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Investing in grassroots sports as the best bet for sustainable development
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bold text states time to change the game
For sport to better serve society, we need to fundamentally change the way we resource sport, especially grassroots sports (including sport for all) and sport for development which are more likely to contribute to sustainable development.

This article was submitted as part of our call for reshaping the future of sport and development.

This article is a summary of a book chapter penned by the above authors for the Handbook of Sport and Globalisation (Palgrave, 2021). The full chapter is under copyright and can be accessed here.

It is quite clear that sport needs to better serve society. Sport has the potential to both reinforce, and challenge, existing inequities that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and other events. While the growth of the sport for development and peace (SDP) movement and the more widespread use of sport to contribute to sustainable development is welcomed, there remain many challenges which limit the ability of sport to truly effect meaningful and sustained change.

One of the key challenges that may undermine the role of sport in creating a more equitable society is the tension between various sport forms, most notable elite (performance) sport and grassroots sport (sport for all). Sport for development initiatives often (though not exclusively) promote grassroots sport and we encourage the intentional use of sport to meet development outcomes.

While there are complementarities across these forms, elite sport often continues to escape critical attention, despite the vast resources produced and consumed for the benefit of an elite set of athletes, sporting bodies and associated business interests. At the same time, there is limited investment in grassroots sport, physical activity and physical education – physical activity rates declined 41% during the pandemic, worsening a pre-pandemic scenario in which 80% of youth were already sedentary, while mental health conditions have increased 200% among young people. And unsurprisingly, these and many other effects, hit the most marginalised groups in society the hardest.

At the same time, we know that sport can play a role in building more equitable, inclusive and sustainable communities, can reduce health costs and contribute to disaster response and recovery. Yet, this potential will never be fully realized unless structural changes are applied to the sport ecosystem, which itself tends to be highly inequitable, exclusive and disproportionately resourced. This provides an opportunity to reimagine the role of sport which received great attention from the global sport and development community. Visioning, however, can only take us so far. To drive sustainable change we need action – to fundamentally reshape sport and development to better serve all sectors of society, especially the most marginalized. It is time to change the game – here and now.

Sports and the struggle for development

Sports, if organized and applied in ways that take into account the history and current circumstances in a context where development is needed, can be a vehicle for positive social change. Despite their limitations and a range of influencing variables, sports remain widely recognized and understood global cultural practices that can be used to mobilize people in social, political, and economic reform movements. Sports can be sites for initiating social and political actions to deal with problems that transcend nation-state borders. Sports can be used to increase awareness of inequalities, oppression, and the need to safeguard human rights in the realms of health, education, and sustainable development. Further, the cultural significance and visibility of major sports events can be used to inspire social and political actions that support the interests of local populations. As such, the growth of the SDP movement and the focus of sport as a means to achieve sustainable development and peace, including contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other policy priorities, is welcomed, as is the focus on ensuring equity and access for all.

However, it is important to note the limitations, complexities, and contradictions inherent in the use of, and concurrent claims made about, sports’ ability to promote a range of development outcomes. It is clear that sport is by no means a single phenomenon and that it encompasses great diversity. The ways in which sports are organized may differ significantly and depend greatly on the actions and social conditions of those involved in sporting activities. Popular essentialist and universalistic conceptions of (certain types of) sport diminish awareness of the specific mechanisms within specific sports activities that may be beneficial for society. Such a simplistic conception of sport further reduces awareness of the myriad cultural and political struggles inherent in development. In addition, sports often obscure, romanticize or at worst reinforce deep-seated inequalities based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, level of ability, socio-economic status, and geography.

We welcome the wide-ranging commitments made by local, national, regional and international actors in using sport to contribute to sustainable development and peace. In so doing, we urge these actors to take note of the different types and forms of sport and acknowledge the distinction between supporting performance sports versus grassroots sports – while also being cognizant of the overlap between them. Research indicates that grassroots sports may provide effective mechanisms through which to understand and connect with communities, while performance sports have a much narrow focus on individuals already committed to and/or competent in a specific sport form. We urge actors in and beyond sport, especially governments that hold the public purse strings, to understand that different outcomes may accrue from projects that seek to develop sport (often for an elite few) as opposed to projects that focus on development through sport (often for a greater segment of the population), again recognizing that there are innovative ways to combine approaches.

Moving forward

If actors take their commitments seriously, it seems clear that investments in performance sports are less likely to generate positive development outcomes for the majority of people, are more likely to cause harm, exacerbate inequities, exclude others and reinforce neocolonial or neoliberal ideologies that may work against the very developmental goals that are crucial for local people and communities.

Despite this, the broader sport, private and public sectors tend to allocate greater resources to elite sports, including sporting events and infrastructure, often at the expense of sport for all initiatives. This clearly contradicts many of the commitments of sporting actors to universal access and the commitments to the SDGs. Ironically, an overemphasis on elite sport may further undermine human rights, including the right to sport, physical activity, and physical education in the first place.

This article therefore serves as a clarion call to the SDP sector, the global sport sector, national governments, intergovernmental aid agencies, civil society organisations (including NGOs) and the broader international development sector, to critically consider the way sports are understood and applied in our societies. Our obsession with sporting excellence and achievements over and above developmental outcomes continues to hinder the application of sport for development and peace. The potential of sports to contribute to sustainable development and the SDGs remains but will continue to be inhibited if investment in, access to, opportunity in, and experience of sports remain unfairly skewed.

We, therefore, call for a more egalitarian approach that serves (all) the people, enables universal and regular participation (over performance), protects and promotes human rights and maximises the ways in which sports can contribute to sustainable development and peace. This requires the provision of sufficient resources and opportunities in order for certain forms of sport to contribute meaningfully to more just, equitable and inclusive societies. We repeat – it is time to change the game. Here and now.

______________________________________________________________________________

This article is a summary of a book chapter penned by the above authors for the Handbook of Sport and Globalisation (Palgrave, 2021). The full chapter is under copyright and can be accessed here.

Dr Ben Sanders is a senior consultant at the international platform on sport and development (sportanddev) and completed the first PhD by publication in sport for development in Africa. Much of his practical and theoretical work focuses on reshaping sport and development to better serve all sectors of society.

Jay Coakley, Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of Colorado, has for nearly five decades done research on connections between sports, culture, and society with much attention given to the play, games, and sport participation of young people. Coakley is an internationally respected scholar, author, and journal editor and has received many professional awards. His book, Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies (13th edition, 2020) is used extensively in universities worldwide.

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