Soccer fans throughout Latin America will be glued to their televisions in June and July, basking in the excitement and pride that come with belonging to a region famed for its brilliance at the World Cup.
But it’s not just about elite athletes. Since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, societies have understood that sports can make citizens healthier and happier. They keep our minds and bodies in shape. They serve as a social glue. They help young people hone life skills and in certain circumstances even reduce crime.
Unfortunately, far too few Latin Americans actually play sports. For all the region’s athletic genius, adolescents and adults in Latin America and the Caribbean do less physical exercise than the global average and less than people in Europe or Africa. As a result, almost one in four adults in Latin America and the Caribbean is obese (a body mass index of 30% fat or more), and adult and child obesity are increasing faster than in other parts of the world.
Sports can lower healthcare costs
But fighting obesity is not all that sports can do.Physical exercise can lead to less heart disease, stroke, cancer and depression, as well as better overall cognitive health. That, in turn, can mean higher productivity, fewer sick days and lower healthcare costs for society. Being sedentary is neither good for us individually nor for society as a whole.
What can be done? Surprisingly, government spending on sports in the region stands at only around 0.1% of GDP, about one-third of the amount spent by European nations. Given all the advantages of sports, shouldn’t we invest more?
It’s a hard question to answer. Money allotted to sports facilities means fewer resources for other urgent development priorities, such as building roads or hiring teachers. So to avoid wasting precious resources and get all the societal benefits, we need to figure out what sports programs deliver the most bang for the buck. We have to design programs that can be evaluated for their effectiveness and better evaluate those programs already in place.
Sports to reduce crime
The gains could be huge, including in important areas of social life. Sports programs can strengthen social relationships by bringing people from different backgrounds together. They can give otherwise wayward kids alternative outlets and help them develop a healthy sense of self as well as discipline and ability to work in teams. All of this can result in less crime, as well as academic and labor market success.
In Europe, for example, research has shown that active sports are correlated with increased earnings of around 1,200 euros, compared to no or very little sports activity. Though the cause of that effect is not entirely clear, it comes out to an extraordinary rate of return of 5%-10%, on a par with an additional year of schooling.
Consider also initiatives like A Ganar, one of many sports-for-development programs for at-risk youth supported by the Inter-American Development Bank and its partners in the region. A Ganar combines sports activities with life-skills training, market-based vocational technical training, and internships for some 12,000 youth in 11 countries. Not only do 70% of participants graduate from the program. Over 65% of graduates secure formal employment, return to school, or start a business within one year.
The dangers of unstructured sports activities
Nonetheless, researchers in Sweden found that youth recreation centers with unstructured activities sometimes end up being gathering places for troublesome kids, corrupting newcomers and encouraging high risk behavior. And other evidence suggests sports can foment peer pressure and even lead to the creation of gangs. By contrast, highly-structured sports activities, with skill-building opportunities and strong relationships between students, coaches and other mentors, may foster real mental, emotional and physical growth.
The secret to get the best out of sports in this context may lie in starting small with pilot projects and expanding programs only once evaluations have shown which ones are effective. A certain amount of testing and data collection is essential.
At the IDB, we’ve seen this up close. We’ve expanded multifaceted sports-for-development programs across Latin America and the Caribbean to provide marginalized youth with the tools they need to take advantage of social and economic opportunities.
As people from Latin America and the Caribbean fan out across Russia for the World Cup this year, cheering on five-time winner Brazil or any of the other seven Latin American teams with a shot at the trophy, it’s worth keeping in mind that such efforts in the region’s sports programs have worked to produce the abilities of our world-famous soccer stars.
It’s most importantly, however, about lesser mortals like ourselves. Latin America and the Caribbean can harness the thrill, discipline and bonding that sports encourages to improve social outcomes and escape the potentially devastating consequences of idleness in ill-health for virtually everyone in society. We just need to invest the time and thought into designing and implementing projects well.