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More than just a game: Sport and the Sustainable Development Goals

1 August 2016
Blog by Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Deodat Maharaj

All eyes and attention will be on Brazil as the sporting world gathers in Rio for the Olympics and Paralympics for a plethora of sporting events set to deliver incredible performances and amazing memories for fans and spectators. Sadly, the run up has been marred by a number of incidents which have called into question the integrity of sport. 

Although these exciting and challenging aspects of sport rightly attract our attention, we must also give full recognition to the positive impact that sport makes at the community level right across the CommonwealthThe role that sport can play in contributing to sustainable development, in areas like health, education, gender equality and economic development, deserves the same amount of attention as the glitz, glamour and scandal of high performance sport.

We, at the Commonwealth Secretariat, are delighted therefore that the Commonwealth has taken the opportunity, in the wings of the of the Olympic Games, to bring together Ministers with responsibility for sport in our member governments for a day of discussions centred on sport and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets out an ‘ambitious and transformational vision’ for global development. Of particular significance for sports policy-makers is the recognition in the 2030 Agenda that sport can be ‘an important enabler of sustainable development’[1].

The Commonwealth Secretariat has undertaken comprehensive evidenced-based consultations looking at where sport can make effective contributions to development.

This Commonwealth analysis identifies six Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where sport can best help drive positive change, these  being in health (SDG3), education (SDG4), gender equality (SDG5), economic growth (SDG8), sustainable communities (SDG11), and peace (SDG16), with a recognition that partnerships (SDG17) are a crucial aspect of the means of implementation.

We are working with experts at Durham University to produce guidance on policy options available, to identify how best sport can contribute to sustainable development in Commonwealth member countries.[2]

The impact of these policies could be substantial, for example, evidence suggests that physical inactivity is a contributory factor in a substantial 5.5 million deaths a year.[3] Thus, aligning sport and public health policies may help leverage sport and recreation infrastructure investment that can facilitate population-level increases in physical activity levels. The result?  A  contribution to a reduction in non-communicable diseases (SDG target 3.4).

While there must be a realism as to what sport can achieve as part of wider peace-building processes, the popularity and flexibility of sport does mean that it can play an interesting role. For instance, where community tensions exist, carefully designed and sensitively delivered sports programmes can create spaces that allow for cross-group linkages, promote mutual understanding and the development of shared identities and social ties. (SDG target 16.1)

Of course at the Commonwealth we know that one size does not fit all - each country has a unique and specific context. Therefore, we think it is important that Sports Ministers and their teams engage with national processes to fully integrate the SDGs into national development outcomes and strategies. The Commonwealth stands ready to provide support to our member governments to assist them in adopting sport as a viable approach to development.

I look forward to watching, and enjoying the sporting excitement, moments of national pride, and to be amazed at the feats of individual athletic brilliance over the next few weeks. As we do so, let us concurrently consider how sport has and could continue to contribute enormously to our own lives, our communities, our national and global development.

[1] UN (2015), Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 70/1, 37.

[2] Lindsey, I. & T Chapman (In Press) Commonwealth Policy Guidance on SDP and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Commonwealth Secretariat, London.  

[3] Bailey, R, and M Reeves (2013), Research into Sport and Economic Benefits of Sport and Physical Activity, UNESCO, Paris, 15; and Centre for Economics and Business Research (2015),
The economic cost of physical inactivity in Europe, an International Sport and Culture Association and Centre for Economics and Business Research report, June 2015 - This report is available here