Sport for social inclusion
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David Thibodeau on how sport can be used as a policy for creating social cohesion both on and off the field in Canada.

Social inclusion is the process of improving the terms on which individuals and groups take part in society; improving the ability, opportunity and dignity of those disadvantaged on the basis of their identity.

How can sport contribute to social inclusion?

The most basic element of sport is people coming together to play. Sports break down barriers and build bridges where boundaries usually exist. Sport can be understood across cultures, languages and religions. Sport can create a feeling of inclusion in society, no matter what age, sexual orientation, gender expression, whether you are able-bodied or disabled, religion, ethnicity or socio-economic status you are or hold.

How can policy accelerate inclusion through sports?

Settlement and integration of newcomers
Sport organisations and governments can increase their settlement programmes that focus on sport as a facilitator for integration. Sports can provide a huge opportunity to make friends and connections on a team, helping newcomers establish roots in their new home. Settlement agencies are often unaware of the benefits that sport and physical activity programming/partnerships can have in helping integrate newcomers into new lives.

After-school sports programmes in priority neighbourhoods
Making this a policy will keep youth in structured programmes that provide spaces to express themselves in safe ways and learn important life skills. Policies like these will help social inclusion for those in underserved communities, helping marginalised groups in our cities and towns.

Athletes of different abilities should practise together when possible
From what I have seen, a group like Special Olympics mostly practice on their own. And in many cases, this is what is required for training needs and space restrictions, but why not practise with other groups sometimes? This is one thing that I really love about the Canada Games: all athletes are competing at the same time.

Protection from discrimination
Athletes, coaches and volunteers need to be able to participate in sports without fear. This will provide a platform from where inclusion can start.

There has been a push to make inclusion policies in Canadian sport. One such example is the Policy on Sport Persons with a Disability from 2006. And the more recent Working Group on Gender Equity in Sport of the Minister of Science and Sport in 2018. These are great initiatives, and need to be replicated to include newcomers, LGBTQ and other marginalised groups.

An example of a programme is the Commonwealth Games Canada sport for newcomer programme. The expected outcomes are increased sport frequency rates and retention of young newcomers to Canada.

Challenges facing inclusion in sports

Of course, there are challenges to inclusion in sports. The first challenge is always money. Whether that is money to afford participation in sports, or money to offer sport and recreation programmes.

The infrastructure in Canada is aging. The pool that I swam in in Fredericton was built in the 1960s was not built with accessibility in mind. The only way to get to the pool was down stairs. This is just one example of how our facilities do not meet the needs of today and how they pose a challenge to inclusion in sports.

The current landscape in sport culture is very male-centric. This culture will often deter people from participating, particularly women and girls and LGBTQ+ people.

Our facilities are also not inclusive to trans, or non-binary athletes: change rooms are male and female and do not make for a safe space for some.

Many coaches and sport administrators are volunteers, which means they often do not have the time or financial means to commit to coach training or researching how to create a more inclusive environment.

Diversity in leadership

As a swimmer, I quit after my second year of swimming in university because I didn’t think that I could be both an athlete and gay. For a long time I struggled with the idea that who I was wasn’t compatible with who I was becoming. I had never heard of any gay athletes and I never really felt like I could belong in sports. To create a more inclusive environment, we need to change the culture of sport and make it more welcoming to everyone. We need diversity at all levels of sport leadership.

When everyone is included in a society, everyone benefits. Inclusion through sports can have a huge social impact.


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.

This article was first published by Sports for Social Impact. It has been edited for length by the Operating Team.


North America

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