Can Sports Stop the African AIDS Pandemic?

Walter Armstrong

Africa has 25 million people with HIV and 12 million AIDS orphans. Yet despite an infection rate as high as one in three people in some African nations, AIDS stigma remains ferocious, especially in rural towns and villages, where if word gets out about your HIV-positive status, you may be lucky to escape with your life.

Now a group led by athletes worldwide called Right to Play is launching an HIV campaign to raise awareness, promote prevention, and combat stigma in the thousands of parks and community centers where Africa’s children gather daily to play sports. Led by the United Nations and the Olympics, Right to Play got off the ground in 2003, thanks largely to the efforts of its prez, Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speed skater who won four Olympic gold medals at the 1993 Lillehammer Games. Joining Koss as athlete ambassadors are jock legends such as ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky, basketball player Dikembe Mutombo, runner Haile Gebrselassie and swimmer Ian Thorpe.

The HIV agenda is new for Right to Play. Until recently, the group has used play and sports to help kids develop an appreciation for teamwork, conflict resolution, and mutual respect in its promotion of peace-and-love values. But “Live Safe, Play Safe” ups this ante dramatically by addressing the facts of HIV transmission and pushing for the inclusion of AIDS orphans and kids living with HIV in all sports.

The “Live Safe, Play Safe” rollout is slowly being established in training workshops for coaches in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Rwanda, and other countries. Some exercises are straight-on HIV education about, for example, what’s safe and what’s risky. But the lessons are conducted in a playful way, with kids in teams running and dancing. Other exercises are more sporting, such as the Stick Relay, which is about HIV transmission, and Clean Win, which is about sterilizing needles.

Right to Play is asking kids to step up to the plate and accomplish what most adults have miserably struck out atu212;overcoming irrational fears of HIV by having personal, even physical, contact with HIV-positive peers. But so far the group’s trainers have voiced few doubts about the kids' ability to learn from the program. They’re more concerned about the coaches being sufficiently willing to come face to face with the virus. Still, the very idea that love of sports could turn out to be what sends stigma packing over the next decade—and even save many of Africa’s lost generation—has to make jocks of all ages weak in the knees.

To check out this truly Olympic-size ambition, visit