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Building back better with sport

Copyrights: UN Women/Gustavo Stephan / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (

Building back better with sport

COVID-19 has changed much of society, including grassroot sports. At the end of a very interesting year, I to reflect on some of the impacts COVID-19 has had on community sports that I have observed, and question how sport can be used to build back better.

As 2020 comes to a close, I wanted to reflect on some of the challenges that grassroot sports have faced this past year and consider some of the challenges and opportunities that will come in the future.

The current state of grassroot sport and recreation

As a swim coach for a community team, I see first-hand some of the impacts that sports are feeling from COVID-19 restrictions. Some of these impacts are:

  • Less facility time available for clubs to rent. The group that I coach now is practicing 3 hours less a week in total compared to last year. Other groups get even less pool time. I’m curious to see if this has long term impacts on athlete development – will high performance athletes in ten years not be at the same level as athletes today?
  • There has also been a loss of coaches. Not all coaches were able to coach this year due to various reasons, and we have lost a lot of valuable talent in coaching.
  • Teams and clubs were not able to welcome back as many athletes due to restrictions placed on the number of people allowed to gather together. This means that not as many young people are able to participate in sport. We have already been seeing a decline in people participating in organised sport over the last few years and COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend.

These effects have negative impacts on sport development and athlete development. There are other effects that stem from this as well, such as financial challenges. With not being able to welcome back as many athletes, revenues go down, while in some cases expenses may go up. There can be more costs to running a sport program now, with needing to gather the proper safety equipment (masks, sanitizer, etc). When there are less athletes, it also means that the cost per athlete to rent space goes up. Hence, it is more expensive to run sport programs during COVID-19.

One challenge that I experience as a coach is not being able to connect with the athletes as much. I always try to prioritize getting to know the kids as much as possible during the year, but this year, with social distancing, face masks and no informal chat time before or after practice (we show up, get in the pool, practice, and leave), there is very little opportunity for me to get to know the athletes better. I wonder if this will have an impact on retention rates in athletes. Will athletes drop out of sports because their relationship with their coach (and other athletes) has changed and it isn’t as fun with all the restrictions and safety measures?

In the future when we are building back, a challenge that we will face is trying to get those athletes that we lost back into sport. 

There have also been positives that have come out of the pandemic. More people took up informal and unorganized sport and recreation activities, such as cycling, as a way of transport. Sport clubs have also been forced to think innovatively on how they can keep training when facilities are at a reduced capacity (for example, the team that I coach did open water swimming practices throughout the summer, something that we had not done before). COVID-19 has reminded people the importance of getting outdoors and doing activities like hiking.

Looking forward

On 1 December 2020, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a draft resolution titled “Sport as an enabler of sustainable development”. This year’s test incorporates new additions that recognize the important role that sport and physical activity will have in post-pandemic recovery plans. The Secretary-General also published a report titled “Sport: A global accelerator of peace and sustainable development for all”.

Sport and recreation will struggle to build back, just as all other sectors of society. Governments need to prioritize and realize the potential that sport has to help build back better. There is a lot of momentum behind sports and recreation, and now is the time for governments to invest in those types of infrastructure while there is widespread support.

Now is the time for people to reclaim cities that, for so long, have been designed for cars. Recovery from COVID-19 means making our communities stronger, healthier, and more resilient. Part of this plan will include increasing segregated bike lanes throughout cities. Making biking safe for citizens makes it accessible. In many places, a lot of spending will have to occur to build proper active transport infrastructure. 

Putting aside more public green spaces is also needed. This needs to be done in cities and around cities. More parks in cities will help make green space accessible to people who do not have cars. More parks outside of cities will help preserve our ecosystems and increase the capacity of our parks. Gatineau Park in Canada’s National Capital Region had several days where they were at full capacity over the past few months. Increasing park areas can make sure that no one is turned away and that everyone can always enjoy nature.

Governments must also place a focus on the importance of sport organisations and their contributions to society. Sports can be used to fight specific local issues. Highlighted in the UN Secretary-General's report is the role of sport as a catalyst of social and economic development, health and societal change. It highlights how sport organisations like the International Cycling Union can take a greater leadership role in promoting active transport in cities.

Governments must change policies to include sport as a tool for implementation. Economic recovery packages must invest in sport programming, for all ages, and we must make the appropriate investments to make sport and recreation accessible. For many years in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada there has been an ongoing fight over building a new pool. These questions must not be asked anymore. No community should go without basic infrastructure. Sport and recreation must be included in anti-poverty plans, and in plans to help rebuild community connections, in education, in city planning and climate action. There are many ways that sport can be used in new ways to build back better.

Moving forward, sport organisations must look at the bigger picture of how their sport can help shape society. Governments must also look at sport innovatively and examine how sport can be used to meet their policy objectives. Sport is no longer just about entertainment, it is about values.


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Thursday, December 10, 2020 - 19:26

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