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Respect for Diversity


Respect for Diversity

I am very honoured and consider myself fortunate to be part of this IOA Session.

Seeing so many young people in Olympia that have come from many different countries, different backgrounds, different disciplines and with different languages, and yet united by the same passion, is such an enlightening experience.

It proves again that sport provides the opportunity for young people to engage in each other’s differences while celebrating similarities together, which for me has always been one of the highlights of the IOA sessions and indeed of my involvement in sport itself. It is therefore indeed a pleasure for me to speak today about the topic: Respect for Diversity.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

Marcel Proust


Respect, we use it in our daily languages: “show some respect”, “respect your parents”, “respect your elders”, “respect your teachers”, “your pastor”, or, closer to the Olympic movement, “Respect yourself and others!” as reflected in one of the five Olympic values. Here, respect is defined as a value which goes hand in hand with fair play and incorporates respect for oneself, for one’s body, for others, for rules and regulations, for sport and the environment (Binder, 2007).

What if the concept of respect is not clear but understood differently, people are not familiar with it, have not been taught, socialised or been exposed to? What if it has a distorted meaning, as it happens in a lot of (war torn) countries, where respect has been used in a deterred way; for example, respect for an abusive government, a war lord, a corrupt superior, an unequal or undemocratic system?

The same goes for diversity. Although valued in theory, included in international statutes and democratic constitutions, or highlighted for humanitarian awards as a virtue, it is seen as a threat in many parts of the world. Supporting diversity might bring risks; for example, risk of losing one’s own identity and culture. It may bring uncertainties and insecurity, due to competitions around job security, housing, social services etc. It might bring tensions, conflict and even wars.

In addition, there seems to be a lack of understanding of the varied nature of the terms diversity and respect for diversity. What does it mean and how can we respect something when we are not clear about it or have not agreed on its meaning?

Definition of key concepts

Let us first look at the meaning for both terms as we know them.

The definition of respect goes back to the 1300s , it is derived from the Latin word respectere, that is, “regard”, literally from “re-” (“back”) + “specere” (“look at”); hence the meaning “act of looking back at one, regard, consider”. The verb “to respect” was used from the 1550s, meaning “treat with deferential regard or esteem” (online Etymology Dictionary 2010). Further meanings include: to have an attitude of esteem towards; show or have respect for, to respect one’s elders, to pay proper attention to; not violate, to show consideration for; treat courteously or kindly, archaic to concern or refer to (Collins English Dictionary, 2009).

Respect is thus defined as a relation or reference to a particular person, thing or situation, an act of looking back at and giving particular consideration, and an expression of high or special regard and an attitude of esteem towards the object or person.

The term diversity is known from 1300-50, from the Latin diversitas, later Middle English diversite, which includes the state or fact of being diverse; it includes difference; unlikeness, variety; multiformity or point of difference (

On a side note, these meanings are only based on the written languages we know, without taking into consideration definitions of older languages, for example, of the Khoisan people, believed to have lived 100,000 years ago, or the Bantu people, estimated to have lived 60,000 to 90,000 years ago in Africa (Mayell, 2002; Steadman, 2012).

By looking at the key elements of the definitions provided above, the inclusion of differences and having a high regard for those differences can be identified as predominant features.

The questions which arise are: How do we understand “Respect for Diversity”? How well do we do with “having high regard for differences”, “showing acceptance and esteem towards something or someone that is different”?

Respect for Diversity in the 21st century

According to Perkins (2012, p. 74), “Respect for Diversity” requires acknowledgement of four basic principles: human dignity, basic equality of all human beings, universal human rights and fundamental freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

Fact is, in 2014 there are many countries and governments which do not respect or promote the above principles. There are many people who treat others differently, because of their background, class, race, gender, age, socio- economic situation, disabilities or sexual orientation. There are countries with high penalties, even the death penalty, if their citizens do not conform to certain beliefs and perceived values. There are countries with an open or hidden cast or class system that prevents equality for all. There are countries in war about diversity issues, with thousands of soldiers and civilians dying for certain beliefs.

On 21 March 2014, to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the United Nations called on the world to draw strength from the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela, and his lifelong battle against prejudice, discrimination and injustice, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message on the day:

Nelson Mandela’s journey from prisoner to President was the triumph of an extraordinary individual against the forces of hate, ignorance and fear – and it was a testimony to the power of courage, reconciliation and forgiveness to overcome the injustice of racial discrimination.

