By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |
One of the most fascinating parts of sport management is the opportunity to work together with many different people. Sport has a lot of diversity and it allows people to meet individuals from different cultures. While this is good, it is not always easy. Cultural misunderstandings can occur very easily. When people from different religions, countries, cultures, ethnicities, races, and many other forms of diversity come together to compete, potential for conflict increases. Everybody is ethnocentric to a certain degree. We are all taught to be proud of where we come from and we tend to see our own cultural ways as superior to those of others. However, no culture is fundamentally better than another. Cultures are different but equal. While some aspects of a culture work better in one culture, some other aspects work better in another one. It is a matter of trade-offs. All cultures make sense from their own perspectives. The problem is that when someone from another culture looks at a particular culture as an outsider, they understand it from the lenses of their own culture. If a person sees the world through red sunglasses, there is nothing that a person with blue sunglasses can say to convince him or her that the world is blue. Cultures are like a rainbow. Each culture picks its own unique combination of colors. They all come from the same rainbow but they are all uniquely different. People are often colorblind to any other colors than their own.
The road from ethnocentricity to cultural relativity is often a difficult one. All people are likely to stereotype and use a set of psychological biases to understand the world. While many people travel around the world and are exposed to different cultures, they do not truly experience them in a meaningful way. Attending to sport events can be one of these superficial experiences. People come together for a brief period of time and compete with each other. Basic pleasantries are exchanged and everyone behaves according to some set of written or unwritten international norms. However, the opportunities to truly learn from each other are limited. This is perhaps why Olympics have failed to promote peace in a way that we would hope. They are large productions that temporarily bring us together and give us the illusions of the one united world. However, after the games are over, people return to their own comfort zones. Nothing really changes. On the other hand, this is better than nothing. Sport is a way to bring people together, at least. Perhaps, if we all started to have these discussions more often, we could increase the amount of cultural sharing within sport. One of the ways could be to arrange more collaborative opportunities for athletes to train together between games. Currently, at the US Olympic Training Center at Colorado Springs, there are only very limited opportunities for foreign athletes. At the same time, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a very US centric model to strength and conditioning. Competition does not always promote collaboration. Countries are more focused on their own medal counts than the potential of sport bringing people together. Maybe, if we could start changing this mindset and remind ourselves what the bigger purposes of sport are, we could get better at understanding each other.
Dr. Tomi Wahlström is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the United States Sports Academy.