Sports Can Transform Children’s Lives and the World

As a figure skater, athlete and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador, I have seen first-hand how sport can transform lives. It has certainly transformed my life.

I began figure skating when I was 5 years old. From the time I was young, I dreamed of winning an Olympic medal for the Republic of Korea. With lots of hard work, I was able to turn my dreams into reality. In 2010, I brought home a gold medal from the Vancouver Winter Olympics and in 2014, a silver medal from Sochi, Russia. In pursuit of my dream, I skated in many international competitions. I saw how sport was able to bring together people from many countries and backgrounds and unite them in the spirit of competition. I realized that no matter who you are or where you come from, participating in sport can be empowering.

I have been very lucky. When I started figure skating, I was encouraged by coaches who recognized my talent. With their support, and that of my family, sport became a way for me to dream, to prepare to take on challenges and achieve my goals.

Many children around the world, however, do not have the opportunity to pursue sport. Many do not even have a chance to play. This is a violation of their rights and it hinders their ability to learn and grow. It also gets in the way of their chance to dream.

As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and a supporter of Team UNICEF, I have learned about the ways in which this organization engages children in sport, thus helping them change their lives for the better. UNICEF has brought sport programmes to former child soldiers and fostered adolescent girls’ empowerment and school participation with football. For the Rio 2016 Olympics, UNICEF has joined with partners to support the first-ever Refugee Team, cheering on 10 athletes chosen to compete on behalf of refugees worldwide.

These are just a few examples of how UNICEF engages children in sport. Regardless of the initiative, however, the goal is always the same: to break down barriers and include children who are too often excluded due to disability or discriminated against because of their gender or ethnicity. In addition, UNICEF connects children with sport to help them develop self-esteem and learn life skills such as cooperation, respect and leadership. Sport can also connect communities and foster peace and tolerance.

For me, peace and sport are linked. Speaking on the International Day of Peace in 2010, I emphasized this connection. I said then, and I believe now, “Where there is peace, there is sport; where there is sport, there is peace.” Peace is an important element in providing children with a fair chance to dream and achieve their goals. When every child has this opportunity, the world can become a more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable place for us all.

Sport can also play a vital role in drawing attention to the hardships faced by children around the world. As an athlete, I have had the opportunity to raise awareness about vulnerable children in Haiti, the Horn of Africa, the Syrian Arab Republic and elsewhere. As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, I have tried to shine a light on how important it is for children to dream, because dreams provide the courage to live and thrive, even in the most difficult circumstances.

Figure skating gave me the opportunity to pursue my dreams and make a contribution to my country. Sport also provided me with a platform from which I could work towards making the world a better place for the most vulnerable children. I believe that sport can transform the life of every child. Most will probably not pursue Olympic medals, but they will learn how to dream, pursue their goals and contribute to their families, communities, countries and the world.