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The Indian and Pakistani cricket teams have long been chummy, writes Simon Kuper. Used to playing each other around the world, the Pakistanis often visit the Indians’ hotel rooms for a chat. It’s even been known for a host to sneak a guest a glass of alcohol.

The next time they meet they’ll have something to toast – the United Nations has named both teams “spokespersons for the international year of sport and physical education 2005”. This rewards their recent tours of each other’s countries, which have supposedly helped bring peace to the subcontinent. The United Nations and non-governmental organisations everywhere are seizing on a new idea – that sport can encourage peace and development. You see the offshoots everywhere now, from NGO workers dressed as condoms parading around African football matches, to Palestinian and Israeli kids being made to play football together.

I met the chief proponent of sport-for-peace at the International Football Arena conference in Zurich this month. Though Adolf Ogi looks like a cheery grey-haired innkeeper, he was president of Switzerland before becoming the UN’s special adviser on sport.

Ogi comes from a mountain village so removed from world events that when he was born, in 1942, his parents named him Adolf simply because it was a family tradition. So was skiing. “I owe everything to skiing,” he told me. In the 1970s, when the Swiss were still kings of the sport, Ogi was director of the country’s skiing federation. Later he parlayed this into a political career, during which he invented his catchphrase, “Joy reigns.” On retiring, he decided he was “too young to lie in a hammock” and persuaded the UN’s secretary-general Kofi Annan over hikes in the Swiss mountains to try improving the world through sport. Annan gave him the job at a salary of $1 a year.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like such a dumb idea. Nobody except perhaps the Taliban is against sport. It undeniably brings people from different countries together. When the Pakistani cricket team visited India this year, the country’s president, Pervez Musharraf, went to watch, met India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh and agreed with him to open the militarized Kashmiri frontier. The leaders also said peace was “irreversible”. This was much better than nuclear war. Ogi asks: “Who opened the doors? The sportsmen! How did they do it? They played cricket.”

Indeed, India-Pakistan matches often reveal the friendship between ordinary people. When the Pakistanis won in Chennai once, they ran a lap of honour to an ovation from the Indian crowd. In Karachi last year, the Pakistani fans applauded India’s last-ball victory. Clearly George Orwell was wrong to say “sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will”.

On the other hand, occasionally it does cause ill-will. In one India-Pakistan match, Indian spectators pelted Pakistani fielders with stones. At another, Hindu nationalists distributed handbills claiming that Indian Muslims had been cheering for Pakistan.

Every now and then sport does marginal good or harm, but most of the time it makes no difference whatsoever. Sport may make ordinary people more friendly to the people across the frontier, but then wars are rarely caused by xenophobia among ordinary people. Famously, there has never been a war between two democracies. It’s dictators, warlords and senior bureaucrats who tend to fight wars and they don’t care much what ordinary people think.

Such arguments don’t deter Ogi. The man is so persuasive that he has convinced the world economic forum in Davos to host a session on sport next January. He fishes out a newspaper cutting about the two Koreas’ plans to field a joint Olympic team in 2008. “Here sport contributed significantly,” he insists. But surely if North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il were the type of guy to be dissuaded from nuclear war by a sports team, the peninsula wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. In any case, the Yugoslavs fielded united national teams for decades before chopping each other to bits. I asked Ogi why he thought the 20th century, which saw the rise of international sport, was the bloodiest century ever. “It’s a paradox,” he admitted.

However, his dream goes beyond peace. Ogi also believes that sport creates better people. “Sport is the best school of life,” he said in Zurich. “I learn to win without thinking I’m the best. I learn to lose without thinking that’s the end. I learn discipline. I learn rules.” But if sport is good for you, that doesn’t explain all the sportsmen who cheat, fight, get drunk, assault women or indeed kill civilians in war.

Nothing discourages Ogi. He finishes with his trump card – his account of seeing footballs being given to children in African refugee camps. “These kids are often traumatized. But when they play sport, they forget everything. There is no vaccination, no medicine that has the same effect. I’ve seen what it does – I have saved the pictures in my head,” he says.

And here he is surely right – playing sport makes people happier. I saw it once in Khayelitsha, a township outside Cape Town. About 200 kids had gathered in a meadow, where a man from sporting goods company Adidas explained that it had been decided in Germany to give them 98 footballs. The children applauded, some by slapping themselves on the cheek. Then they leaped 20 at a time on the baskets of balls, chased around the meadow after them, going completely crazy. For survivors of genocide stuck in a camp for years with nothing to do, footballs could be even more important. A decent ball – made, perhaps, in Pakistan – costs about $10. It can make dozens of kids happy for weeks before it bursts. It’s not world peace, but it’s something.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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