PORT-AU-PRINCE -- A group of diplomats relived childhood dreams Tuesday as they practiced jump shots, played table tennis and jockeyed to score GOOOOAAAALLLL on the soccer field.
Led by Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach toured Haiti’s newest sports complex: a still underconstruction $18 million facility.
The complex, with courts for basketball and outdoor handball, rooms for boxing and table tennis and an expansive multipurpose center, was donated by the International Olympic Committee after Haiti’s devastating Jan.12, 2010 earthquake.
“We wanted to help because we had seen the Haitian people terribly suffering under this earthquake,” Bach said about the decision behind the gift. “We want to demonstrate that sport is an important tool to rebuild the country.”
Before declaring the center opened, Bach told Haiti’s youth that it was a day of hope for them.
“Sports,” Bach said, “stands for social cohesion. It stands for self confidence; stands for fair play and for the future of youth.”
Haitian President Michel Martelly agreed, saying that while the complex is an opportunity for Haiti’s youth to discover their talents, it’s an important part of helping form individuals.
“Playing for children is important,” he said. “It’s important for kids to play with one another.”
Martelly pointed out that in 30 years, no Haitian government had ever built a sports complex in the country. His administration, he said, had restored 12 — mainly soccer stadiums.
Martelly also defended the complex’s location on the outskirts of the capital, near the sprawling post-quake slum, Canaan. Many have questioned the location because of the distance from the city center and near the mountainside slum that the Haitian government, with assistance from the United States, is now trying to organize and provide infrastructure.
“We are one country. We are one people,” Martelly said during the inauguration ceremony, Canaan’s shacks and denuded mountainside visible in the backdrop. “We cannot exclude Canaan.”
“We built this for Canaan, too,” he added.
The event was also attended by Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Albeto Moreno, who last year traveled to Haiti to promote sports development. The IDB is one of the organizations that has contributed to the complex’s funding.
“This is great, just to watch all of these kids doing sports,” Moreno said. “My dream is to see one day a couple of Olympians and Haitians winning models. Not that Haitians need any more pride because they do have pride, but I think it will do a lot for this country.
“You’ve seen it around the Caribbean, look at what (sprinter) Usain Bolt did for Jamaica and how the whole question of athletics has become a big thing in the Caribbean.”
Ban, the United Nations chief, said sports can be a strong social changer. The biggest beneficiaries he said of the complex will be Haiti’s disenfranchised youth.
“People on the margins will have a place to belong again,” he said. “This center will also be an arena for promoting teamwork, fair play and mutual understanding, values that are far beyond the playing field.
“We can see yet again sports go beyond the competition, beyond the events such as World Cup, even beyond star athletes,” he added.
Ban ended his two day visit to Haiti on Tuesday, calling his fifth visit here “inspiring,” and reiterating his call for the country to stage its long overdue elections.
“These encounters have given me a strong sense of the significant progress that Haiti has achieved in the last 10 years with the support of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping operations,” he said.
But Ban also said he was “especially concerned” that Haiti could regress given the ongoing stalemate over the country’s legislative and local elections.
“Sadly, for now I have little concrete news of progress from these long overdue elections” to report to the Security Council, he said. “The holding of elections in October is essential.”