07/12/2010 04:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Game Change

Yesterday, millions of fans around the world gathered to watch the showdown between Spain and the Netherlands in the World Cup Final on the pitch in Johannesburg's Soccer City. Although this World Cup has been full of surprises on the field, the real game-changing action has happened off of it.

The World Cup has changed the attitudes of the people of South Africa toward their country. From average citizens to top political and business leaders, South Africa has never seemed so united. The vuvuzela, the unusual, noisy, distracting horns that have dominated the volume of millions of TV sets around the world are also playing in the streets in the hands of blacks and whites, of young and old. South Africa's President, Jacob Zuma, a man who played competitive soccer while in prison on Robben Island, sees it clearly: "Far more important than the facilities, the money, and the media attention, the World Cup has brought South Africa together. The challenge of my presidency," he continued, "is to maintain that spirit of unity."

Zuma's comments are reminiscent of the genius of Nelson Mandela. In 1995, then President Mandela saw The Rugby World Cup as a way to inspire his people to rethink hate and fear and help transcend the decades of injustice experienced by the brutalized black majority. When the historically all white South African Springboks sang the new South African national anthem, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika," and waved the new black, green, and gold South African flag in victory, fear and anger yielded to hope. In the hands of Mandela, that hope took flight.

The lesson, however, goes well beyond big events in South Africa. The world cup has revealed a broader trend: the emergence of sport as a powerful tool for advancing urgent social and political goals. Far from being a superfluous distraction from the hard work of social and political change, sport is becoming recognized as among the world's most powerful weapons for changing hearts and minds. And reshaping individual and social attitudes is the most difficult challenge confronting those fighting the world's most challenging social and political problems.

Far from the luxurious fields of the world cup, this insight is coming to life in neighborhoods and communities around the world. In India, Saving Lives through Dance gives victims of human trafficking the chance to learn a new skill and renew a healthy mind-body relationship by teaching dance. In the Middle East, Twinned Peace Sports Schools encourages reconciliation and coexistence among 2,000 young Palestinian and Israeli boys and girls by providing sports training where the real lesson is about the common ground of the human spirit. Grassroots Soccer, a South African based organization, is active in the streets of Soweto attracting children with soccer but its mission is to shape safe and healthy attitudes about AIDS prevention and awareness.

It may seem improbable, but sport is quickly becoming a cutting edge tool for social entrepreneurs and development professionals interested in everything from ending gangs to educating girls to fighting intolerance. But despite the mounting evidence of sport's catalytic role in human and social development, it is still too often overlooked. Physical education and sports programs in the United States are increasingly being cut even as its value in fighting the scourge of childhood obesity is more and more clear. Recent research suggests that physical activity even promotes the development of the brain and improves the brain's processing speed for learning, and yet schools slash time allotted to sports and physical education.

Marketers too are behind the curve. During the World Cup, a host of the world's greatest brands made almost no mention of the power of sport to advance their social and community engagement roles. The dearth of sports or other cause-marketing during the games was striking in a time of increased sensitivity to social responsibility.

Nonetheless, the message of South Africa's unity should be heeded. Perhaps it was best reflected when Jacob Zuma himself put on soccer cleats and played in Capetown Stadium for 20 minutes with Special Olympics athletes, soccer legends, and Hollywood stars. The power of the game was already well known to the athletes with intellectual disabilities who have used sport to fight discrimination and social exclusion for a generation. But for anyone watching, it was transformative. As one fan said, "I can't tell the difference between the people with disabilities and the others."

Therein lies the power of sport--to build communities where differences yield to unity. Let's hope that's the legacy of 2010 and that it will be remembered long after the goals are forgotten.

Timothy Shriver is the Chairman and CEO of Special Olympics