Dr Dan Parnell




Sport for peace in a post – conflict Colombia

This is an article by my colleague Dr Alexander Cárdenas who wrote on Sport for Peace in a post-conflict Colombia. We are currently visiting INDER Medellín exploring their sport based initiatives.

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If properly managed and articulated, sport could make a modest, yet tangible contribution to Colombia’s post-conflict era. 

Colombia has experienced the longest-running internal conflict in the Western hemisphere. Extending for fifty years, the confrontation between government forces, guerillas and paramilitaries has caused a profound fragmentation of society and a devastating loss of human life. In 2012 a series of exploratory talks between the government of president Santos and the FARC guerilla began in Cuba with the aim to find a political solution to the armed conflict. With Norway and Cuba as guarantors, and a number of governments supporting the talks, this has been the first serious attempt in a decade to bring the two major actors of the conflict to the negotiating table.

Key Facts at August 2015 

  • The National Center for Historical Memory indicates that between 1958 and 2010, 220,000 people have been killed in the Colombian conflict (with 81 percent being civilian casualties).
  • 5,7 million have been displaced.
  • 900,000 have been assassinated.
  • 147,000 have been victims of forced disappearance.
  • Because of the internal conflict and rural violence, Colombia is home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world.
  • A surveyed conducted during the 2014 Brazil World Cup and featured on the New York Times online edition set out to explore the perception of football fans in nineteen countries. In relation to Colombia, the study found that 94 percent of Colombians were interested in football, the highest percentage of all countries surveyed.
  • 94% percent of Colombians believe football is important or very important for the nation.
  • During 1949 and 1954, a period known as El Dorado, Colombia’s football league was the strongest and best-paid in the world.
  • Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is home to the largest bicycle network (ciclovía) in the world.
  • Colombia has a strong sport-for-development tradition which began more than two decades ago.

Columbia- national football stadium in Bogota

Peace-building and sport in Colombia

Efforts at fostering peace are not restricted to finding a political solution to the hostilities but a peace movement largely associated with civil society seeks the mobilisation of all sectors of Colombian society to act in favour of peace through a variety of efforts and initiatives.

Increasingly, cultural and artistic expressions and notably sport, have been acknowledged by political leaders, international organisations and civil society as powerful allies to advancing peace-building in this nation.

Interest in exploring the role of sport as a tool for peace within the particular conflict context of Colombia is gaining momentum. Evidence of this is provided by the increase in the number of sport-based programmes and interventions that use sport as a tool to promote peace in communities affected by violence and conflict, as well as by an upsurge in newspaper and magazine reports, TV and radio shows, seminars and forums informing the public on the sport for development and peace (SDP) phenomenon and showcasing the progress made by organisations operating in this field.

There are a variety of ways in which sport has made a contribution to building peace in this nation afflicted by five decades of violence and war. Sport-based initiatives promoted by NGOs (e.g. Colombianitos, Tiempo de Juego, Fútbol Con Corazón, Goles por la Paz), governmental programs (e.g. Golombiao, Gestores del Deporte) and the international community (notably UNDP, UNICEF, German International Cooperation Agency, Inter-American Development Bank, Peace and Sport) have all positively impacted the lives of thousands of children and youth across Colombia, while at the same time, raising awareness of the potential of sport as a vehicle to foster the values that are generally associated with peace such as non-violence, open dialogue, understanding and respect.

The enthusiasm and expectation that sport generates as a social cohesion tool must be coupled with a pragmatic understanding of the advantages and limitations of sport as a promoter of positive change within Colombia’s conflict dynamics, and even more so – since a peace deal can be reached as early as this year – within a potential post-conflict scenario.

Post-conflict and sport

There are critical issues that need to be addressed in order to take advantage of the opportunities that sport may offer in building a post-conflict nation.

Since sport is not a holistic peace-building and development tool, it is advised that SDP interventions and programmes should be embedded and operate within greater regional and national peace and development objectives and in conjunction with non-sport-based programmes.

The momentum that sport generates in Colombia as a peace tool needs to be sustained with substantive political reform. This may entail not only developing specific public policy on sport within the post-conflict context, but in addition, current programmes and interventions must be redesigned to meet the challenges that the post-conflict phase may pose.

Of particular interest is examining how sport can assist in reintegrating combatants back to civilian life and in providing psychosocial recovery and creating economic opportunities for victims of war.

A recent study conducted by the author found that SDP officials – including trainers and coaches – perceived themselves as peacemakers or peace facilitators.

Given this, officials and trainers operating with NGOs may enhance their peace-making skills by receiving formal instruction from academic institutions and practitioners whose work gravitate around areas such as peace-building and conflict resolution.

Collaboration between academic institutions (in training personnel and assisting foundations in designing, implementing and evaluating SDP programs) and NGOs operating in this field is yet to happen and is strongly recommended. Moreover, academic institutions can critically reflect on the possibilities and limitations offered by sport as a peace tool with the aim of improving sport-based interventions.

Finally, as the international community turns its eyes and resources on Colombia and its post-conflict era, material resources and technical assistance can be leveraged in order  to support post-conflict SDP initiatives via international cooperation schemes.


