II. All the ideas I have and all of the things we have done would not have been possible if we had not had this funding. He has been an incredible partner both as a head of state, but also as an Olympian himself. He could be sitting in his castle enjoying a very nice life, but he is making a major contribution to peace and working with people like me, which is fantastic.”

This week’s 10th anniversary forum, then, offers the chance for the initiative to take stock of the past decade, as well as projecting a vision for the future. The precarious state of the modern world – from political uncertainty across Europe and the United States, to civil war in the Middle East, to humanitarian crises in Africa – present unique challenges to the global peace movement. But Bouzou remains optimistic.

“At this week’s Forum we have to list the achievements of the last ten years, of course, but also project ourselves ten years away from now. We have gone from strength to strength over the last decade and now as we look ahead it is clear that we must push even harder to attain our goals. This year, our theme will be Sport Innovation for Social Transformation as we call for more engagement, influence and action from the sports world, policy makers and the peace movement itself.

“Overall, I am optimistic. I think that sport has to play a key role and I think that will play a key role, in bringing stability to society. Sport brings people together and it will remain critical in tackling the challenges that lie ahead.”

To find out more about Peace and Sport and their development projects around the world, visit www.peace-sport.org.