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The struggle for universal access to sport

Copyrights: Tiverton High School

The struggle for universal access to sport

Access to sport is a fundamental right, but many groups and individuals face great obstacles in realising and exercising this right.

* This is an edited version of the presentation made by sportanddev senior consultant Ben Sanders at the recent Sport Philanthropy World conference. It was part of a panel on sport and development and issues of access with Dr Sarah Hillyer and Mr Theren Bullock.

Access to sport is a fundamental human right enshrined in many conventions and commitments. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child – the most widely ratified human rights treaty ever – the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport, the Olympic Charter and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Even the Geneva Conventions, which were adopted over 70 years ago and cover the rights of war victims, mention sport, stating that prisoners of war are entitled to “physical exercise, sports and games.

The issue of access is critical when we talk about sport better serving society – even more so because COVID-19 threatens to reverse progress. For example, despite improvements on gender equity, access to sport is still unequal. One’s ability to be involved in sport is profoundly affected by one’s background.

Sport as the forgotten right

Sport is often referred to as the forgotten right – and it seems to have been neglected even more during the pandemic. Many groups are unable to realise this right and remain heavily discriminated against. These include:

  1. Discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation

Women, girls and the LGBTQ+ community, especially in certain parts of the world, continue to face obstacles in accessing sport. Sport can be gender transformative but it can also reinforce stereotypes and harmful norms.

  1. Discrimination based on race, ethnicity and migration status

If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it is that deep systemic and structural racism pervades so many structures within our lives. Sport is not absent of this, and race determines access to sport in many parts of the world – including in South Africa (where I am from), where sport was even racially segregated during apartheid and racial inequities continue to exist.

Ethnic minorities also continue to face obstacles to participation. Refugees and migrants can benefit greatly from sport but suffer from a lack of access.

  1. Discrimination based on disability

Persons with disabilities continue to be excluded from sport, despite recent progress. The work of Special Olympics, the International Paralympic Committee and others deserves to be acknowledged, but more needs to be done.

  1. Discrimination based on income and socioeconomic status

People of lower socioeconomic status may not have the means or opportunity to be involved in sport.

Age is something we rarely focus on, but it is worth noting that most sport for development programmes target young people. This is important, but it does mean that older people tend to be excluded.

Even if the above groups can access sport, their opportunities and experiences may be markedly different to other ‘privileged’ groups. These are just some of examples of discrimination and they are intersectional – different types of discrimination are linked and some people are face multiple levels of discrimination.

How do we move forward?

Although access to sport is not equal, there are some potential solutions.

  1. Reset funding priorities

For too long, excessive investment has been plunged into elite sport, which is elitist and serves a tiny percentage of society. Grassroots sport, sport for all, school sport and sport for development remain grossly underfunded, and we need to increase investment in them.

Public investment should focus on these areas rather than mega-events or elite sport, especially in developing countries where it has been shown that elite sport events exacerbate existing inequities.

This will not be easy and requires challenging vested interests.

  1. Prioritise sport for all

We have often celebrated sport only when it is serious (i.e. elite, competitive, organised). Children are pushed into performing, resulting in many stopping sport altogether, with a long-term impact on their health and well-being. Instead, can we take grassroots sport more seriously? Can we focus more on participation rather than performance, inclusion more than exclusion, and so on?

I am not saying there is not a place for elite sport. There is. But it is time to reset the balance. As COVID-19 has shown, sport is bigger than elite sport – while elite sport leagues and events were on hold, many grassroots sport initiatives continued. In fact, many sport for development actors used their connection with communities to be part of relief, response and recovery efforts.

Investment also needs to ensure that marginalised groups are able to access sport. These include girls and women, LGBTQ+ actors, refugees and migrants, ethnic minorities, people of lower socioeconomic status and those with disabilities.

This is not just about participation. It cannot be token gestures. It also requires changes in leadership and administration. The mantra of ‘nothing about us without us’ needs to be firmly adhered to here.

  1. Increase access to learning resources

We also need to increase access to learning, information and provide capacity building tools. sportanddev has launched a massive open online course (MOOC) – Sport for Sustainable Development: Designing Effective Policies and Programmes – in partnership with the Commonwealth and Australian government. It is free and open access and has been well received with over 4,500 learners already engaged from over 180 countries and counting. We need more such resources.

Extra time

Two final points. Firstly, if we want to maximise the contribution of sport to society, we need to recognise that sport is not automatically positive. It may even cause harm. We need to let go of the ‘Great Sport Myth’ that assumes sport is a panacea. Instead, we need to ensure that sport policies and programmes are carefully and intentionally designed (with the very people they are intended to benefit as central stakeholders) to enable positive outcomes. Even then, nothing is guaranteed.

Lastly, while many sport and sport for development organisations are doing fantastic work in the COVID-19 relief, response and recovery efforts, the crisis has exacerbated challenges. Sport may once again be relegated to a secondary concern, and resources are more limited than ever. This raises the prospect of inequities increasing within sport for development and the broader sport sector. However, it also presents an opportunity to reimagine the role of sport in development, to forge a better relationship between sport and society

But it is not only time to reimagine the role of sport in society. That is necessary but not sufficient.

If we are serious about creating a level playing field and ensuring sport plays a pivotal role in creating a better world, it is time for us to reshape, reform and ultimately revolutionise the role of sport in society, The time is now – and it will require a team effort.


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Thursday, July 1, 2021 - 13:10

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