Sport will not put an end to Colombia’s five-decade war but it can make a modest and tangible contribution to building (and ideally, sustaining) peace in this nation.

A thorough analysis of the advantages and limitations of sport as a viable peace tool is necessary. It is also paramount to successfully mobilize the diverse stakeholders involved in the SDP sector and develop clear policy on the social role of sport with a focus on Colombia’s post-conflict phase.

Link to the original article is here.


INDER Medellín: The Life Units: changing life

The INDER Medellín Life Units change things drastically. As part of broader public policy initiatives, the Life Units sit in the heart of the community.


From the mountain:


INDER Medellín: connecting communities through sport

Views from the regenerated area of the Jardin. Making mountain communities and territories accessible and connected through sport and leisure.

INDER Medellín: bringing sport health and more to disadvantaged communities

Spent a couple of days exploring these state of the art Life Units, bringing sport, art, leisure, health and education to the heart of disadvantaged communities. 12231103_740227899442261_1401152657_n


How investment in sport has helped Medellín shake off its violent past

m5h6zv3t-1410958653The Colombian city of Medellín doesn’t have the best reputation. Crime, violence, drug cartels and murder are all characteristics that spring to mind. Perhaps most famous for its two Escobars, Pablo the drug cartel king pin and Andrés, the Colombian World Cup 1994 player who was tragically murdered. Few would know the story of the city’s regeneration, and fewer the role sport has played in this.

Colombia shined on the world sporting stage this year, with their team’s success at the World Cup. And sport has been used to great effect in transforming the city of Medellín from the ground up. As well as helping foster elite talent, the investment in sports facilities have empowered local community leaders and helped strengthen communities.

But reputations are sometimes hard to shift. I had cautious feelings when I first prepared for a trip there, as part of a “Country-to-Country” universities exchange program. My impression of the country was not too dissimilar to those mentioned above. It didn’t help that my travel insurance detailed a high risk of terrorism, kidnap, extortion and theft.

And facts like Medellín once being home to the most notorious drugs cartel, with 6,349 killings in 1991 alone (this was a rate of 380 per 100,000 people), didn’t exactly ease my mind, either.

Urban turnaround

But these these outdated impressions were changed once I arrived in the country. Indeed since 1991, the city has won international awards for innovation and the murder rate reduced by 80%. It has even been highlighted as one of the first 33 cities of the Rockefeller Foundations’s 100 Resilient Cities.

View from Medellín’s cable car: the crowded and deprived hillside communities with an outreach facility located at its heart. Dan Parnell

Many factors have been involved in the city’s incredible turnaround: developing urban infrastructure has been key, including the building of a metro system, cable car and community-based escalators up the city’s steep hills. Public spaces too, such as libraries and parks, the innovation centre (including the presence of MIT), and the presence of schools and police stations across deprived and hillside communities.

And, within the fabric of the community, sport is playing its part on a day-to-day basis through community outreach facilities. Some 18 sport complexes, which make high-quality sport and physical activities accessible to deprived and hard-to-reach communities that previously had little other option than entering into gang culture.

INDER swimming facility. Dan Parnell

The municipality of Medellín has received considerable public funding for sport and leisure activities. The majority has been delivered by INDER, a publically funded organisation established in 1993, which has seriously invested in sport facilities.

The facilities are accessible and open throughout the day to coincide with the two education options available (morning or afternoon class). Children and young people can participate for free, provided an adult accompanies them.

Tennis facilities at an INDER complex. Dan Parnell

But these are not your typical leisure facilities. They have a dual purpose: as social projects that allow all ages and abilities to participate in sport and for talent development and performance at an elite level. The social projects have a focus on co-existence, which aims to develop respect, tolerance, responsibility, discipline and equality between different groups. Doing this through sport is a natural process and has been celebrated for helping facilitate greater peace across the city’s communities.

Salute to sporting idols

The naming of facilities has specifically been done to tie in nicely with Medellín people, or Paisas, as they are known locally. Paisas have a strong connection to the local area, people and the city. This passion often develops a mentality that “if they can do it, I can do it”. For example, football hero Andrés Escobar who has a centre named after him and there is a BMX facility that is tied to Mariana Pajón Londoño, an Olympic Gold medallist and BMX World Champion who is from Medellín and helping inspire a new generation.

The next generation of Medellín bikers in training.

So people see the success of their fellow Paisas and believe they too can succeed. Whether or not they do, this plays an important role in spurring people’s sense of self-belief and accomplishment.

Gymnastic arena for competition and community use. Dan Parnell

A focus on investment that is “in the community for the community” engages children and young people from across the municipality. Importantly, as Medellín is a city surrounded by mountains, working with the notably deprived hillside communities where gang culture once thrived. Instead, residents there are given free access to high quality sports facilities. The only cost incurred is a small fee for ten-pin bowling, the equivalent of about 20p to pay for disposable footwear.

So, as UNESCO wrap-up a meeting of experts to revise the 1978 International Charter of Physical Education and Sport in Medellín, I will, in the spirit of the Paisas, ask you not to forget the past reputation of the city.

But, while remembering the past, let’s also celebrate the story of change in Medellín. It is a story that can provide hope for many other cities struggling with crime and social inequality.

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