Press Releases

    12 February 2002


    NEW YORK, 11 February (UN Headquarters) -- Following are the opening remarks by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Olympic Aid Forum in Salt Lake City, on 9 February:

    Nane and I are thrilled to be here. What could be better than attending one’s first Olympics? I guess it must be attending one’s first Olympics and winning one’s first Olympic medal. But for those of us who are not in that league, the next best thing is having the privilege of meeting sports stars who are putting their talent in the service of children in need.

    Personally, I can neither figure-skate, nor ski moguls, nor drive a luge, so in that sense my credentials in this gathering are rather modest. But I am someone who benefited in my youth -- and still does benefit -- from the wonderfully formative experience of sport; and who believes in every child’s right to that experience -- the right to play. That is why I am so happy to be with all of you today.

    Olympic Aid is an initiative in the true spirit of the Olympic Movement: it is athlete-driven; it is voluntary; and it is clear in its goals -- in this case, to increase the use of sport as a tool for development, health and peace. It is also in the true spirit of the United Nations: if there is one guiding motto that our Organization must work under in the twenty-first century, it is to put people at the centre of everything we do.

    Over the past few years, there has been a growing understanding of the role sports can play in changing peoples’ lives for the better –- and those of young people, in particular. We have seen examples of how sport can build self-esteem, leadership skills, community spirit, and bridges across ethnic or communal divides. We have seen how it can channel energies away from aggression or self-destruction, and into learning and self-motivation.

    The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has done some pioneering work in this field. Working together with the United Nations and several of its specialized agencies -- such as the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization -- the IOC has demonstrated that sport can play a role in improving the lives of not only individuals, but whole communities.

    I am convinced that the time is right to build on that understanding: to encourage governments, development agencies and communities to think how sport can be included more systematically in plans to help children -- particularly those who live in the midst of poverty, disease or conflict.

    That is why, last year. I appointed Adolf Ogi -- the former President of Switzerland and a fine sportsman in his own right -- as my Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace.

    And that is why the work of Olympic Aid is so important. It is led by some of those who have made it to that most exclusive athletic club -- the Olympians. These champions have chosen to use their position to help children who have never seen a ski slope or a basketball court. Some of them have never even seen a basketball.

    The topics you will explore today remind us that the right to play belongs to everyone. And that, by the same token, development, health and peace are not "spectator sports". They require commitment and engagement by individuals, communities, as well as governments.

    I join Olympic Aid in encouraging you and others to examine the role of sport in social mobilization for immunization and against disease; in combating drug abuse and tobacco use; in preventing HIV/AIDS and removing the stigma surrounding those living with the virus.

    I hope you will urge policy-makers to consider the relatively simple and inexpensive tonic of sport as a means to alleviate the trauma and suffering of refugees, and others suffering from armed conflict; how it can contribute to peace-building, reconciliation and healing in post-conflict societies.

    And I hope you will look at new ways to integrate sport in efforts to promote a sense of community; to encourage respect for the environment; to support formal and informal education and help individuals find their place in society -- especially young women and girls. On that point, it is heartening indeed to know that so many of your volunteers in the field are young women.

    The objectives you are working towards reflect the major preoccupations of people everywhere. They made up the agenda of the Millennium Summit -- the biggest gathering of world leaders the world has seen, held at the United Nations in September 200.

    They formed the basis of the Millennium Declaration adopted on that occasion -- a landmark document for the twenty-first century which gives us a blueprint for action to achieve freedom from fear, freedom from want, and protection of our resources.

    They are included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child -- the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, which specifically spells out the right of every child to play.

    And they are topics that will be addressed when the United Nations General Assembly holds a special session on children in May. The session will agree on a plan of action that must spur the international community to take the steps needed to realize the rights of every child. It will bring together leaders from government and non-governmental organizations, as well as children and adolescents, in a model of wide participation and partnership. I do hope your voices will be heard there.

    In short, my friends, the Olympic Movement and the United Nations share the same fundamental goals: to ensure that every child should have the best possible start in life; that every child should receive a good-quality basic education; and that every child should have the opportunities to develop his or her full potential and contribute to his or her society in meaningful ways.

    I know Olympic Aid is already doing some wonderful work on the ground to help meet those goals. I was struck by a comment from Bet, a young woman working as one of Olympic Aid’s volunteer coaches in Angola -- a country whose children have seen more war, displacement, poverty and disease than any of us will in a lifetime.

    Bet coached young people in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons. Already after the first day of play in the Viana refugee camp, Bet wrote in her field notes: "I noticed a new air of confidence about them today as they walked around the camp. They are beginning to feel special -- and like they are a part of something special." I would suggest that once you have achieved that, you have already won half the battle.

    The challenge before us now is to make every child feel part of something special. To encourage policy planners to think creatively about how they can use sport as a tool in their policies. To build partnerships among governments, civil society and the private sector to ensure the widest and most effective use possible of that tool.

    For your part in that endeavour, I extend my sincere gratitude. And I am grateful that you have given this Olympic rookie such a moving and memorable experience to take back from his first Games. Thank you very much -- and let the children play.

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