(UN News Centre, “Enduring legacy of Nelson Mandela can guide efforts to end racism”, UN says on International Day, 21/3/2014

The UN chief appealed to all people, especially political, civic and religious leaders, to strongly condemn messages and ideas based on racism, racial superiority or hatred as well as those that incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. He said:

On this Day, let us acknowledge that racial discrimination remains a dangerous threat and resolve to tackle it through dialogue inspired by the proven ability of individuals to respect, protect and defend our rich diversity as one human family (ibid.).

The Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCOMs), Irina Bokova, like the Secretary-General, urged the world to draw strength from Mandela’s experience and his determination to bridge divides despite all challenges:

Bigotry impoverishes the world, seeking to divide humanity against itself and undermine the inexhaustible strength that lies in our diversity. Equality and justice must guide us, no matter the circumstances [...] Respect and tolerance are liberating acts, whereby the differences of others are recognized as the same as our own and whereby the riches of another culture are taken as the wealth of all (ibid.).

Respect for Diversity in our daily lives

Seeing that we are linked in every way possible by social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc., is “Respect for Diversity” easy for us or is it a challenge? How are we doing with “Respect for Diversity”? Do we know who we are, our values, what we stand for? Can we stand up to peer-pressure, family pressure, community pressure? Are we open and unbiased? And if not, do we know why we are not? What prevents us to have respect for diversity in 2014?

To answer these questions we need to do some serious self-introspection, and we need to look at our history.

Respice – Prospice

I will use the country that is my home, South Africa, as an example. South Africa is still a country in transition, only two decades into democracy. The country displays diversity in cultures, religious beliefs, and languages, with eleven official languages being recognized in one of the most modern constitutions.

South Africa is ethnically diverse with a majority of 79.5% of its population being of Black African ancestry, divided among various ethnic groups speaking different African languages, nine of which have official status (Statistics South Africa, 2009). The country is also home to the largest multicultural communities. The country had a relatively peaceful transition, thanks to leaders such as Nelson Mandela. However, for centuries the country suffered under colonialism and apartheid. Nelson Mandela, very aware of the situation on the continent, said in 2004:

The 19th century colonization of the African continent was in many respects the culmination of the Renaissance-initiated expansion of European domination over the planet (Mandela, 2004, p. 25).

As an example, the effects of both colonisation and apartheid on the country’s education of its youth are highlighted: in South Africa, under the apartheid regime in 1953, the infamous Bantu Education Act (Act 47 of 1953) was passed by the Nationalist Government. The then National Minister of Native Affairs, Dr H. F. Verwoerd, one of the main architects of apartheid, openly stated the purpose of the new law as providing for an education which would prepare Black people for inferior and subordinate positions in society:

By blindly producing pupils trained on a European model, the vain hope was created among Natives that they could occupy posts within the European community despite the country’s policy of “apartheid”. There is no place for him (i.e. the Black South African) in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour [...] For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim an absorption in the European community, where he cannot be absorbed (cf. Rose & Tunmer, 1975, pp. 261 and 266; Sparks, 1990, p. 196).

Verwoerd here refers to the White South Africa as “the European community”. This alone indicates how poorly the apartheid architects were adapted to Africa. They also completely ignored the fact that the Bantu people, with their advanced agriculture and metalworking technology, are found in West Africa from at least 2000 BC. They later intermarried with the Khoisan and became the dominant population of Southeastern Africa before the arrival of the Dutch in 1652 (Keim, 2012).

All in all, there were seventeen different departments of education in South Africa under the auspices of the Department of National Education to ensure the separateness of all groups in all aspects, including sport – a proliferation of administrative structures which existed until 1995. The differentiation at bureaucratic level reflected far-reaching differences in the provision of education for the various “population groups.”

This brief overview demonstrates the administrative and structural fragmentation, as well as the qualitative differences in the education of the various “population groups” in apartheid South Africa. The system was designed to emphasise and strengthen the (assumed or real) cultural differences between these “population groups”, to avoid, as far as possible, all opportunity for social contact between the school-going youth of these “groups” and to reinforce and perpetuate the social stratification and political division within South African society.

