We all know the health benefits of sport: it decreases stress, reduces the likelihood of developing a chronic disease and can protect the body from injury. But what we often don't think about is how powerful sport is as a tool for building community.

When I attended the 2018 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships (https://skatecanada.ca/2018-canadian-tire-national-skating-championships/) in Vancouver last month, I found myself glowing with pride watching our country's athletes compete by striving for their very best performances on the ice. It was so inspiring. Even with a sparse crowd at times, you could feel the pride, connectedness and hope in the room.

The Lower Mainland is no stranger to the role sports play in bringing people together. In 2010, we had the unique privilege of hosting the 21st Winter Olympic Games (https://www.olympic.org/vancouver-2010)––an event that saw the streets fill with people of all backgrounds, including people that call B.C. home and those who travelled for  the celebration. With the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games (https://www.pyeongchang2018.com/en/index) set to begin on February 9th, it's a great time to celebrate the power of sport, notice the impact it has on our communities, and join in the spirit ourselves.

Here are some of the ways sport builds communities:

Sport Brings People Together

Whether it is in the arena or on the field, around the work water cooler or in front of the TV, sport naturally brings people together to socialize, communicate, compete   and celebrate. Even when we are cheering for opposing teams, we enjoy cheering and jeering together in shared spaces. Sport can bring players and athletes of all ability levels together, but the role sport plays in bringing audiences and families together around a shared experience is also just as powerful. It's no coincidence that all my favourite 2010 Olympic memories revolve around who I was with at the time. I remember exactly who I jubilantly hugged when the Canadian Men's Hockey team won the gold medal.

Sport Can Improve Our Collective Mental Health

Being physically active improves our individual overall well‐being, but I also believe it improves our collective well‐being too. At the skating championships, I watched young athletes who have been working their whole lives to be the best figure skaters in the country––stretching themselves to overcome all limitations to pursue and achieve their dreams. Watching them made me feel so hopeful, knowing that just the striving itself is inherently optimistic. Sport promotes the belief that, as humans, we can overcome challenges, we can make dreams become reality and we can hope that all of that hard work is worth it in the end. With hope, we can achieve anything.

Sport Strengthens National Pride

I don't know about you, but when I see the Olympic clothing gear released every two years, I can't help but get excited, immediately buying a maple leaf clad item that I will proudly wear for years to come. When we come together as a country to cheer for the homegrown hero, we band together in a unique way, remembering just how great our country is. When we hear the sound of a roaring crowd after the goal scored or a record is broken, we animate a collective pride in our athletes and the Canadian values we hold dear. A University of British Columbia study that measured the impact of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games found that in addition to economic benefits, our region benefited culturally.

“Throughout the Olympics and in the weeks immediately following, there was a real sense of success and pride among British Columbians and Canadians,” says Rob VanWynsberghe, lead author of the Olympic Games Impact Study Reports (http://css.ubc.ca/projects/olympic-games-impact-study/ogi-reports/). “These feelings were well‐founded, some real success stories came out of these Games.”

Sport Promotes Inclusion Through A Celebration of Diversity

While sport supports patriotism, it also facilitates inclusion, whether that be an increase in participation by diverse groups or greater exposure to sports featuring athletes with disabilities. The same UBC study found that the 2010 games saw a greater participation of Aboriginal groups and minorities in particular. Through events like the Olympics, we get exposed to new cultures, new ways of thinking and different abilities. Sport reminds us that there is more that binds us together than separates us, and promotes the values and skills of teamwork, cooperation, mutual respect and acceptance.

Sport is Just Plain Fun

The joy of sport is inescapable. The energy, the fast pace, the competition, the friendly rivalries, the bloopers, the jokes––it's all just so much fun. And when we are happier and having fun, we all are better together.

From one sport lover to another, I look forward to cheering Team Canada on with you as we strengthen Canada and our communities one medal, competition and anthem at a time.

A version of this blog originally appeared on the YMCA of Greater Vancouver's website.