Boosting Sports in a War Zone

Afghanistan Receives Support to Build Multi-Sport Facilities

The International Group of Connor Sport Court has supplied 35 multi-sport outdoor courts this year, along with on-site installation training, to improve youth recreation facilities in Afghanistan. The courts will support a program underwritten by a U.S. government grant to an Afghan-owned enterprise, the Educational Support Organization (ESO), based in Kabul.

The 7,000-square-foot outdoor courts will provide the infrastructure for youth in Kabul and six other provinces to broaden interest in basketball, volleyball and futsal, a downsized variation of soccer played on a hard surface. The majority of the courts will be installed by the end of this year in secure locations, mostly at schools and orphanages. In addition to the 15 courts planned in and around Kabul, other provinces receiving courts will include Balkh, Herat, Kandahar, Nengarhar, Paktia and Ghazni. The Afghan company awarded the U.S. grant also is training coaches and administrators, according to Heather E. Steil, stationed with the U.S. Embassy staff in Kabul.

"Sport Court is honored to work with ESO to assist in their efforts in Afghanistan," said Ron Cerny, president and CEO of Connor Sport Court International, parent company of Sport Court. "We believe that through these types of outstanding organizations and generous actions, together with the unifying and supportive nature of sports, we can make a difference by providing healthy and safe outlets for youth throughout the world."

The pre-engineered modular courts were manufactured and assembled in Salt Lake City. Each court was pre-marked to establish two basketball courts, one full-size futsal court, and two volleyball courts. The process ultimately required more than five acres of high-performance Sport Court Power Game suspended surface tiles that were then disassembled, boxed and shipped in transoceanic containers. Upon arrival at Karachi, Pakistan, the challenging logistics were resolved and the courts hauled by truck to the desired locations in Afghanistan for final installation over a concrete base. Each location also received high-quality basketball hoops, futsal goals and volleyball poles and nets.

A General Lack - and Need - of Sports Facilities

"There is a general lack of sports facilities," Steil said, from her post in Kabul. "That led us to increase the original number of planned courts. We will hold ribbon-cutting ceremonies when the installation work is complete."

The program originated with Mathew Wall, a political officer in Kabul who stationed later with U.S. representatives at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. He explained that the U.S. State Department is spreading interest in sports around the world.

"I personally had some experience in playing on modular courts so I knew they are relatively easy to install," Wall said. "They fit the requirement in a place like Afghanistan for our Youth and Sports Outreach agenda. The idea is to provide life skills training to kids through sports which are as apolitical as you can get in a unifying approach for the various Afghan tribes."

He added, "Sports are a universal language and have a code of conduct that is worldwide."

When Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 in Springfield, Mass., he inspired one of his students, William Morgan, to create volleyball just four years later down the road at the Holyoke YMCA. Neither man likely envisioned their sports becoming so popular that they would be played more than a century later around the world, including in remote areas of war-ravaged Afghanistan. In fact, basketball and volleyball entered Afghanistan following the return of a formal delegation invited to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Basketball had gone through ensuing refinements by the 1950s when some workers for the U.S. Agency for International Development introduced contemporary rules for the sports into the country. The sports were firmly rooted until the game withered under the ensuing decades of war.

A Man Well-Traveled

Ryan Burke, international business manager for Connor Sport Court International, played a lead role in recruiting a local installation team for the multi-site program in Afghanistan. Burke has worked the past 14 years for the company on court projects in 75 countries. The Afghan workers in Kabul worked first on installations at the Tai Maskan Boys Orphanage, a high school, and at the National Olympic Sports Complex in the Capitol where the Taliban conducted notorious public executions in the late 1990s.

"I trained everyday construction workers with handyman-level skills who proved to be very resourceful," Burke said. "They easily mastered the assembly of the pre-engineered courts, just as I've seen happen in other countries where I've depended on local labor forces. They were competent and soon became completely self-sufficient. When I left, they were continuing the rest of the installations for boys and girls at the designated locations in the provinces.

"The young people who will use the courts were outside watching us work at every opportunity," Burke said. "They were obviously eager to put the courts to use."

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