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Redesigning elite sport to present new narratives

Copyrights: Kirsty Deacon

Redesigning elite sport to present new narratives

Elite sport’s structures and underlying assumptions impact sport’s overall role in global sustainable development – here is an elite athlete’s perspective.

While it is easy to think of sport for development in terms of community-level sport, elite and professional competition also play an important role. By reflecting critically on the narratives elite sport is currently telling, we can better utilise its power to either reinforce or challenge certain ideas.

Elite sport benefits society by allowing an expression and exploration to take place. This can relate to both individuals and collective cultures and histories. Elite sport also, whether correctly or not, inspires, provides role models, and shows people what is possible. Sporting events carry influential messages, as demonstrated by the 57 billion US dollar global sports sponsorship market. As a result of this influence, under-challenged sporting norms, such as sex-segregated competition, can affect issues like gender in broader society.

This represents an opportunity for elite sport to reshape narratives, both within competition, and more importantly, in people’s day-to-day lives.

For instance, elite sport could produce narratives where females compete with and defeat males, and where sex and gender are presented as complex details rather than defining or categorising labels. It could also explore the role of privilege or our relationship with the environment. Elite sports could be designed that show and celebrate the power of the earth conquering humans (rather than the other way around) or that emphasise the ways we work together with nature. There are many opportunities to be found in not simply assuming that the way sport is currently structured is the way it naturally has to be.

It is tempting to think that elite sport makes more sense than it does. We want to believe that events are the way they are for a reason – that their rules and the attributes they test are not arbitrary but somehow arise from necessity. This can help make sport meaningful and more reflective of life. However, there are also benefits to questioning sport’s design.

Some aspects of competition, such as the structure of dividing athletes into male and female categories, have undergone minimal change since Ancient Greek times. A lot has changed in our world since then, suggesting some of sport’s structures are likely out-dated. If we consider how much it would cost to sponsor nearly all Western sporting events from the Ancient Greeks until now, it becomes evident how much influence any flawed structures can have on society – especially because sport’s results seem objective and factual.

Currently, nearly every time a professional sporting event is held, a message is reinforced where females are slower or weaker, vulnerable, and in need of protection with their own category. Assumptions are also reinforced about a false sex/gender binary, humans taking on and conquering nature, and privilege being ignored in favour of attributing success to hard work and worthiness.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has taken the positive step of introducing mixed relay events to Olympic competition. However, these events still have separate positions allocated to males and females, and much more can be done.

This is not to say that new sporting events should be instilled with predetermined messages or designed with certain outcomes in mind. Part of elite sport’s power is that it organically creates and explores situations symbolic of our outside lives, and that these can be related to and interpreted differently by different people. Events should be contested as intensely and honestly as ever. Rather than being restructured with particular stories in mind, sport should be ‘un-structured’ and opened up to allow it to explore new experiences that better reflect our current world.

There are plenty of opportunities to achieve this. The sporting results that seem objective and factual are actually subject to the social constructs that influence sport’s design.

For instance, if sport tests typically male attributes, males will seem better at sport. If cameras only focus on the leader of a race, it will seem like athletes have to win to contribute and participate meaningfully. If sport is designed to pit humans against the earth and the elements, sport will seem to be about conquering. None of these things are inherently true.

By creating new professional sporting events that test more typically female attributes like flexibility and small size, our organisation, Sport Rethought, aims to allow new kinds of narratives to unfold in which all sexes and genders compete together.

Technology and social media are creating unprecedented opportunities for change to happen. These platforms allow multiple stories and perspectives from a single event to be presented. They also provide an opportunity for new, unconventional sports to grow and be showcased. This emphasises that by questioning sport’s assumptions, powerful possibilities to support sustainable development can be unlocked.

Sport Rethought is currently undertaking the SDSN Youth’s Innovation Readiness Program to create professional sporting events that explore new ways of structuring and presenting sport. By rethinking sport’s narratives and assumptions about things like gender and the environment, these events aim to support the Sustainable Development Goals.


Kirsty Deacon has a Graduate Diploma in International Development Studies and is an elite level cyclist from Australia. She is interested in the role of elite sport in sustainable development, particularly for its potential to influence perceptions and explore gender, environmental and social issues.


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Kirsty Deacon


Friday, August 12, 2022 - 18:55

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