Multiplying the social impact of sport: challenges and perspectives
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Last May, Paris hosted the third edition of Global Sports Week (GSW): a forum aimed at making global sport an innovative, positive and sustainable force, capable of responding to the new challenges of the contemporary world. The opportunity to take stock of the processes initiated and the challenges to be met.

This article was submitted as part of our call to reshape the future of Sport and Development .

How to reconcile growth and responsibility in the sports industry? This question was at the heart of the 2022 program of Global Sports Week, a now annual event, whose objective is to “exchange, move and build” the future of sport, at the crossroads of business and society issues. .

For the sports sector, the challenges relating to the search for new audiences, revenue and commercial opportunities must now coexist with those relating to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) . The sports sector must also take into consideration the concerns of changing societies, in line with the Build Back Better concept , put back on the agenda by the Covid-19 crisis.

The economic weight of the sports sector is colossal: it generates around 2% of global GDP (nearly 1,200 billion euros) and its average growth is 4% per year ( EESC, 2019, p.10 ). It represents, in its great diversity, an essential sector on the international scene.

In the broad sense, sport can play a decisive role in change. It offers multiple possibilities for transdisciplinarity and complementarity between different systems ( Blough, 2020, p.58 ). Thought adequately, sport can be put at the service of sustainable development , the objective of which is to meet social needs and the protection of the planet while promoting economic growth. It also has a strong power of attraction and the actors who make it up are numerous and heterogeneous. In this way, sport can particularly contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 17 , which advocates multi-stakeholder cooperation.

The potential is great, the synergies possible and the initiatives abundant, however, promoting sport as a vector of development is not free of limits and abuses. What about the social impact of sport? How can we make it a real lever for sustainable development?

Sport as a platform

The sports sector must rethink its impact on society. One of the means of action often put forward, and cited repeatedly during the GSW, is that sport represents a platform for change.

Indeed, through its universal scope and transversality, sport can help address many social issues. Thanks to their media coverage, major international sporting events have the capacity to make minority and/or marginalized communities visible. Thus, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) created the Refugee Olympic Team in 2016 in order to “send a message of hope and integration to millions of forcibly displaced people around the world” . This initiative was continued during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (OG) and will also be continued for Paris 2024 and the Dakar 2026 Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

The Olympic and Paralympic Games can also provide a platform to promote gender equality : the number of women competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was 48.8% and Paris 2024 is expected to be the first Summer Olympic Games to achieve gender equality. perfect. The Paralympic Games, for their part, help to raise awareness of the issue of disability and all the examples mentioned above help to combat stereotypes and build a more inclusive society.

Athletes play a leading role in this advocacy aimed at broadening the horizons of future generations and inspiring them. Here, the notion of “ role model ”, conceptualized by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton and which remains alive in questions of integration, takes on its full meaning. The values associated with sport and the qualities attributed to elite athletes naturally position them as agents of change.

From storytelling to political activism, many high-level athletes share their stories, including through the prism of a social issue (disability, feminism, upward mobility, etc.) and/or get involved in support a cause, for example by becoming an ambassador or goodwill ambassador for a social organization. This narrative leadership represents a modality of action to move the lines, a trend which brands, particularly through influencer marketing, adapt very well to and which they also encourage.

Without ever denying the power of awareness-raising in changing mentalities, rhetoric alone cannot bring about lasting societal change. To do this, it is therefore crucial to combine inspiring speeches and concrete initiatives, where measuring the social impact of sport will be a priority.

Lyricism and sportwashing : limiting excesses

In his eponymous essay, David Blough, defines the term sportwashing as being "from the contraction of the words sport and whitewashing (a metaphor originally qualifying, in its English acceptance, a "distortion" of reality)" and which "designates a process of mythologizing and profiting from sport based on the idea that it contains intrinsic positive values. In spite of itself, it reveals a notorious disproportion between a certain discourse on sport and the reality of the effects on society.” For the former director of the NGO PLAY International , “sportwashing can be practiced voluntarily or unconsciously, actively or passively […] and is characterized by the use – or absence of questioning – of received ideas, for example expressed through sentences such as: “sport is the school of life. ".

The idea that sport, thanks to its inherent values (fair play, discipline, respect, team spirit, sharing, etc.), could make it possible to resolve a set of societal problems, is indeed tending to become a commonplace. In reality, sport is a social fact. It is what we make of it. It can be both a catalyst or a tool in the fight against racism . It can help combat gender stereotypes, or even reinforce them. Likewise, physical activity alone will not solve all public health problems . If sport as a tool can effectively act in favor of inclusion, gender equality, health or even the environment, its real impact will depend on the way in which it is used and the objectives pursued, and not of its supposedly positive nature.

During the GSW, David Grevemberg, director of innovation and partnerships at the Center for Sports and Human Rights, challenged the audience about the risks relating to the aforementioned practices. According to him, “each decision has an impact”, in an ecosystem where a great diversity of actors present a multitude of roles, risks and opportunities, “hence the need to work together, in a logic based on the theory of change , to seek collective results and to create a positive culture through a multi-stakeholder approach, so that sport becomes a real human right accessible to everyone.

Making sport part of the solution

Sport is not magic, but used intentionally and appropriately, it can be an effective means of promoting social change. To maximize this potential, it is necessary to develop both the sports sector and the “sport for development and peace (SDP)” sector. The latter represents an emerging sector of development co-operation, which promotes the deliberate use of sport and physical activity as a tool to achieve development and peace objectives ( Dudfield & Dingwall-Smith, in Commonwealth Secretariat, 2020, p.8 ). The SDP focuses on the full effects of sport on people and communities, in terms of socio-economic benefits and sustainable development (De Coning, in Commonwealth Secretariat, 2020, p.8).

For sport in the broad sense to be a real vector of transformation, the SDP must be part of the development of sport while distinguishing itself from it ( Sanders, 2018, p.45 ) . In fact , “sport alone has little chance of success. But the same goes for programs using sport as a medium, without expertise or infrastructure” (Sanders, 2018, p.46).

The majority of players in the sporting world now seem aware of the societal challenges of sport business and the multiple initiatives highlighted during GSW 2022 are encouraging. Among them, let us cite the speech by Alan Gilpin, Managing Director of World Rugby , on the impact of major sporting events on the environment and the presentation of the federation's 2030 Environmental Strategy , or the intervention of Amina Lanaya, Director General of the International Cyclist Union (UCI), on the work carried out in favor of gender equality in cycling (introduction of a minimum salary and social protection for salaried female riders, etc.) . On the industrial side, Adidas presented the Run for the Oceans charity project , aiming to fight against plastic pollution through running.

If the process is underway, there remain many challenges to overcome, including awareness and coordination of all stakeholders, mobilization of resources, governance, establishment of strategic and operational frameworks...To make sport a real driving force, it is essential that the two different but interdependent approaches to sport and SDP reach a point of convergence. It is by optimizing the voluntary and adapted use of sport, and not by focusing on its possible indirect effects, that we will make it a real lever for sustainable development.


Hélène Bennès is a senior consultant for the French-speaking version of sportanddev.


Consultante pour la version francophone de sportanddev


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