It was one of those insights children share, almost unsolicited, that offer insight into the importance of seemingly small things.
Three-time Olympian Tracy Evans was on a two-week service trip to Malawi when she heard a young man named Thomas tell her something that would change her life. The group she was working with wasn’t there for athletics. But they did bring some sports equipment, and in their spare time, they played games — some the kids were familiar with, like soccer, while others were new to them, like softball and volleyball.
She noticed many things about that first trip to Africa. She noticed that women were regularly prevented from accessing education, which made it more difficult for them to access every other aspect of society. As a woman who understood the profoundly positive impact of athletics on a woman’s life, Evans was deeply troubled by what she saw as a “pervasive and toxic gender imbalance.”
That’s when she noticed the difference between the games the people knew and the games they were being introduced to. When the group played a game they knew, women often didn’t participate or were very passive.
When the group introduced a new sport to the children, girls took leadership roles, jumping in with enthusiasm and joy. Evans, a former aerial skier who lives in Park City, noticed, but it wasn’t until Thomas said something about it that she saw a way she could help change not just women’s lives, but their perceived roles in society.
“I see now that girls can play,” he said after participating in softball and volleyball for the first time.
A couple of years later, Evans started her own nonprofit — Kid's Play International — with the mission to promote gender equity in communities impacted by genocide through athletics and Olympic principles.
Instead of being an after thought for her organization, they would be the focal point. The games, and the lessons enmeshed in them, would be the agent of change, the revelatory activities, and the vehicle for social dialogue.
KPI, as it is now known, works with one small community long-term. It utilizes coaches in the U.S. to train coaches in Rwanda and Cambodia on how to use sports to “shift deeply rooted” societal views.
Recreational sports are such a fundamental part of American life, we take for granted that the rest of the world doesn’t grow up playing games. For most of us, childhood is a buffet of sampling the dozens of sports this country offers.
Not only do many families seek to offer a wide variety of athletic experiences to children, but schools, churches and community organizations often offer many opportunities to be exposed to or excel in athletics.
Even pick-up games in parks or neighborhoods allow young people to see and feel the benefit of commitment to practice or training, regular physical exercise, and teamwork. You don’t even have to be talented to have an enjoyable athletic experience in America.
That is not the case elsewhere in the world.
As I’ve talked with Evans over the past few years about KPI and what she hopes to accomplish with her efforts, I’ve felt both gratitude for the opportunities my life provided and hope that children who’ve suffered in ways no one should could feel a little of that unabashed, naïve joy that comes from playing those games.
As I studied the countries that Evans targeted with KPI’s efforts — Rwanda and Cambodia — I began to have a different thought. If these countries are trying to rebuild after devastating civil war and genocide, why does sports even matter? Why would one worry about recreational athletic opportunities, when there are so many other issues and problems to solve — from the ability of women to access education to the prevalence of sexual assault? Isn’t it more important to find ways to deal with domestic violence or economic opportunities than creating softball or lacrosse teams?
But that’s the beauty of our games. They’re never just about a scoreboard or a trophy. Just as we all learned lessons about ourselves when we ran basketball drills or wind sprints that made us more assertive, more tenacious in the classroom or the boardroom, these children can find the same tools for transformation. Evans collaborates with local community leaders to teach the power of athletics in transforming individual lives and community values.
Just as children who participate in sports in the U.S. have higher self-esteem, are more likely to graduate from high school and learn valuable life lessons that help them succeed in all areas of life, these same opportunities are now being offered to children in communities that have known atrocities that most American cities will never suffer.
I know how much athletics can enhance a life — even the life of a below-average athlete like me. I’ve watched the way games have shifted societal views, allowed us conversations that would have been more difficult and helped us make shifts that changed opportunities available to some of us.
This week, my 18-year-old daughter and I will travel with KPI to Rwanda to participate in the program. We will celebrate Olympic Day playing games with children who do not know the abundant opportunities that my daughter and I have experienced.
Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the country was left in chaos and the population was 70 percent female. The absence of men created opportunities for women, but that did not change societal views, Evans said. But while women make up 64 percent of Parliament, they still struggle for equality in their home lives. Girls are still pulled from school to help in running the home, with a recent study showing that less than 5 percent of rural girls ever finish secondary school.
So can access to recreational sports programs change how a society views women? I think we’ve proven that in my lifetime. My mother didn’t have a fraction of the opportunities I had — on or off the field of play. My view of possibility was much more expansive than my mother’s, and my daughter’s is even more interesting and creative than mine.
That may not be solely because of athletic opportunities, but there is no doubt our athletic accomplishments have shifted and challenged previously incorrect assumptions about women. Take for instance those women who ran marathons before it was allowed.
Some of the beliefs about why women couldn’t or shouldn’t run 26.2 miles now sound ridiculous, including that they would become infertile or wouldn’t survive, but understand that somewhere there are still misconceptions and incorrect assumptions being used to keep women from doing what their male counterparts do without objection or obstruction.
For nine years, Evans and KPI have worked to implement social change through community sports. Over the next week, I hope to see and experience the ways in which the games have impacted not just the stereotypes or ideas of these communities, but also the lives of those who’ve participated.
And while I think games can be agents of change, of social dialogue and of progress, I think they’re also just evidence that we’ve gotten to a place in our existence when joy is easily accessed. And after suffering and surviving the heartbreaking, soul-shattering losses that come with war, seeking joy seems like the most life-affirming endeavor in which we can engage.