Field of Play: The power of a gathering place | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: The power of a gathering place

Posted: Sunday, September 22, 2013 | 06:43 PM

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Sports Weekend host Scott Russell in Benin, West Africa (Ashton Lawrence/Scott Russell/CBC Sports) Sports Weekend host Scott Russell in Benin, West Africa (Ashton Lawrence/Scott Russell/CBC Sports)

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Travelling with Right to Play, Scott Russell and Canadian athletes Perdita Felicien and Adan van Koeverden ventured deep into the countryside of the Republic of Benin, where the entire district gathered to watch the first ever Olympians to visit their modest soccer field.

Today we ventured deep into the countryside of the Republic of Benin, only to discover that there's something about sport that's elemental to all of us.

The road amounted to not much more than a dirt track but transport trucks and motorcycles pounded relentlessly along.

For miles and miles we ploughed through, passed goats, chickens, merchants by the roadside on the way to our destination, the Palais Dijdemy, home to King Kponan and his people.

The King is, according to his business card, a specialist in incurable diseases and practices the Voodoo religion. But he's also a progressive who has supported the programs of Right To Play which aims to protect the access children have to a formal education. At the
modest palace, local Chiefs and Voodoo priests turned out in ceremonial garb to hear the King plead for less time and effort spent on the initiation rights to Voodoo convents and more focus on getting kids into community schools. 

300-russell.jpg"We have to modernize our culture to protect the rights of children", the King said through an interpreter. "Sport and recreation are normal things to do, it's essential our children have access to these things through formal education."

The assembled elders nodded and watched the children sing and dance, they even snapped photos on their incongruous cellphones.

There seemed to be a genuine affection in the King's eyes for the young ones at centre stage.

Our next stop is further off the beaten path to the village of Hountakun. As Perdita Felicien and Adam van Koeverden exited our van they were greeted by a chorus of children chanting a song about Right To Play and leading them to a huge crowd... the entire district which had gathered to watch the first ever Olympians to visit their modest soccer field. 

A young man stood at the back of the field and was eager to chat in halting English. "Every afternoon and evening, young boys and girls are coming here to play football or anything they want," said Kpatinvo Herve. "We have talented players here but nobody knows about them and it's hard to promote them."

It was at this point that the power of the gathering place became apparent to me. As the formalities of the ceremony held most enraptured and the dancing that ensued drew the crowd together, it was as if the message of strength in the village was being heard loud and clear.

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"We receive many kinds of advice also here," said Herve, with reference to Right To Play; "We talk about unwanted pregnancy, how to behave as a society, how to respect your parents, how to do your duty." And while the older children focused their gaze on Felicien and
van Koeverden as they gyrated at the centre of the throng, the youngsters drifted to the far reaches of the soccer field.

Some were running while rolling old rubber tires beside them. Others engaged in a form of catch by tossing a minuscule lime the size of a squash ball over the soccer goal standard to an eager receiver 50 or more metres away. One little girl was doing handstands. Still another
young boy had fashioned a toy from a bicycle sprocket and a large stick tied together with wire. He sprinted behind it, trying to push it in as straight a line as possible.

It was a cacophony of sport at a very basic level with only the bare essentials for equipment. My new friend Kpatinvo flashed a knowing smile as he looked out to the soccer field and all that was going on in such a natural and unrehearsed way. "This is where the village and all the villages around come to play" he explained. But no explanation was necessary, it was all happening as if by instinct.

Tomorrow we go to Liberia and other fields of play. There, children from a war-torn country, will gather to demonstrate a similar truth about human nature.

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