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An Open Letter to Sport

As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games draws to a close, equitysport Founder and Executive Director, Tim Harper has penned an open letter to sport.

Dear friends, colleagues and peers,

Rarely, if ever, have I heard the terms 'fairness' and 'a level playing field' quite as often as I have over the course of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. For someone with something of a vested interest in those terms, you'd think that this discourse would be cause for celebration. Sadly, it has been quite the opposite.

For much of the past month, commentators, pundits, and even those holding high office at the biggest governing bodies in sport have been using the terms 'fairness' and 'a level playing field' as a stick with which to beat the marginalised and oppressed into accepting that the systemic inequities they are forced to contend with are, in fact, not unfair at all.

A 'level playing field' in sport is not a 'level playing field' if it only applies to certain people, and it isn't 'fairness' if your definition of fairness only serves to maintain the dominance of the powerful and the wealthy.

When those who should know better start weaponising their language to invoke our own sacred values to advance certain ideologies, we should all take notice, and push back.

Fairness is something of a nebulous concept, in and out of sport, with little to no coherent or consistent definition; but if your version of fairness seeks to arbitrarily exclude, on the basis of who someone is, then by definition it cannot be fair. A level playing field that is only level for those who already benefit from the hierarchical structures that govern sport, is not a level playing field at all.

Too many times these past weeks, we've heard the catchy, but wholly misleading framing that debates around the inclusion of certain groups in sport is a question of whether we want 'fairness' or 'inclusion'; as if these two things are entirely mutually exclusive.

These debates and others like them have never been between inclusion or fairness, but between whether you choose to buy into and accept the definition of 'fairness' presented by Euro-American governing bodies, or not.

To maintain that persuasive illusion of fairness and of a level playing field, for centuries, these same bodies have sought to punish, marginalise and regulate-out those that exist outside of a narrow, strict and increasingly rigid idea of what being a human being in sport is.

When they talk of 'fairness', what they actually mean is that the marginalised, disadvantaged and oppressed 'accept their place' within a world structured to maintain the dominance of power, wealth and whiteness; with wealthy nations at the centre - winning medals and setting records, and non-western societies on the fringes - taking part, but not much more.

Over the course of these Olympics, the insatiable yearning for the convenience of binary classification has seen some of our fellow human beings referred to as mere data points, subjects to experiment on, to regulate and to control.

I don't recognise a definition of fairness that only applies to people who look like me, and sound like me.

I don't accept a sporting world where people who look like me and sound like me can decide that opportunities in and through sport are not open to that person or those people, but they are to me.

And I don't trust a system that can celebrate the natural athletic prowess of one person whilst simultaneously stripping another of everything that they are as a human being.

Debates within our shared sporting world must become less polarised, less vitriolic, less dehumanising and less about competing ideologies, scientific or otherwise. Dissenting voices to our perceptions of the norm, and those with different and varied lived experience, whilst unwelcome for some, are critically important to help us better understand the world in which we all live.

In order for us to hear them, we cannot continue to scream from each side of the room. The continued relevancy of sport will depend on our collective ability to include rather than exclude, to build bridges, embrace compromise and facilitate inclusive, safe spaces to elevate the voices of the oppressed and explore our shared destiny.

As I reflect back on these unique, spectator-less Olympic Games, I'll remember how on the field of play the world's best athletes invited us to reconsider our outdated definitions of success and failure, how they gave us permission to feel every bit of the stresses and strains of a history-defining 18 months and how they showed us friendship, unity and solidarity in place of competition at all costs.

I hope that in the years to come that my next memory won't be how the rest of us failed to follow their lead and live out those same values off the field of play.

Yours in equality,

Tim Harper

Founder & Executive Director



If you believe that a fairer, more equitable sporting world is possible, then please share this open letter with your network and across social media.

We know that in 2021 opportunities to access and participate in sport around the world are all too often determined by your race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or your geography.

Too many people around the world still face oppression, prejudice, marginalisation and discrimination through sport - but we know that with the right support, practical assistance and funding, we can help under-served sporting communities reimagine their future.

Together with our growing community of everyday people, we are committed to reimagining the future of sport - one that better caters to everyone, no matter who you are, where you come from or what your background might be.

Join us and let's work together to make sure sport remains open to all.


equitysport is a UK-registered charity (1189559) that exists to advance and promote equality, diversity and equal opportunity in and through global sport. Through free-form development, education programmes and targeted advocacy the charity seeks an inclusive and equitable sporting ecosystem that lives up to the true values of sport.

Notes to Editors

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