VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Wherever public policy, communities and even religions may have failed, sports and recreation are ready and set to lift wounded spirits and build cooperation and peace in the world, said a number of speakers at a Vatican conference.

“Sport is the medicine my mother couldn’t give me” to counteract the bullying and exclusion growing up in York, Pennsylvania, one Special Olympic champion said.

Despite growing up poor, partially blind and mentally challenged, “I could do Double Dutch like no one else” with jump-ropes and could run faster than the others, Loretta Claiborne said during a global conference on “Sport at the Service of Humanity,” hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture Oct. 6-7.

Maria Toorpakay Wazir — a professional squash player who grew up in the Taliban’s “hotbed of terrorism” tribal regions of Pakistan — told the audience “it was an accident” and a blessing “I got into sports.”

“When I realized at 4 years old, boys have more freedom than girls,” and social practices would forbid her from playing sports, getting an education and leaving the house, she said, she burned all her dresses.

Seeing the mound of fire, her father said he would be her No. 1 fan and from then on call her Genghis Khan, helping her pretend to be a boy so she could follow her dreams.

After competing and placing second in the “under 15” boys’ division in weightlifting, she said, she turned to squash because lifting weights alone all the time became “boring.”

Her father favored the switch, too, because she was getting into fights with boys a lot and she said he told her, “Now you won’t hit people. You will hit a ball against a wall.”

But, a requirement to show a birth certificate for training meant everyone found out Genghis was a girl, which led to abuse, harassment, attacks and “extreme bullying for years.” No matter what other people said or thought about her though, “I knew I was strong,” she said. “I knew I was perfect.”

Despite receiving support and a security detail from the national government and winning third in the world junior women’s championship, she and her family faced huge threats, which forced her to stay confined to her home for three and a half years. She said she spent those years smashing a ball against the walls and doggedly emailing people “all over the world” looking for a sponsor to get her out of Pakistan.

Living in Toronto since 2011, “I’ve played in freedom,” winning top rankings and becoming “a better player and human,” she said.

After seeing how people of many faiths can respect each other, she said the world’s problem “isn’t a clash of civilizations and religions, it’s a clash of ignorance. We are ignorant about each other.”

People learn to understand and respect others after they “connect emotionally,” she said, “and sports did that for me.”

Sports and recreation also have turned life around for thousands of vulnerable and isolated people in Australia, including as ethnic minorities and people suffering from substance abuse, economic hardship, mental illness or homelessness, said Peter Cullen, founder of RecLink.

The organization brings public servants, private companies, charitable groups and volunteers together to organize and run activities that “create a sense of community, help people feel better, improve their health, and feel like they belong,” Cullen told Catholic News Service.

He said their strategy is a low-cost, replicable model for any community. For example, a RecLink volunteer might get a police officer to volunteer to coach or manage a team, a welfare or probation officer to canvass potential players and a news outlet to draft players, provide publicity and track results.

The larger community experiences change, too, he said. When people attend nationwide events and exhibitions showcasing people’s achievements, they no longer see a prisoner, a drug addict and all the prejudices that often go with labels, Cullen said, but a human being.

Jesuit Father Patrick Kelly, professor of theology and religious studies Seattle University, told CNS that Catholicism is a natural advocate for promoting the importance of play for the integral good of every human being.

On the one hand, Catholicism understands “that the person is a unity of body, mind and spirit” and it recognizes that virtue is about moderation.

St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, strongly endorsed the virtue of play and the sin of excess, which includes an excess of work or study, said the priest, who authored “Catholic Perspectives on Sport: From Medieval to Modern Times.”

“We tend to value work almost as the ultimate value,” he said, forgetting or disdaining the benefits of play.

Even the world of sport has become excessive in some ways with an overemphasis on winning, fame and fortune at all costs.

“My feeling is the play element gets marginalized and lost in the sports in the United States,” he said.

Even some parents lose sight when they “look at even children’s play instrumentally, as a means to a college scholarship,” and so they may push their kids starting at a young age to work year-round in order to standout in a particular sport.

Catholic institutions and their sports programs need to be careful not “to fall into the same mindset that’s predominant in the culture of viewing sport instrumentally as a means to an end,” he said. “Because that’s a very small step then to viewing our students as means to an end.”

Taking part in a sport, he said, has to remain “an educational experience that leads to the development of the full person.”