Op-Ed: Using Barents Sports to build tolerance and international cooperation

Cheerleaders performing at the opening ceremony of the Barents Summer Games 2015 in Oulu, Northern Ostrobothnia, Finland. (Illustration photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Even though Barents Sports is a joint sports project and international cooperation, a central object of Barents Sports is to contribute towards breaking down political, cultural and social barriers between the four countries involved in the Barents Region, Research Fellow Anna Tjønndal at Nord university writes in this opinion editorial.

The Barents Region has a population of more than 6 million people and consists of the northern areas of Finland, Sweden and Norway and North-Western Russia. A harsh climate, sparsely populated areas and long distances characterize this arctic region. Despite these challenges, the inhabitants of the various regions in the Barents area have a strong tradition of maintaining contact with each other through trade and cultural contact. In spite of differences in language, social and economic conditions, the northern areas of these four countries face many common challenges, such as being situated far away from capital cities and large markets, and relying on a regional business sector that is mainly based on raw materials.

The Barents cooperation in sports dates back to the 1950s when an agreement on sports cooperation was made between sports organizations in the northern parts of Finland, Norway and Sweden. In 1993, Russia was also included as a part of this cooperation. The main objective of Barents Sports today is to be a driving force for youth sports across national borders in the Barents Region.  The cooperation involves as many as 10 000 youths in the age group 15-25 every year. Even though Barents Sports is a joint sports project and international cooperation, a central object of Barents Sports is to contribute towards breaking down political, cultural and social barriers between the four countries involved in the Barents Region.  In terms of sport, the overall aim of The Barents Cooperation is to improve the quality of sport in the region overall, including athletes, coaches, referees and leaders. This involves international exchange of athletes, coaches and leaders to share competence and skills, and increase inclusion and tolerance in sport. Another important part of the ideology behind the Barents Cooperation is to encourage physical activity and an active lifestyle in the region.

Through the Barents Games, divided between the Barents Summer Games and the Barents Winter Games, about thirty different sports are represented in the Barents cooperation. In April earlier this year, the Barents Winter Games were held in Murmansk, Russia. In this mega sports event ten different sports were represented. Next year, the Barents Summer Games will be held in Bodø, Norway, for the first time. The 2017 Barents Summer Games will be held on the 1-3 of September and will fill the city of Bodø with sports activities for Barents youths and young adults. During this sports event, athletes, leaders, coaches and referees from Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland will gather, compete and socialize together. Thirteen different sports will be represented during the Barents Summer Games in Bodø 2017, some of these are boxing, cycling, golf and football. Aside from being an international mega sport event, the Barents Games are unique in their focus on cultural exchange and social relations among youths in the Barents Region.

The sports movement is a central agent in civil society in Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. In Norway, The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports (NIF) is the largest voluntary organization in the country, consisting of over 2 million registered members. Sport is often said to be an arena for inclusion and integration in social life and society. To participate in sport, whether it be football, running, archery or boxing, is framed by international rules and regulations. While language, religion and culture varies from country to country, sports remain the same everywhere. Therefore, sports are a context where one can communicate and interact without a mutual spoken language. This can be a clear advantage when the goal is to create cooperation and build social relations with people of different nationalities, and with different language and background. Barents Sports is built on these principals as the cooperation between sports organizations in the northern parts of Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden is meant to contribute to stronger international cooperation and cultural exchange between youth and young adults in the Barents Region.

Utilizing sport to promote social as is the case with Barents Sports and the Barents Games, is nothing new. Sport is related to social issues and challenges in society outside of the sports fields and stadiums. Commonly, sport is connected to issues of health, urban regeneration, social inclusion, community development and nation building. The potential sport holds to be a driver for social change in society is highlighted as part of the reason why sports organization receives governmental funding. Still, the increasing focus on the role of sports in society in the Barents Region is relatively new, and the sport activities of the Barents Cooperation has had an upsurge in recent years. The Barents Summer Games was held in Luleå, Sweden, in 2013 for the very first time and then again in Oulu, Finland, in 2015. In 2014 Tromsø hosted the Barents Winter Games, but next year the Barents Summer Games will come to Norway for the first time.  Organizing the Barents Summer Games is a challenging task that the local sport organizations in Bodø and Nordland County should take seriously. Together they now have eleven months to prepare for a mega sports event that actually contributes to cultural exchange, international cooperation and stronger social relations. It is easy to host a sports event. It is harder to fulfill the visions of Barents Sports: to break down political, cultural and social barriers among the four countries in the Barents Region.