Is it time for sport to change?
As we celebrate the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, it is important to step back and reflect on sport and its role in society. While we have come a long way, idle celebration is not helpful. It is time to consider the fact that sport needs to change to better serve society.
There is no doubt that sport organisations can play a role in this current crisis, from increasing awareness and encouraging people to remain healthy, active and united. There has never been a more urgent time for the sport sector and all it stakeholders to show solidarity with the world. #sport4solidarity.
No-one knows exactly how this crisis will end. The only certainty is that it has changed many things. Sport bodies are struggling with reduced revenues due to cancellations of events and leagues. Athletes may face pay cuts. Sport for development organisations will feel the pinch too. They face the likelihood of reduced funding in the future as a global recession kicks in and the sporting community faces financial challenges. Programmes are on hold, at least in-person projects, and being able to resume work in the same way as before may not be possible for many organisations.
This begs the question: can things go back to the way they were? Perhaps even more importantly, should they? While there are no doubt tough times ahead for the sporting fraternity, can this crisis be used to harness a better sporting world? Can we use this as an opportunity to change the game?
This is not to discount the excellent work being done by many organisations and individuals across the globe, using sport to address a range of topical issues. The growth of the sport and development sector (if we indeed classify it as a sector) is significant, and there is increasing evidence of the value of sport beyond the playing field. It is precisely because of this that we need to go even further.
There are many ways in which sport can better serve society. The current crisis has merely revealed, and exacerbated, the gross inequities in sport. As sport has developed under the guise of capitalism, the winners have got richer and the rest have continued to suffer. How is it possible that we live in a society where a single professional sportsperson can earn a weekly wage that dwarfs the majority of annual incomes? This while the most vulnerable continue to struggle to realise their fundamental right to play sport.
Many people across the world, including girls and women, refugees and migrants, persons with disabilities, and those with limited resources, cannot access sporting opportunities. And even if they do, these may be limited and inferior to the opportunities available to the winners.
When the crisis passes, and it will pass, can we use this opportunity to create a more equal and representative sporting world? Is it possible to tackle the structures and systems that result in sport reflecting, reinforcing, and even contributing to, the broader problems and patterns in society? Of course, sport cannot be divorced from this broader social reality, but it can play a transformative role. For this to happen, individuals and organisations need to challenge the systems and structures that continue to undermine equity and social justice in sport. This includes the vast disparities in resources allocated to elite sport vs. grassroots sport (including sport and development initiatives).
This work will not be easy. Vested interests die hard. Changing systems requires broader action beyond the individual. It will likely require a broad social movement of organisations and actors determined to fight for equity in both sport and development. The real nature of #sport4solidarity.
It may even be against your vested interests, as an individual or organisation. But it remains the right thing to do. It is also the hard thing to do, as sport will be severely weakened by the impact of this pandemic. Nonetheless, it provides a critical opportunity at a critical time. The current tragedy will only be compounded if we do not use it as a way to learn, move forward and transform our world.
As Ben Okri, Nigerian novelist, said in the Guardian recently: “The real tragedy would be if we come through this pandemic without changing for the better. It would be as if all those deaths, all that suffering, all the deaths to come, all the suffering to come, would mean nothing.”
It is high time for sport to change for the better and to better serve all of its citizens.