MANATEE -- Can youth soccer and Little League bolster the economies of third world nations and bring about world peace? Organizers of a United Nations-sponsored event coming to Bradenton think they just might.
Starting Monday, an international summit aimed at the millennial generation is bringing representatives from more than a dozen countries to Manatee County to learn leadership through sport. But the event isn't limited to a banquet hall and a bunch of classrooms. Games and clinics to be held around the county are drawing hundreds of visiting athletes and sports stars to show what a little friendly competition can do.
Figure skater Michelle Kwan, former Major League Baseball star Ken Griffey Sr., former NFL quarterback Warren Moon and Olympic and Paralympics medalists will be among the dignitaries attending the International Sport & Social Impact Summit next week. Geared to the public this year after getting its start in 2014 as a pilot program on the IMG Academy campus, the summit draws on the spirit of cooperation, said event organizer Frances Skinner-Lewis.
"No matter where you are in the world, no matter what generation, people all speak the language of sports," she said.
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From an opening ceremony that will feature an Olympic-style parade of flags and participants, to soccer, rugby, hockey and other demonstration events, the summit is designed to train a new generation of leaders and to capitalize on the Bradenton area's growing reputation as a sports destination. Local sponsors for the event include the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., IMG Academy and the Bradenton Area Sports Commission.
Sean Walter, director of sports for the commission, said summit events and the U.N. banner will draw attention to local facilities including IMG, Ellenton Ice Arena and the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch.
"The biggest thing is the exposure and the cache," Walter said. "It's market impression that we look at."
Top draws are expected to be Monday's opening ceremony at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, an appearance by Kwan and other Olympic medalists at the ice arena and the other star-studded athletic events to be held June 13 and 14. Members of the public may attend sporting events by donating a piece of new baseball equipment that will distributed to a Manatee County nonprofit.
The concept for the summit originated about five years ago when the U.N. Office for Sport Development and Peace targeted sports as a global outreach device. Skinner-Lewis, a Chicago attorney who works with celebrities and sports figures in the "charitable space," got involved with the concept through U.N. officials she knows.
When it came to putting on a training event for international 18- to 28-year-olds, she chose Bradenton, in part because she knew the area from her children's participation in the former Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
Skinner-Lewis said it's particularly rare for a U.N. program to find a home on American soil.
"I wanted it to be housed in the U.S.," she said.
Leadership participants come largely from the developing world. Their home nations include Nepal, India, Ghana, South Africa, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala. They will be in the Bradenton area for two weeks learning from sports professionals, entrepreneurs and U.N. officials.
At the most basic level, 53 participants chosen by the U.N. will get training through seminars, workshops and clinics and then go home to start formal sports programs, teams and leagues. Those organizational skills are also applicable to starting businesses and advocating for social causes such as disease, homelessness and chemical dependency.
"We want to open up their minds to what their possibilities are to drive social change," Skinner-Lewis said.
For the Bradenton area, the event promises to pay benefits well into the future. Organizers hope to build name recognition this year to attract more sponsorships. The program could then return to Bradenton year after year.
Sharon Hillstrom, the EDC's president and CEO, said local participation can only help to increase the summit's profile. The splashy events are also expected to draw media interest.
"We would love a great showing from the community," Hillstrom said.
A schedule of public events included in the summit can be found on the summit's website at 1team.global.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.