It took more than 300 years to dismantle the discriminative laws, including those in the sphere of sport in South Africa. In 1992 South Africa was allowed back to the Olympic Games after 32 years of absence and in 1994 the first democratic elections took place with Nelson Mandela appointed as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

Today the country as well as the continent still struggles for equality, mutual respect and survival. South Africa is still striving for nation-building and to overcome the legacy of the colonial and the apartheid system which has been a heavy burden and can still be felt at many levels in the daily lives and interactions of its citizens.

Although old discriminatory laws have been abolished, the mind-set, hearts, beliefs and thoughts, perceptions of people take long to change and are till today even subconsciously preventing us to trust each other and to respect our diversity.

What prevents respect for diversity?

Our values, traditions, religious believes, ethics, gender, age, race, experiences, history, ancestors, aspirations and dreams are all facets of our individual make up, of who we are. The one does not overrule the other, all are important and each has its special place in our lives. If you care to truly understand each other, you need to respect all these parts of who you are without setting conditions to request changes to fit each other’s expectations. This can be understood as respecting diversity at the core. Nobody should think that any one aspect of him or her should be changed in order to be accepted. It is only when we can accept, respect and value one another for our differences, while not being arrogant, patronising or defensive about them, that will we be able to say that we are respecting diversity.

It is concerning to see so many examples at individual, community, national or global level that create divides and that we allow to happen. These divides can be created by:

• History as outlined above

• Deeply rooted beliefs and perceptions of differences based on transfer and transmission of information of one-dimensional view of history by a certain socio-economic class for example: superiority based upon religious beliefs

• Perceptions (self-perception, perception of the other party, perceptions of situations, perceptions of threat)

• Lack of preparedness to look within ourselves and ask critical questions

• Lack of preparedness to change

• Lack of trust

• Fear of uncertainty

• Fear of the other

• Jealousy

• Socialisation (incl. misperception of culture, values and principles)

• Peer pressure

• Feelings and emotions

You would have to ask yourself: How has the history of your country impacted on you, on your thinking, beliefs etc.? Who are you in terms of your values and perceptions? What prevents respect for diversity in your life, family, community, country, on the continent?

A different view of diversity and differences

“Respice – prospice”, it is essential to look to the future and learn from the past. The works of two scholars, Dudley Weeks and Amr Abdalla, provide some practical advice and challenge us to take a different view on diversity.

We are all products of the past, as are our relationships and our conflicts [...] we deny our own power and the power of development and change if we allow ourselves to be defined by the past, to be trapped in perceptions that use past patterns to limit present and future possibilities (Weeks, 1992, p. 7).

Weeks encourages us to see diversity differently (1992, p. 33):

• To see diversity as a healthy aspect of society – which can open up possibilities and challenges for us to consider alternatives and keep us from allowing ourselves to stagnate

• To try not to perceive diversity as a threat

• To celebrate diversity, not fear it

How can we acknowledge and celebrate diversity?

The beauty of diversity is that you can learn from one another, no matter whether you agree or not, as diversity challenges us to question our values and ethics, makes us think about our beliefs and challenges us to think differently and experience something new which leads to our growth and personal development.

It is not always easy to get there. Diversity and differences often lead to conflict, which may be positive or negative, depending on how we deal with differences. The point is not to remove the differences, but to use them to:

i. Clarify our understanding of each other and the relationship

ii. Consider possibilities that we may not have thought about

iii. Identify aspects of the relationship on which we can build effectively to improve the relationship (Weeks, 1992)

When working or socialising in multicultural contexts, there are do’s and don’ts. Abdalla outlines some. of them. “Don’ts”: Dehumanize, demonize, de-legitimize, dismiss, discredits, deceive, demean, demotivate, demoralize, disrupt, disconnect or discriminate. “Do’s”: Disagree, defuse, dare, dialogue, deal, deliver (adapted from Abdalla, 2005). In addition, the following are some practical approaches towards respecting diversity:

• Preparedness to getting to know one another

• Building mutual understanding

• Building trust

• Establishing code of conducts, for example, the Bill of Right No 9 in Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth” (ibid.)

