DOWNING: For gold, for country and for Yale

As our next University president makes plans to advance Yale’s mission of educating global leaders, he or she should consider the Olympics and the role of athletics in both character building and international exchange. The list of President Levin’s achievements in expanding Yale’s engagement with the world is long and impressive, and he has improved academics and the arts in ways that will generate leaders in these fields. However, he did not take full advantage of the opportunity for global learning and leadership through sports.

Sports interest, inspire and draw participation from people across different cultures in a way that is unmatched by any other public arena — more than politics, more than finance. The best and most recent example was the London Games, which enraptured the entire world for three weeks last month. At the Games, religion was irrelevant, wealth had little influence and language barriers between participants were of no concern.

Over 200 different countries sent representatives to compete peacefully. Worldwide, billions tuned in to see athletics at their finest, and not just their own country’s athletes. Usain Bolt’s record-setting 100-meter sprint attracted an estimated 2 billion viewers.

This media attention turns Olympians into public icons and, sometimes, like in the case of Usain Bolt, elevates them to the status of diplomats. They represent their countries through their words and actions. They are role models for countless young fans. They are leaders.

Yale sent six athletes to the Olympics this summer, adding to the list of 169 athletes and 108 Olympic medals in Yale’s history. Athletics have provided opportunity for Yale to cultivate international leaders similar to the leaders cultivated in the sciences, politics, journalism and more.

You don’t even have to be a professional to practice leadership through sports. Even recreational athletes or non-athletes, within and outside of Yale, celebrate the ways sports build character — dedication, responsibility, cooperation.

In addition to leadership, sports contribute to global citizenship at any level. Consider Grassroots Soccer, which teaches AIDS awareness through a soccer program in South Africa, or GirlSportWorks, a group that empowers girls through after-school sports in Peru, or even just a pickup game of cricket to shed outsider status while traveling in India.

A Yale education is increasingly a global education, aiming to teach students how to navigate foreign affairs and foreign cultures. The founding of the Jackson Institute and the launch of the Global Affairs major in 2010 and the first class of Yale-NUS students expected in 2013 are testaments to this.

As the Olympics demonstrate, sports offer a host of opportunities for international engagement. Imagine student-athletes from New Haven and student-athletes from Singapore competing in soccer. The game would foster mutual respect regardless of differing political philosophy — a matter that has been scrutinized in the universities’ partnership. Sports are a common denominator for all countries.

Recognizing the potential for global citizenship and leadership through sports can also be a way to better integrate student athletes into the ambitions of the University.

Currently there is a sense among most student-athletes that Yale has little appreciation for varsity sports. This institutionalized attitude marginalizes athletes and lowers expectations for them to be leaders in the classroom and elsewhere beyond their sport. Yale’s administration perpetuates this sentiment through such gestures as suggesting two new residential colleges with no increase in the number of student-athletes. Implying that admitting athletes is a sacrifice insults current Yale teams.

On the contrary, not admitting athletes comes at a greater cost. Without dedicated sportsmen and women, there would be less character building and narrower global relationships, and the lack of respect for athletics could compel athletes to insulate themselves from the rest of the University.

Between a new president and two new residential colleges, next year will be a milestone in Yale’s history. At the same time, the Olympic games are fresh in everyone’s minds. Today, sports and their ability to generate influential figures and cultural exchange are in the global spotlight in a way they will not be for another four years.

When the new president takes office in Woodbridge Hall next year, let him or her not forget the opportunity Yale has to advance three of its goals simultaneously: global education, leadership development and excellence in athletics. It merely requires the community — including student-athletes themselves — to recognize that these three goals are not in conflict with one another. They are complementary.

Sports can be a catalyst for progress of the whole University if Yale takes advantage of their potential. We need a shift in perspective, and it can start with a little team spirit from Yale’s most important Bulldog.

Jen Downing is a senior in Silliman College and a member of the varsity women’s track team. Contact her at jennifer.downing@yale.edu.

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