To celebrate International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, we spoke to Jess Markt, a remarkable coach from the United States who has spent the last seven years inspiring and providing opportunities for communities within war-torn countries to experience the positive impact team sports has.

In 2000 Jess Markt was first introduced to wheelchair basketball when he attended a training session for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association team, the Portland Wheelblazers. He immediately fell in love with the game and has been playing and coaching ever since.

Jess broke his back in an auto accident during the summer of 1996 after his first year at the University of Oregon. Having been an athlete growing up, playing basketball as well as competing on the University athletics team as a high jumper, finding wheelchair basketball proved very important to him.

He explained, “I considered wheelchair basketball to be the final piece in my recovery from my spinal cord injury. I had gone back to university and gotten my degree, had fully reintegrated into my social life with friends and family, and had secured the first job in my career in communications, all within a few short years of the injury. However, it felt like something was still missing. It turned out that a return to competitive team sports was that final element I needed to complete my full realisation of myself post-injury. Wheelchair basketball provided that and more, introducing me to so many people – coaches, players, administrators, and others – that have had a profound influence on my life since”

The impact the sport had on Jess is one that he has successfully passed on to many more. In 2009 he received a request to coach a team in Afghanistan which gave him an opportunity to inspire others.

“About nine years after I began playing wheelchair basketball, when I was playing for the New York Rollin’ Knicks and living in Brooklyn, I received an email through the manager of my team requesting someone to travel to Afghanistan and spend a week teaching the basics of the game to a newly-formed team in the town of Maimana.

“As crazy as that request sounded – I’d never travelled to the developing world at that point, much less a war zone like Afghanistan – I thought back to my own experience with wheelchair basketball and what it had meant to me and my recovery, and I felt like I had to take the opportunity to pass that experience on to a group of people who might never otherwise have the chance to feel the life-altering empowerment that team sports can bring.

“After spending that week in Maimana and developing a relationship with the players there, I knew I needed to find a way to come back to teach them again, and to broaden the impact of wheelchair basketball in Afghanistan. I met the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) Physical Rehabilitation Programme in Afghanistan – an Italian named Alberto Cairo, who has spent over 25 years working to help people with physical disabilities in the country – and he was very interested in using wheelchair basketball as a next frontier in physical rehabilitation for his patient population. We’ve been working together ever since, and have now established leagues for men and women with teams in provinces across the country and over 400 players in total.

“Seeing the success of the programme in Afghanistan prompted the ICRC to send me to other countries in which it provides physical rehabilitation services – including India, Palestine, Cambodia, and South Sudan – to help kick start similar programmes for wheelchair basketball. While we work to grow these programmes, we are also looking for new opportunities to bring wheelchair basketball and other adaptive sports to potential athletes in countries dealing with conflict and war.”

IWBF has recently partnered with the ICRC to support these important programmes and the development of wheelchair basketball across the world. So what next for Jess and the ICRC’s fantastic work?

Jess said, “The first ambition for myself and the ICRC when we start these programmes is just to give disabled people an outlet to experience the fundamental positive aspects of team sport and how it can set them on the road to success in many facets of their lives. However, we also work to develop the programmes so that they provide a range of competitive levels for players in all phases of development and with all different goals. If a player wants to participate casually in a local practice once per week, we ensure that is an option. But if he or she is interested in advancing his or her skills to play at the national or, eventually, international level, we strive to ensure those opportunities will be available as well.”

As part of the coaching Jess has done in Afghanistan, he led the Afghanistan men’s national team in their first ever official IWBF competition, the IWBF Asia Oceania qualifying tournament for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games which took place in Chiba, Japan in October 2015. For the twelve players it gave them an opportunity to not only play at an elite level, but also to experience new cultures.

He continued, “This is why our new partnership with the IWBF is so important. By working together, the ICRC and IWBF can ensure that athletes from even the most unlikely countries will have the chance to compete at the highest level and experience the power of being members of the ever-growing international wheelchair basketball community.”

To find out more about the ICRC and Jess’s work you can follow his blog.