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Using sport in government policy

Using sport in government policy

What can governments and policymakers do to incorporate sport into their policies, programs and projects for development? This article explores how governments can use sport more broadly to reach their policy objectives, using Canada as an example.

Canada has long recognized the power that sport has to empower people through sport. This can be seen through policies from Sport Canada that are aimed at increasing participation and inclusion of groups in sport (Sport Canada’s Policy on Aboriginal Peoples’ Participation in Sport, Policy on Sport for Persons with a Disability, and Actively Engaged: A Policy on Sport for Women and Girls).

Sport Canada is a unit within the Department of Canadian Heritage, whose mission is “to enhance opportunities for Canada to participate and excel in sport, through policy leadership and strategic investments in the sport system. Sport Canada has produced policies, in conjunction with the Government of Canada sport acts and regulations.” 

But I wanted to explore how and why governments can use sport in policy, outside of sport regulatory bodies like Sport Canada. How can sport be used to have an impact by governments? This is already being partly done in the Canadian context; Sport Canada and Health Canada are jointly responsible for the Physical Activity and Sport Act (2003), which outlines Canada’s commitment to using sport to promote healthy lifestyles. But how can sport be used in other departments like global affairs, or in one of the several economic development departments? Sport is easily transferable to many different policy areas.

Government can be and is a regulatory body for sport funding. When sport organisations request funding from the Government of Canada, it goes through the Sport Funding and Accountability Framework (SFAF). The SFAF is the tool used by the Department of Canadian Heritage to identify which organisations are eligible to receive funding contributions under the Sport Support Program.

Organisations that meet the eligibility criteria proceed to the next stage of the SFAF, during which various components are rated and weighted to determine an organisation’s final assessment score, which determines their funding reference level. Some of the considerations are what they will be doing to increase equality, inclusion and safe sport. Sport regulatory bodies can introduce further considerations on how the money will be used for community development when granting funding to sport organisations.

One area that is lacking in sport policy is that policy is often done in silos. Sports need to be included in any policy development that goes on across government departments. The need for cross-departmental sport initiatives is high. Sport is not just for specific departments, but can and needs to be used in departments like Infrastructure Canada (planning bike lanes into our cities), Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (using sport as a tool for settlement of newcomers to our country). Sport is a versatile tool that's “side effects” can be used to help achieve many different policy goals.

It is not only up to the sport community to use sport for community development. Government departments have the capacity to use sports in their policies and programs to increase the accessibility of sports and the impact that sports can have on our societies. In the recent federal budget request from the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee, they focused on how national sport organisations want to increase their programming in community development. It is great to see that sport organisations see their role in a purpose-driven world as a positive one and can have the foresight to see how sport can be used for good.

The role that I see the government and policy playing in the social impact of sports is government using sport as a central pillar of the policies they produce to meet their mandates. Health Canada can use sport to help foster healthy communities and people across Canada, provincial education departments can use sport in their curriculums to help connect youth and the subject matter. Departments like Infrastructure Canada and Health Canada can partner to help provide funding for better access to bike lanes in cities, to help make space for healthier communities. Global Affairs Canada can use sport as a core part of their diplomacy strategy, increasing ties with other countries for trade and other also as a tool in their international aid and development strategies. I see sport as a universal policy tool that can be applied to many different situations to solve some of the most pressing issues in our societies. 

Sport needs to be part of every government’s recovery plans. Using sport as a tool for economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 world will be an opportunity for governments to help lift communities up. Sport will be an important tool for recovery because it can help rebuild some of the community connections that were lost, and at the same time improve people’s skills that can help them find employment, and also create employment. Economic development agencies in Canada (like the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency “ACOA”) are focused on creating opportunities for economic growth. It should be the policies of organisations like this to focus on organisations that create growth but also contribute positively to communities. They should also place a special focus on social businesses.

We are on the cusp of a great sport revolution. The way sport is being used to impact the day to day life of the average citizen is changing. Where we once focused solely on competition and achieving greatness in sport, the impact that sport can have in the wider community through development and social impact will define the future of what sport is all about, not the number of medals that we win. The government can get ahead of this by taking a broader sport policy approach.

David Thibodeau is a former competitive swimmer and current National Coaching Certification Program certified coach. He founded Sports for Social Impact to explore sport policy and provide insightful analysis to those working in the sport industry. He is an advocate for better inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in sports and gym classes, and has a Masters in Public Policy and Administration from Carleton University.


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Tuesday, August 4, 2020 - 22:28