Former Ireland Cricket coach Adi Birrell has said that he thinks that sport can be utilised to make fundamental beneficial changes to society.
South African Birrell was speaking the International Conference on Sport and Good Relations as part of the University of Ulster ‘Sport Comes 2 Town’ festival in Portadown.
Birrell, who coached the Ireland cricket team to unprecedented success at the 2007 Cricket World Cup, said that he had seen first hand growing up and working in his home country the power that sport has to change lives.
He said: “A lot of change can happen through sport. It can bring integration between communities and it is something of which there are a lot of similarities in Ireland in that way.
“I certainly hope that this FIFA World Cup going on at the minute will leave a legacy that can bridge the gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have nots’ in South Africa. Unfortunately that is the situation that apartheid has left us and something that needs addressed.”
Birrell spent nine years working in cricket development in the impoverished townships of South Africa, at a time when it would have been uncommon to find a white man working with the black populations in these areas.
“In South Africa, the sporting bodies started talking before the politicians,” said Birrell.
“Sport is a real catalyst for change and the way it started off was that there were black teams playing against white teams and then these teams started to mix and as society became more integrated so did the sporting teams and barriers were broken down.
“I am proud of what has happened in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s leadership in being able to show forgiveness for the past helped enormously in what has gone on in our country.”
Birrell was joined at the International Conference on Sport and Good Relations by Director of Coaching and Development at Ulster GAA Dr Eugene Young, who showed the ways that the GAA as been developing ways of social inclusion to make the organisation accessible to all.
David White from training and coaching enterprise consultancy Concept Eleven examined how sport can be used to build bridges between communities. And former Ulster and Ireland rugby player Trevor Ringland from Peace Players International in Northern Ireland joined the discussions on the impact of sport on society.
The Peace III Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body and delivered by the Southern Peace III Partnership, is supporting the conference.
Further info on the University of Ulster 'Sport Comes 2 Town' can be found at http://sportcomes2town.com