• Considering the rich sources from a variety of cultures

• Using of arts, drama , music, dance, play, recreation and sport

• Drawing upon traditional African values and practices such as Ubuntu

• Drawing on expertise and on integrity of respected traditional leaders such as Mandela

• Contributing to building of a culture of peace in a credible manner, eg. peace building = respect local actors and locally developed and driven initiatives

• Be open to different, unfamiliar approaches – sometimes the journey is as important as the destination

Sport and sport people as drivers of “Respect for Diversity”

Prerequisites for a society which respects diversity include Perkins’ four principles: fundamental freedom of thought, conscience and belief, respect for human rights, equality and human dignity, but also some African principles such as an emphasis on justice and fairness, non-violence, equal participation and consensus, value of individuals, harmony in the community, importance of relationships, focus on future harmony and not past discourse forgiveness, tolerance and co-existence.

In addition, there is one element which I cherish, for celebrating diversity, it is a global world view, and the certainty to be a citizen of the world, a global citizen. Socrates put it early: “I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece but of the world”.

I believe that we, as sport people, we can be role models, we can do more and I would challenge you to leave a legacy in that respect, as many have done before. Our question could equally be: What has sport contributed to the increase in inequality and the lack of respect for diversity and what can we do about it?

This important question calls us as sport people to reflect on our own sporting practices. Do we consciously use sport to unite people in a celebration of diversity as part of the joy of effort, or are we involved in sporting activities and practices that divide us from one another and reinforce notions of superiority, not based upon sporting excellence but on racial, cultural, social or gender designations?

In my view, respect for diversity is the most important amongst the Olympic values as it is not only a condition for fair play but is reflected in joy of effort, excellence and balance between body, will and mind.

While you are here, use your time with each other wisely, learn about your different cultures and backgrounds, broaden your “intercultural intelligence“ and your world view.

Diversity can be seen as the many aspects of a beautiful mosaic. All facets of a mosaic are distinct and different, yet are all a part of the same picture – some call it “unity in diversity”. Depending on what angle you look from, you might see something slightly different and get a different insight from the same piece of art which you have never seen before, or expected.

In knowledge there is understanding, in understanding there is respect; and where there is respect, growth and development will occur. “Respect for Diversity”, welcomes new acquaintances, celebrates new friendships and values each other in our diverse ways.

I was privileged to be able to do so thirty years ago here at the IOA and would encourage you to take this opportunity to do the same. I would like to end with a quote by one of the greatest leaders and role models for Respect for Diversity:

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.

Nelson Mandela


Abdalla, A. (2004). “Conflict resolution and diversity: The do’s and don’ts” [unpublished paper], Costa Rica.

Binder, D. (Ed.) (2007). Teaching Values: An Olympic Education Toolkit. A Programme of the International Olympic Committee, Lausanne.

Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition ©, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. Harper & Collins Publishers 2009.

Keim, M. (2012). “Developing peace through community sport in multi-ethnic South African contexts”. In R. J. Schinke & S. J. Hanrahan (Eds.), Sport for Development, Peace, and Social Justice, Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology, pp. 9–21.

Mandela, N. (2004). In Crwys-Williams, Jennifer (Ed.), In the Words of Nelson Mandela, Penguin.

Mayell, H. (2002). “Documentary redraws humans’ family tree”. National Geographic. December 2002.

Rose, B. and Tunmer, R. (Eds.) (1975). Documents in South African Education. Johannesburg, Donker.

Sparks, A. (1990). The Mind of South Africa, New York 1990, 196 ff.

South African Constitution (1996). “Bill of Right No 9, Chapter 2”, Government Printers, Pretoria.

Weeks, D. (1992). The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution, Penguin, NY.

Electronical Sources

Online Etymology Dictionary © 2010, Douglas Harper, Available online et php?term=respect, accessed on 30 March 2014.

Perkins, H. A. and Otto, M. K. (2012). “ASDIC”, available online:, accessed on 30 March 2014.

Proust, M. “Diversity. An Overview”: “Inclusion”, Book and Video catalogue, The MASTER Teacher, Manhattan KS, 1999), 5A.

KEIM Marion, "Respect for Diversity", in: K. Georgiadis(ed.), Olympic values: Respect for diversity, 54th International Session for Young Participants (Ancient Olympia, 15-29/6/2014), International Olympic Academy, Athens, 2015, pp.177-189.

Article Author(s)

Respect for Diversity
Prof. Dr Marion KEIM
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Articles & Publications


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Respect for Diversity
Prof. Dr Marion KEIM
Visit Author Page

Articles & Publications


Article Author(s)

Respect for Diversity
Prof. Dr Marion KEIM
Visit Author Page