SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
September 26, 2011
In grassroots programs involving tens of thousands of participants around the globe, visionaries are using athletics to tackle the most pressing problems of the developing world—from AIDS in Africa to violence in Rio. Can such projects make a lasting difference, or is the dream of salvation through sports too grandiose? SI senior writer Alexander Wolff set off on a yearlong journey to find the answer
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September 26, 2011

Sports Saves The World

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Tommy Clark figured his sojourn in Zimbabwe to play pro soccer after college would be a joyous homecoming. He'd spent part of his teens in that southern African nation while his father, former Scotland international Bobby Clark, coached Highlanders F.C. in Bulawayo. But what he found upon returning in 1992 left him mystified and heartbroken. Seven of his dad's finest players—seemingly invincible footballers whom Tommy had idolized—were dead or dying. Worst of all, no one dared say why. "I was there for a year," says Clark, who also taught school and coached, "and I didn't have a single conversation about HIV."

Clark hit upon the idea of using soccer to break down this wall of silence and educate Africans about HIV. He embarked on a medical career, with a residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in HIV research in the U.S. In 2002, Clark launched Grassroot Soccer with three ex-Highlanders, including Ethan Zohn, the Survivor: Africa champion who donated a chunk of his $1 million prize money to the cause. Today the organization operates in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe and shares curriculum and resources with partners in nine other African countries. Studies confirm that graduates of the program wait longer to engage in sex; have fewer partners; and are more willing to talk about HIV with peers and relatives, take an HIV test and stay on treatment if they test positive. Those proven results have attracted such patrons as Elton John, whose AIDS foundation contributed $1.4 million last year to fund the program in Zambia. There's no way to tie the 50% drop in the HIV infection rate among South African teens from 2005 to '08 directly to Grassroot Soccer, but foundations are showing their confidence in the program with more grant money. This week the Clinton Global Initiative announced a $1 million commitment to a Grassroot program for South African girls.

Among the organization's most effective tools are the voluntary counseling and testing tournaments that it uses to reach the men who drive the disease. Clark invited me to a tournament in Motherwell, a township in the South African city of Port Elizabeth. For years locals had hidden behind euphemisms, saying of an HIV-positive woman, "She has a House in Veeplaas," a play on the name of a local neighborhood. But there had been a breakthrough a week before my visit, when South African president Jacob Zuma—a father of 22 children by multiple wives—announced the results of his own HIV test. (They were negative.)

The grounds outside a school teemed with players who ducked into a makeshift clinic between games, and Grassroot personnel touted a posttournament dance contest to flush more prospects out of a nearby supermarket. By the end of the day 289 more people knew their HIV status. "Five years ago, if you'd bring up HIV, everyone would shut down," one of the tournament workers, 27-year-old Mkadi Nkopane, told me. "Now a 10-year-old will tell you of an uncle or mother who's positive. The stigma will always be there, but it's much less now."

As the game that launches countless conversations in Africa, soccer is a natural idiom to cut through the taboos surrounding one of the continent's most pressing problems. In one popular drill, each soccer ball stands for a sexual partner. A player dribbling two balls is easily chased down by a defender who represents the AIDS virus; a player dribbling only one ball eludes that defender much longer, and a memorable point is made. Grassroot Soccer distributed thousands of "red cards" during the 2010 World Cup to help teenage girls, who can be up to eight times more likely to become infected than their male counterparts, use sass and humor to fend off unwanted sexual approaches. "The culture soccer creates around this topic is our 'secret sauce,' " says Grassroot Soccer COO Bill Miles. "By focusing on intergenerational sex and multiple partners, you try to shift social norms. And if you shift social norms, you change the epidemic."

Clark and his fellow ex-Highlanders work in part to honor the dead of Bulawayo—men such as the former star of the Zimbabwean national team who was refused service by bank tellers because of the stigma of AIDS, and the ex-player who trained as one of Grassroot Soccer's first coaches only to die before he could work with kids. "We're trying to be both bold and humble," says Clark, 40, whose program is nearly halfway toward its goal of a million youth participants by '14. "We ask for millions of dollars, and we're trying to change behavior and norms on a huge scale. But we also know we're not always going to have the answer, and that there may be a better answer tomorrow."


When it ventures to global trouble spots, basketball can flash a kind of diplomatic passport. In South Africa, hoops comes without the racial baggage of soccer (a largely black sport) or rugby (mostly white). In divided Cyprus it's loved equally by citizens of Turkish and Greek descent. In Northern Ireland it's regarded as neither a Gaelic game by Protestants nor a game of the British garrison by Catholics. All of which helps explain the success of Peace Players International (PPI), which has spent the past decade using basketball to build bridges among young people in divided communities.

In the Middle East such efforts face a challenge of another magnitude. Upon launching there in 2005, PPI easily found Israeli Arabs to mix with Jewish kids in its programs. But Palestinian parents in the Israeli-controlled West Bank balked at letting their boys and girls travel to Israel for integrated play. Meanwhile, poor coaching and inadequate facilities in the West Bank led kids there to fear that their lack of hoops competency would only bolster Israeli stereotypes of worthless Palestinians.

On a brilliant spring day in 2010, Brendan Tuohey flashes me a smile as he oversees a PPI youth tournament in a Tel Aviv park. "Five years ago we decided to build up the skills of Palestinian kids," says Tuohey, a former player at Colgate whose brother Sean had the idea for the organization. "It's a big breakthrough that players from [the Palestinian city of] Ramallah chose to get on the bus to come here today."

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