Why is diversity in global sport so vital?
Alexandra Rickham, two-time Paralympic sailing medallist, sustainability expert and Head of Sustainability at World Sailing explains why diversity is key to success and how World Sailing is increasing global participation.
Diversity in sport is important because it promotes creativity, unique perspectives, new opportunities and ultimately good sportsmanship.
We know that’s not all. Around the world we are living in a more diverse society, and sport must be representative of our society for us to have a bond with it.
Sports that are not fully representative will ultimately alienate our changing society and fail.
The need for diversity is not limited to sport. It isn’t just about doing the right thing in relation to representing ‘everyone’ - many times over it has been proven that diversity is simply better business.
Countless studies have been carried out by renowned consultancy firms and the conclusion is always the same: diversity = better places to work, more productive, more innovative, and simply just more.
Sailing is no different from any other sport, or business, in this respect and at World Sailing we are trying to increase diversity across the entirety of our sport, from grassroots to elite levels, from our officials through to our boardroom and governance structures.
And the reason for this encompasses many factors but adds up to the same thing - to simply be ‘better’.
Diversity promotes sustainability
The success of the Olympics, Paralympics and other multi-sport events is also dependent on becoming more diverse.
Across the plethora of sports most, if not all of us, can identify with someone we are seeing pushing the boundaries, whether that is due to their sex, ethnicity, disability, or another characteristic.
To see someone who looks like you, or comes from your country or background, is a parent like you, or has your disability, is important - and though I would love to use a different word, it is inspirational.
Sport creates role models and motivates us all to do more, which is why we see participation numbers increase after a major sporting events, such as tennis after Wimbledon, rugby after the World Cup, or any sport where there has been a period of great national success.
With that in mind, the ability for individual sports to be more diverse is important in ensuring the sustainability of that sport.
So, by enabling participation from under-represented groups who may not - in the traditional sense - be associated with sailing, World Sailing is preserving its future.
In the same way that younger generations of professionals, from millennials onwards, are more conscious of working for companies that represent their global community, sports which do not embrace diversity will slowly decline.
Sailing has taken several steps forward ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games by , making it the first Olympic Games where this has happened. This is perfect timing with Paris 2024 set to be the first Olympic Games to achieve a 50-50 split between male and female athletes.
Universal appeal of sailing - natural, healthy and for everyone
At the base level, that is what all sports are there to facilitate.
The more people we can get involved in our sport - to get active and be healthier - the better.
Sailing, as a watersport, and one that is particularly close to the natural environment, has added value - spending time in or near water has a calming effect and has been shown to improve mental health.
Sailing is an interesting sport because its heritage lies with indigenous and fishing populations and developed in line with human exploration to become the means by which empires were built.
It is perceived by some as a pursuit for wealthy men, which has somewhat overshadowed the coastal and other water-dependent communities that still participate in it. This is partly because of the technical nature of the sport and the cost of equipment.
But that is only one part of the whole picture, and we are buoyed by examples like the now annual Haiti Sailing Cup, where Haitian fisherman who use sailing boats as their livelihood, now compete in their locally-built boats over several weekends during the year. The sport shows that it is not only a hobby, but very much a lifestyle and a sport for life.
The inclusive nature of sailing is also a significant platform for widening participation, as one of the few sports where all abilities can compete on a level playing field.
High level quadriplegics can compete against able-bodied athletes and win.
The technical elements of the sport lend itself naturally to creating adaptive means for both disabled and non-disabled participants to be able to utilise the same boats.
Data-driven diversity growth
There are challenges to becoming truly diverse of course and one of the main areas facing us is data on diversity - this is the case for many global sports.
Knowing the ethnicity of participants is key, but this is not defined on a global scale and collecting this data can prove quite difficult with no globally identified methodology available.
This is an area World Sailing is actively exploring - making the commitment to examine our sport from this perspective is an important step to diversity growth.
“If you can see it, you can be it”
On a personal level, though diversity is super important as I want my sport to reflect me, I want other people who may have not considered it to enjoy everything I have gained from sailing.
As a sustainability professional, I also want the sport to offer pathways for athletes of all abilities, ages and levels of experience, to provide opportunities within the sport as competitors, officials and as role models for future generations.
If we are to be a global sport, we need to be representative of athletes around the world.
I am a firm believer in ‘if you can see it, you can be it’, and establishing a truly diverse and broad representation of people within sport, including sailing and Para Sailing, will increase visibility of the possibilities sailing can offer.