Swiss handball brings nations together
Young handball players from the Middle East and Asia have been taking part in a "peace camp" in Switzerland as part of the 2005 United Nations Year of Sport.
Organisers hope that by grouping players - for example from Israel and the Palestinian territories, and China and Taiwan - in regional teams they can help break down the barriers between traditional foes.
The 21 players, aged 17 to 22, were invited by the Swiss Handball Network to take part in the project entitled "Play Handball for Development and Peace".
"People from different regions, including war zones, should experience the goals that are achievable in sport when working together," said event organiser Max Schär, a former international and president of the Network.
"We wanted to show that beside these conflicts, athletes can work together," Schär told swissinfo.
In addition to training sessions for the two teams ("Middle East" and "Asia"), friendlies against Swiss handballers of the same age are also taking place.
School of life
The idea for this unique project was born at the Swiss Handball Network’s annual meeting last year, when the question arose of how to contribute to the United Nations Year of Sport.
Various sports organisations and the Swiss sports lottery all pledged funds towards the SFr150,000 ($120,000)-budget.
But not everything ran smoothly: three of the Palestinian players were refused permission to travel by Israel, so only two made it to the official launch on Tuesday in Magglingen in canton Bern.
At the launch, Adolf Ogi, former Swiss cabinet minister and special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace, gave a welcome speech to the handball players.
"Handball is the best school of life," he said. "You learn to respect your opponent. You learn to accept the rules. You learn to accept the referee’s position. You learn to accept solidarity, discipline, fair play and integration."
The fact that not everyone can speak the same language doesn’t appear to have affected the players’ enjoyment or the project’s success.
"I tried to talk to the Palestinians but they don’t understand English very well," said Lior Barak from Tel Aviv.
"But handball is an international language and we try to talk through handball. As long as we play together it will make us better friends."
Chiu Tsz Wang on the Chinese team was equally positive. "I think players from different countries can exchange information and share their experiences – we will talk to each other and thereby the peace of the world will be obtained."
The peace camp runs until Saturday, when there will be a grand final between the two sides.
A better future
Last December Ogi officially launched the UN International Year of Sport and Physical Education at a ceremony in New York attended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Swiss tennis star Roger Federer.
Ogi believes the 2005 United Nations Year of Sport can help improve the lives of millions of people in the developing world.
"When we introduced sport in the African refugee camps, I saw what happened to the young people, to the boys and girls," he told swissinfo.
"When you introduce sport it gives them another value, an added value, and hope for a better future."
Ogi hopes the example of the handball camp can be followed on an international level, for instance at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
"Take, for example, the exchange cricket matches between Pakistan and India, which brought together the president of Pakistan and the Indian prime minister."
"That give birth to the term 'cricket diplomacy’. Sport is showing the politicians how you can bring different cultures together to find a solution to their problems."
The 2005 UN International Year of Sport and Physical Education is the brainchild of former Swiss cabinet minister Adolf Ogi.
Ogi was nominated special adviser to the UN Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace in 2001.
Thousands of events are due to be held across Switzerland and around the world to mark the Year of Sport.
Twenty-one handball players from Israel, the Palestinian territories, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have been taking part in a week-long "peace camp".
The camp, in canton Bern, was organised by the Swiss Handball Network.
Friendly matches have been taking place in Thun, Basel, Baden and Zurich.
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