by Anne Wafula Strike, MBE Commonwealth Champion for Equality in Sport
Is it possible to eradicate discrimination in sport? If we rewind a few months to the abhorrent racism displayed at the Euro cup finals it could seem like a futile pursuit. Certainly, if you have a disability the odds are stacked against you, with little interest from media outlets and stigma reducing access and often diminishing your voice.
Never mind the glaring disparity between the value placed upon men’s and women’s sport.
This question played heavily on my mind as I scanned the virtual room at a recent Commonwealth meeting of sports officials. We were talking to each other from all corners of the world, but the comradery was undeniable, with real connection and understanding of each other’s perspectives, despite the distance.
Of course, we had all just stepped off the same dizzying roller coaster ride – with the lows of lockdowns and grim covid reports and the peaks of long-delayed reunions, unexpected innovations, and triumphs such as the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic games.
What was striking, though, was that we were not just bonded by the collective trauma of the pandemic. There was something much more profound and enduring that facilitated the ease of our conversation – the values that define the Commonwealth and encompassed our discussion.
Covid-19 had created additional and unexpected setbacks and made it even more urgent for us to meet and find joint solutions to our joint challenges. Pandemic or no pandemic we would have been here together talking about how we could use sport and physical activity to tackle common diseases such as diabetes, to quell conflict and to address so many other development challenges. And the conversations about dismantling barriers to sport participation and ending discrimination in the industry would have happened regardless.
It can be easy to underestimate the power of this shared value system or wonder why groupings like the Commonwealth keep talking about it – forgetting how principles such as human rights, gender equality, and freedom of expression have changed our lives.
Certainly, my own journey from the two-year-old, struck by Polio, through to becoming the first wheelchair racer from Sub-Sahara Africa to compete at the Paralympics, to having the opportunity to tell my story and fight for inclusion of others, would not have been possible if these values had not been propagated and integrated into law.
I am not saying that these value systems have resolved the world’s inclusion challenges. Far from it. It is painfully obvious that raw racism is still rife in sport and in all parts of our society. But, as we seek to level the playing field and create fully inclusive societies, we must acknowledge that we have made progress and that it was the I-have-a-dream-speeches, the tireless advocacy, and the stubborn resolve to rewrite harmful narratives that brought us this far.
So, as we approach the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July 2022, we have the opportunity to consider how we can increase the power of this enduring and shared value system to propel us towards inclusiveness in sport.
I think it starts with a clear understanding of how sport and physical activity are tied to values such as access to health and education, equality, and even peace and security.
Of course, governments have already figured out that investing in education about the benefits of sport and movement is a preventative health strategy that could save them billions in the long run. The evidence is indisputable with the Centre for Disease Control saying that those who are physically active for about 150 minutes a week have a 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality than those who are physically inactive.
But, bearing in mind the pandemic has stolen so much of the progress we have made in this area, causing a marked decline in physical activity, there needs to be a healthy investment in sports education. This needs to start from nurseries, continuing through primary and secondary schools and even making it an integral part of the tertiary education experience. Moreover, we need to figure out ways of engaging those not in formal education.
Ultimately the aim is to instil a set of core beliefs about sport and physical activity as a prerequisite to healthy living and a space where anyone, regardless of race, gender, location, socio-economic background, or physical or mental ability can experience its benefits without being subjected to barriers or abuse. These values are already clearly expressed in the Commonwealth’s fully ratified consensus statement, designed to protect and promote the human rights of every individual involved in the sport sector.
Furthermore, this value-based effort should be complemented with innovative community sporting programmes which can address challenges such as gang violence and redirect youthful energies from crime and other harmful activities.
Certainly, the pandemic’s amplification of the need to address preventable lifestyle-related illnesses should have been a sobering wake-up call to those who view sport as an easy choice to deprioritise when they need to reorganise or reduce budgets.
By extension, this makes discrimination in sport, not just a problem for sporting institutions, but also a grave concern for governments. The good news for Commonwealth countries is that we have the advantage of a joint value system which in the past has helped us to tackle powerful ideologies such as apartheid or come together to tackle climate change. I believe we can again use the strength of these shared values to work together to make sport fully inclusive and tackle discrimination.
And there are many mechanisms to support these efforts. For example, the Commonwealth will be working with UNESCO on their recently launched sport-based flagship designed to tackle contemporary challenges such as physical inactivity, mental health issues, and inequality to foster peaceful, inclusive, and resilient societies. This will build on the Commonwealth’s existing initiatives which include training and one-to-one support for countries building effective sporting programmes.
Is it possible to eradicate discrimination in sport? I believe so.