Millions of people around the world have been captivated by this year’s Olympic Games.  The world is likely enthralled by many aspects of the games, such as the excitement of the competition and the athletes’ almost super-human abilities.  But one of the most heart-warming characteristics of the games is witnessing individuals achieve their childhood dreams. Last week the U.S. morning news show, the “Today Show,” interviewed the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. This group of five teen women shared stories about how, as children, they watched the Olympic gymnastics teams and dreamed of one day competing in the international arena.

Like the U.S. gymnasts and many other Olympic athletes, little girls all over the world dream of a bright future. They dream of becoming astronauts, doctors, cowgirls, even Olympians. Yet for some, the dreams are more modest: a future where a girl is able to complete school, marry a man she chooses, and avoid early pregnancy. However, for many girls, poverty, gender inequality, high rates of early marriage, lack of education, and negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes put these dreams out of reach.

New research suggests that involvement in sports might help to mitigate barriers that hinder the future of many adolescent girls. Sports can help build social networks for girls in developing countries, allowing them to challenge gender norms that contribute to their vulnerability. In addition to promoting gender equity, sports can enhance physical and mental well-being, promote social integration for girls, provide girls with adult mentors and encourage the development of new skills, knowledge, and self-confidence.

Additional research is beginning to show that participation in sports might have a positive effect on sexual behaviors, knowledge, and attitudes as well.  Many HIV prevention programs are beginning to incorporate sports as a platform for disseminating HIV prevention messages. Girls-only sports programs might be able to address issues such as self-confidence, social identity, and the way that family and communities perceive girls.

While not every girl who is involved in a sports program will become an Olympic athlete; the evidence suggests that sports programs might enable adolescent girls to achieve many other childhood dreams. 

To learn more about how participation in sports can help girls build social networks, challenge gender norms, and enhance their physical and mental well-being, also see the latest IYWG YouthLens: Sports for Adolescent Girls.