On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late April, the Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins University's Graduate School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) hosted an unconventional fundraiser for Global Playground: a mock Olympiad. While competition in the events of this Olympiad would more likely be found outside Global Playground's schools than in Beijing's Water Cube or Bird's Nest, these games nonetheless exemplified the Olympic spirit by blending sport with culture and education.
The games--held in Parco Talon on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy--featured more than one hundred SAIS students competing in team events on behalf of little-known countries such as Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Spirited competition ensued from the outset. In the games' first event, Team Guatemala showcased its athletic abilities with a resounding victory in the egg-spoon relay, advancing its unscrambled "baton" beyond the finish line dozens of egg-lengths ahead of the nearest competitor. "The outcome was never in doubt," declared Guatemala's Rob Miller. "And criticism that our egg spent less time on a spoon than it did bouncing along the ground was uncalled for. Egg intact, we crossed the line first. Should Team Cyprus lodge a formal protest, we'll fight it to the bitter end."
Other events included a three-legged race, which left more than a few students sprawled across the grass; skin-blistering battles of tug-o'-war; intercontinental dodgeball; and a bat spin relay with a "twist." Amidst these "formal" events, impromptu wrestling matches and egg tosses broke out while a motley band of musicians strummed guitars and hummed tunes. Spectators, most of them local Italians who thought they were only out for a leisurely day at the park, grew in number throughout the afternoon, reaching their peak during the fiercely competitive dodgeball tournament.
Ultimately, the purpose of all this madness was not mere folly. "These Olympic games took advantage of my classmates' penchant for having fun and making positive contributions to the global community," said Edward Branagan, a Global Playground board member and one of a handful of organizers for the Olympics. "And what a contribution the SAIS students made to Global Playground! With each participant paying a ten-euro entry fee, these games raised more than $1600, or nearly ten percent of the funds needed to help Global Playground build a new, five-room middle school for the children of Cambodia's Koh Khel village."
More than the mock Olympiad links Global Playground and the Bologna Center, which was founded in 1955 to educate future leaders to reach beyond national boundaries and biases. Both entities share an objective of promoting cross-cultural understanding and believe that the answers to the world's myriad problems lie in education. The latter is particularly true in Cambodia. Hampered by years of civil war and the extermination of its teachers and educated elite during the late 1970s, Cambodia remains a land where quality education is a rarity. The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and will only break the cycle of dependence after developing an educated, empowered populace.
At the end of the day, the 2008 Bologna Center Olympic Games were a smashing success. Buoyed by the perfect weather and a beautiful setting, students escaped their books and the claustrophobic porticos of central Bologna for an afternoon of fresh air and physical exertion. Bruises and blisters notwithstanding, the physical activity did everyone good, including the children in Cambodia. Although Team India officially won the gold, narrowly besting Team Guatemala, a SAIS student summed up the games nicely when announcing the results: "Congratulations! You're all winners. And so are the kids of Cambodia."
- Ryker Labbee
- Virtual Playground
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