The interplay of sport and sustainability is being put under the microscope at the University of British Columbia, where a new, one-of-a-kind research centre is analyzing the opportunities and effects created by sport and mega sporting events.
The UBC Centre for Sports and Sustainability tackles questions about the environmental impacts of Olympic Games, society’s perception of Paralympic athletes and how to give youth opportunities to learn through sport, among other topics.
“There’s a growing need to better understand how sport transforms people, communities and cultures to deliver lasting economic, social and health benefits,” says UBC President Stephen Toope.
“As a UBC legacy project from the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the centre will fill an important niche as an international hub for knowledge on this very specialized area of research.”
The centre already exists — virtually. Through a joint project between UBC and the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), the university is formalizing an existing network of researchers who are engaged in sport and sustainability research and instruction.
Researchers are considering how a large-scale sport event or infrastructure project can spur innovation in urban design, and what factors influence national pride, social cohesion and the inclusion in sport of groups such as new immigrants, indigenous populations and the economically disadvantaged.
“This is about more than sport itself,” says Robert Sparks, director of the UBC School of Human Kinetics. “This is sport as it links to economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and social development in communities.”
“How do you ‘green’ sports facilities and how do you use sport programs to foster community development and healthy lifestyles?”
Part of the centre’s mandate will be to ensure this new knowledge is made available to local, national and international event organizers and host cities so they might optimize their planning and provide an enduring legacy. Already underway is the Paralympic Games Impact Survey, which looks at how the Paralympic Games impact the social perceptions of persons with a disability. A post-Paralympic Games survey will study changes in these perceptions.
”The overall idea is to look at how society might change its views of people with disabilities upon watching the quality performances of Paralympic athletes,” says Rob VanWynsberghe, lecturer in Human Kinetics and Educational Studies and UBC lead for the project.
Researchers are also looking around the country to find programs that teach others how to coach athletes with a disability, Vanwynsberghe says. “We suspect that many Paralympic coaches are experts in a sport for athletes without disabilities. They’ll draw on these skills to teach Paralympic athletes, but the cross-over isn’t easy; sledge hockey and hockey, for example, are two very different things,” he says.
“We want to make sure there are enough programs in place to train coaches and athletes for the Paralympics, and from a research perspective, consider the social perceptions that follow.” This is baseline work for the Olympic Games Impact study, which is also being conducted at UBC and led by VanWynsberghe. The massive study was developed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to introduce a standardized cross-Games method of monitoring, measuring and reporting on the economic, social and environmental impact of hosting the Olympic Games.
UBC and VANOC will also present a three-part think-tank series to analyze lessons learned from the 2010 Games, new precedents for large scale sport event sustainability, and the use of sustainability indicators in planning future Olympic bids.
“We want to capitalize on our research with the Olympics and Paralympics to become a knowledge hub capable of helping groups down the road who want to take on similar projects,” Sparks says.
Another project under the centre’s umbrella — the nascent Coaching Sustainability Initiative —has a local connection in Vancouver. By creating community service learning placements in the Downtown Eastside, this UBC legacy project supports leadership development and physical activity among secondary school students in Vancouver.
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