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The limitations of sport in addressing the sustainable development goals

The limitations of sport in addressing the sustainable development goals

Sport for development has been proven to be effective for solving social issues. However, there are many challenges which need to be solved in order for sport to become a bigger player within the sustainable development goals.

While sport can be an important tool for addressing the SDGs, it also has some limitations. It may not be possible – or even appropriate – to use it in all circumstances.

These limitations create hurdles for those who want to run sports programmes in certain contexts; however, most will cause a stumble rather than a fall. Many organisations are working hard to, for example, reduce the impact of barriers such as prohibitive costs for people on lower incomes and limited sporting opportunities for people with a disability.

They are nonetheless worth emphasising. They present challenges which need to be overcome if sport will reach its full potential in addressing the SDGs, and they emphasise the reality that sport should be viewed as one tool to use alongside others rather than a catch-all approach.

The limitations have been categorised into four groups. This is useful for clarity, but it is worth pointing out that they often overlap. A wheelchair user on a low income, for example, may be unable to afford the fees for joining a sports club (a resource limitation), and live in a community with an absence of accessible public transport (access), a prevalence of discrimination (social and cultural) and a lack of supportive legislation (policy).

Resource limitations

Some communities don’t have easily available sports equipment. It is not always sold in local shops. Money to buy equipment and raw materials to create it are sometimes scarce. There also may not be appropriate playing surfaces, funding to support coaches and local knowledge on sport science and other relevant subjects.

It is not always possible to run sports programmes in areas with food security or water issues. If basic survival is in danger then it may also not be appropriate. Even if this is not the case, nourishment and hydration are important to ensure participants stay healthy while playing sport.

Even in relatively affluent parts of the world, income is a determining factor in a person’s ability to access sport. Research from the London School of Economics, for example, found that cost was the biggest barrier to participation for young people living in lower-income neighbourhoods in the UK. Likewise, although professional sport can be an effective platform for positive campaigning, high ticket prices and a tendency towards the privatisation of broadcasting rights are limiting the ability of people from poorer backgrounds to follow their favourite sports.

Access limitations

Even when resources are available, access can be an issue, especially for certain groups.  Many people with a disability, for example, are unable to access sports activities. Sports infrastructure is often not adapted to their needs, transport to training is not always accessible and coaches often lack the knowledge to integrate people with disabilities into their activities.

Some rural villages are difficult to reach and do not have access to community structures such as civil society organisations and proper schools. In this context, sports equipment, infrastructure and coaching knowledge are usually absent.

Social and cultural limitations

Many limitations are specific to particular countries, cultures or communities. Sport is particularly difficult in highly conservative societies, which often see it as a waste of time and may not view it as necessary in schools or desirable recreationally. Even in less conservative parts of the world, funding cuts are often made for school and community sports activities.

It can be particularly difficult for women and girls to practice sport. In most countries, female participation is lower than it is for men. Women face barriers which discourage them from playing sport and sometimes they are even explicitly prevented from participating.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people often feel discouraged from playing team sports. A study of 9,500 people, mostly from six countries (the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand) showed that 80 percent of people had “witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport”. Homosexuality is often seen as taboo in high-level sports. In English football, there was not one openly gay professional football player in 2017, presumably due to fears about hostility from fans, the media and teammates.

Women and girls, and the LGBT community are just two examples of groups who face social and cultural limitations, but there are many. Ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees, people from certain socioeconomic classes and people with disabilities are among the groups who find it difficult to access sport for social and cultural reasons in certain contexts.

Policy limitations

Policymakers are one of main players in making the link between sport and development. They can manage and provide the necessary resources, create policies to promote inclusion, manage access and fight cultural norms that might be hindering efforts.

Not all governments are supportive of sport projects. When governments do not provide infrastructure, permits for games, time off policies that encourage workers to be active and legislation ensuring sport is a priority in school curriculums, grassroots movements become the main providers of sport.

On an international level, sport still does not have a secure place in national overseas development budgets. Some governments, such as those in Germany, Australia, Norway and Japan, fund sport and development projects in the countries where they work, but many do not. Election results and changing government priorities also make the situation unpredictable; some governments which were formerly ‘leaders’ in sport and development, are no longer working on the topic.

The May 2017 closure of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace has created uncertainty on the intergovernmental level. Many other UN agencies run sports projects but this is a rather peripheral part of their work, although there are notable exceptions such as UNICEF and UNESCO.   

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