How CrossFit can counter extremism
Beyond the physical benefits, sport assists with skill development and social integration, providing a sense of belonging and nurturing mutual respect. It can fundamentally improve the lives and wellbeing of people in very real terms, including to prevent extremism.
Recently, I explored bidding opportunities with The Young Londoner’s Fund. The ambition was to secure a small grant from the Mayor of London’s office for my local Crossfit "box" (read gym in CrossFit lingo) in order to run a youth summer camp in the uniquely diverse and historically deprived East London borough of Newham. Addressing the needs of frustrated young people in disadvantaged and disenfranchised urban areas has become a matter of increasing urgency of the UK government and is considered an integral part of the Home Office's response to rising knife crime and gang culture in the capital. In line with this, a CrossFit summer camp in Newham could gain significant traction with young offenders, or those at increased risk of offending after being excluded from school. This notion is not a new one, and the experience led me to reflect on the wider value of sport, health and fitness in efforts to reduce crime, support rehabilitation, and promote inclusivity.
Sports have long been considered an important part of inclusive international development programmes and comprehensive crime reduction and prevention strategies. Sports and games are often used by humanitarian actors working with refugees to achieve protection mandates, in the promotion of physical and emotional wellbeing. The role of sports, and boxing in particular, in successfully steering young people away from gang culture is well documented. My previous office, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) currently implements an array of crime prevention initiatives that leverage the power of sport. Within their Line Up, Live Up method, developed under the youth crime prevention components of the Global Programme for the Implementation of the Doha Declaration, sports are used to strengthen life skills and build youth resilience to malign influences.
Governments and international organisations are beginning to appreciate what many of us involved in sports and fitness at the community-level have long known: that sports programmes tap into a well of positive reinforcement, and contribute significantly to young people's physical, mental and, dare we say, spiritual health. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies by building effective, accountable institutions. For governance, security and stability programmes, this often means reform of state or municipality-level institutions, but more importantly for promoting peace and inclusivity, it means bolstering grassroots institutions. At the local-level , sports organisations play an immensely important role.
However, the power of sport does not only apply to humanitarian work, nor is it limited to the prevention of more common forms of criminality. The use of educational, vocational, cultural and – increasingly – physical activities has and is being effectively utilised by governments, (I)NGOs, CSOs, and social enterprises in the struggle to prevent and counter violent extremism (P-CVE), both in domestic settings and overseas. This should not be a surprise to human security practitioners operating in this space, as many of the key drivers of violent crime and gang affiliation also create fertile recruitment grounds for extremist ideologies to flourish. These are not only limited to poverty or dispossession, but include alienation, discrimination, intolerance, and the search for identity, belonging, recognition, power and accomplishment.
Set up as part of the UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, since 2015 the Home Office’s Building a Stronger Britain Together programme has supported more than 130 organisations to deliver innovative projects aiming to promote inclusivity and counter extremist narratives. In 2018 alone, ten sports-based community projects received a total of £400,000, including England Netball, Middlesbrough Football Club Foundation, and the Southend United Community and Education Trust, to fund activities ranging from boxing classes and football workshops, to community fitness and table tennis sessions.
The BSBT network brings together young people from segregated or otherwise marginalised communities, and challenges their bodies and mindsets, nurturing shared values, tolerance, collaboration, and mutual respect. This provides lived experiences that empirically challenge extremist narratives, help develop strength and resilience amongst individual participants, and in doing so, galvanise the wider community against extremist doctrines.
In December 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising the role of sport in sustainable development and empowerment. Shortly afterwards, UNODC and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) convened an expert panel in Vienna to reflect on the growing importance of sports-based P-CVE approaches. It provided a forum for governments and practitioners to share their knowledge, understanding and experiences, and distill key lessons relating to current and ongoing P-CVE work that utilises sport.
Showcasing programmes from across the world, the committee noted that sports-based P-CVE interventions could – and should – take different forms. While football is often the greatest common denominator globally, there is a huge variety of sports to draw from, the selection of which should be informed by the specific local context, community needs, and grassroots organisations already operating on the ground. In a practical, 'agile programme management' sense, sports-based interventions provide a greatly adaptable vehicle through which highly tailored prevention, safeguarding and empowerment can take place, and space for community cohesion and peacebuilding to be created and sustained.
"Radicalisation occurs at the local level, and ultimately PVE efforts need to reach the grassroots and to be implemented on the ground to be effective."
– Christian Bunk Fassov, United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism,
As well as responding to the local context, equally important to the success of sports-centred P-CVE initiatives is working with credible role models that can be looked up to and inspire trust, confidence and leadership among participants. The coaches and trainers heading up such programmes therefore perform a much more critical function than merely coordinating sports activities. They are credible change agents that create and catalyse positivity and inclusivity through their approaches, coaching and mentorship.
Despite the spectrum of sport programmes around the world being successfully used in crime prevention, and even to counter extremism, there remains a paucity in evidence-based research on precisely how and in what setting sports-based initiatives work, and why. Similarly, the lack of consistently applied monitoring and evaluation frameworks reduces the ability to quantify and assess these programmes at the outcome and impact levels. The exact relationship between sport inventions and countering extremism, and how conflict sensitive and gender inclusive best practices might augment any potential sports-oriented P-CVE toolkit, requires further thought.
One recent move to address the lack of investigation in this space brings us back to CrossFit. It comes from a former colleague and fellow Crossfitter Vedran "Maz" Maslic, who’s paper in the Journal of Sport for Development explores how CrossFit Sarajevo countered dominant ethnonationalist narratives and built a cohesive community in the post-violence setting of Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 20 years since it's bloody war, Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to suffer ethno-nationalist divisions, sustained by country leaders who continue to rely on ethnocentric narratives, “memory politics” and active distortion of historical events to benefit their own political agendas and ethnic groups.
Maz's research documents how CrossFit Sarajevo created a unique set of conditions that successfully challenged prevalent ethnocentric narratives, and fostered a cohesive and respectful multi-ethnic community from the ground up. By embracing egalitarian and inclusive positions, a common code of conduct among club members was established, contributing to a distinct sense of belonging, identity and mutual trust. This manifested in humanitarian projects undertaken by the club that helped the most disadvantaged in the broader community. These findings validate the cohesive value of sports-orientated community programmes, as well as reaffirming the importance of empowering local, credible change agents in P-CVE programmes.
The research provides one of the first indicative evidence bases for how and why CrossFit can help challenge divisive narratives, and demonstrates the applicability of sports-centred programming in post-conflict settings. It shows us that, beyond the clear physical benefits, sports have the potential to assist with skill development and social integration, providing a sense of belonging, loyalty and support. It can be used to prevent extremism, but fundamentally can help improve the lives and well-being of people in very real terms. By creating networks between diverse people who share common values, sports can positively contribute to building solidarity within societies, which themselves become less vulnerable to divisive worldviews as a result.
 Newham is the most ethnically diverse district in England and Wales, with simultaneously the lowest White British population and the second-highest Muslim population in the UK, according to the 2011 UK Census. Newham has the youngest overall population in the country, and a 37% poverty rate, the second-highest in London. 36% of residents are in low paid or insecure work, the highest of any London borough.