When you’re a minority, it’s easy to feel your world has shrunk. That’s how I’ve felt over the years, as a disabled woman. But sport has been fundamental in opening up the world to me again.
I first caught the bug watching the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Twenty years ago that day, seeing female fitness athletes racing in wheelchairs on TV inspired me as a young mother, newly arrived in the UK from Kenya, to join a gym. From there, I started training as a ready-to-go athlete, which has given me access to opportunities I could never have imagined as a disabled girl in Kenya.
Watching the Lionesses achieve their historic victory this month reminded me of the energizing power of sport and its potential to act as a life-changing springboard for marginalized groups.
But the lack of diversity in the Lionesses’ team has made me think about the true nature of meaningful participation. Undoubtedly, the Lionnesses’ victory was a step toward taking women more seriously in the sport. But which women? The team’s eleven starting players and five of the substitutes were white. While 43% of players in the men’s Premier League are black, this figure drops to just 10% in its female equivalent – the Women’s Super League. What is clear is that more needs to be done to better represent marginalized groups in sport.
Huge strides have been made in reframing what athletes should look like – and this is becoming apparent during the current Commonwealth Games, where for the first time ever more medals are awarded to women than to men. But according to a report commissioned by the Black Footballers Partnership, only 1.6% of the executive, leadership and ownership positions in football are held by black people, and 4.4% of the leadership positions usually held by former players. is occupied by black workers. We need quality training, investment and dedication from leaders and investors to ensure that participation isn’t just a tick-box exercise – and that sport is open to anyone who wants to get involved from the grassroots level.
That process begins with a clear understanding of how sport and physical activity are linked to our values as a society, such as access to health and education; equivalence; and even peace and security. These are values that should be available to everyone, but if you have a disability, are female, or come from a diverse or low income area, the odds are stacked against you.
Children with disabilities have difficulty accessing playgrounds or participating in meaningful physical education classes. Women from minority backgrounds face the added challenge of accessing safe spaces, despite increasingly pressing calls for better safety policies that ensure a duty of care for all athletes. And that should also apply to coaches and support staff. To improve representation in sport, we need to address a systematic lack of investment in marginalized groups, which all too often translates into a lack of opportunity and a diminished voice in society.
Ultimately, we must understand that physical activity is a non-negotiable condition for a healthy life. It is vital that we democratize sport so that everyone, regardless of race, gender, location, socioeconomic background, physical abilities or educational needs, can experience its benefits without being exposed to barriers or abuse.
We must denounce exclusion and reduced participation in sport when we see it, and call a lack of diverse representation for what it is: discrimination. This is not only a problem for sports institutions, but should also be a major concern for all governments that truly believe in equal and democratic values.
The good news for Commonwealth countries is that we benefit from a common value system that in the past has helped us tackle powerful and destructive ideologies such as apartheid, and united us to tackle climate change. I believe we can re-use the power of these shared values to work together to make sport fully representative of the society we live in.
Steps are being taken in the right direction. Ahead of this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, ministers committed to using sport to protect the human rights of LGBTQ athletes, as well as investing more in sports projects aimed at improving health and promoting gender equality and sustainable development. It’s a start, but more needs to be done. It would be foolish to underestimate the power of sport to change lives.