On Saturday 21st August 2021, at the opening of the United Nations Green in Westminster, London, equitysport Founder and Executive Director, Tim Harper addressed the diplomatic missions of over 60 countries on the challenges facing the advancement of equality in global sport.
Tim's remarks are provided below in full.
"Your excellencies, special guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a huge honour to be given this opportunity to address you today. Thank you to the United Nations Association for inviting me to speak at this unique event; a rare opportunity to celebrate internationalism, cross-border cooperation and global solidarity in overcoming the biggest challenges of our time.
For a great many people, sport is a microcosm of our wider society, a mirror if you like, to the very best and the very worst of humankind.
World leaders, governments and even the United Nations itself has a long history in invoking the potential of sport as a force for good.
And it's undeniable, sport represents a sociocultural institution like no other.
Not many cultural phenomena can boast of having the back page of almost every newspaper on the planet, a special section on news broadcasts, international mega events that dwarf anything similar, or the millions upon millions of committed disciples who squeeze themselves into uncomfortable stadia the world over, come rain or shine, week on week, month on month, year on year to catch a glimpse of their favourite athletes or favourite teams in action.
Sport is absolutely a product of dominant cultural values. But sport also contributes importantly to shaping these values – foregrounding and celebrating some, while diminishing the importance of others.
Resultantly, sport has long had the potential as a pioneer for change and in challenging and ever more polarised times, in a world of increasing turmoil and instability, sport remains a beckoning frontier from which we can celebrate the very best of ourselves.
The physical articulation of endeavour, sport is where our cumulative efforts can show the power of universal access, of fairness and of equality for the rest of society to follow.
Such ideals are rare in a culture of so many compromised values and cynicism, a culture that all too often knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Yet today, we know that for many communities around the world, the reality doesn't match the rhetoric... opportunities to access and participate in sport around the world are *still* all too often determined by your race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or your geography.
The GDP of your country of origin remains the most powerful determinant of Olympic success, and for all it's claims to the contrary, research shows that white, middle class males remain the ones most likely to benefit from the social mobility the sport can afford some.
Too many people around the world still face oppression, prejudice, marginalisation and discrimination *because of* sport.
We're still yet to celebrate an openly homosexual footballer in the English Premier League, athletes of colour are still abused on account of their race in stadia around the world and via online platforms; imperialistic, extractionist policies and exploitative systems prevail, even celebrated, in the global sporting labour market; and athletes to this day are still being excluded from their sports for being born with slightly different anatomies to others.
The ongoing scientification of sport has led many to believe that the universal values of fairness and equality, for all people, come second to an insatiable yearning for the convenience of precise and clinical competition.
An endless and dogmatic pursuit of control over who can compete, how they compete and when raises searching questions about the trajectory upon which sport finds itself;
Events like the Olympic Games in Tokyo seem ever more dislocated from the values and ideals in which they were once embedded, and increasingly serve the interests of a wealthy, euro-American elite.
Sport was never meant to be about just running faster, or collecting medals, nor was it meant to be a nationalistic celebration of dominance - it was supposed to be about completion, about the collective progress of humankind as we reach beyond ourselves, for just the fleeting of moments to showcase and celebrate what can be achieved, not as individuals, but through diverse togetherness.
The Tokyo Olympics could have been celebration of narrative shifting victories and symbolic changes to our society as we witnessed the first two openly trans athletes taking to the field of play, gender parity was achieved between men and women competitors for the first time, the flag bearers of each nation, without exception were both male and female.
But instead, sport lost itself in the reeds. Namibia's Beatrice Masilingi and Christine Mboma, the teenagers competing in the games for the first time and taking home their nation's first athletics medal - their success was soured as their biology was deconstructed in public by one of the most powerful individuals in world sport, and sport stood by as our fellow human beings were referred to as nothing more than data points, subjects to experiment on, to regulate and to control.
Other athletes were blasted around the world by commentators, pundits and the baying sports media as mentally weak or fragile for daring not to ask "how high" when we demanded to see them jump.
Too many times in recent years, 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.
To maintain a persuasive illusion of fairness and of a level playing field, for decades, sport has sought to ignore the inherent responsibilities that it's position in society demands; and has instead sought to act as gatekeepers to its true potential; punishing, marginalising and regulating-out all those that exist outside of a narrow, strict and euro-centric idea of what being a human being in sport is.
Often, when sport talks of 'fairness', what it actually means is that the marginalised, disadvantaged and oppressed 'accept their place' within a world deliberately 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.
Now, who participates and who rises to the top of sport matters. It gives us an indication of whether opportunities to reach the pinnacle of a supposed meritocracy are equitably distributed and whether those positions draw on the talents of all sections of the global population.
There is a threat to sport, and to society at large if the majority of those we see taking part and then achieving success in sport are from similar backgrounds, similar regions of the world, and have enjoyed a similar set of life experiences, especially if those don’t reflect the lives of the worlds population as a whole.
For some, sport is nothing more than a distraction, its importance pales into insignificance when compared to resolving conflicts, curing diseases, tackling climate change or providing the world with a roof over its head and food on the table.
But these debates matter: such is the cultural importance of sport that they likely prefigure and rehearse our collective responses to issues and challenges when they arise in other areas of public debate. Issues like racism, like gender identity and fluidity, like socio-economic inequality and like the myth of meritocracy and equal opportunity.
Sports triviality is it's strength, sport is an end, but it also serves as a means to an end - it gives us a low stakes version of our world, equipped with unimaginable influence to strive to realise the very best of our shared values and ideals, not as lofty, aspirational words on a piece of paper somewhere, but a lived reality for all people, all over the world, no matter who they are, where they come from or what their background might be.
If we can't make our best values work when the stakes are so low, what hope do we have when it really matters.
The world of sport must become less polarised, less vitriolic, less dehumanising and less about advancing competing ideologies, scientific or otherwise.
The prevailing compulsion to control and safeguard against change must give way to a truer manifestation of optimistic idealism, where dissenting voices to our perceptions of the norm, and those with different and varied lived experience are welcomed to help us better understand the world in which we all live.
In order for us to hear those voices, we cannot continue to propagate dogmatic myths and untruths about the inherent "power of sport as a force for good" whilst doing nothing to recognise, acknowledge and challenge the damaging impact the current sporting ecosystem is having on those from disadvantaged and marginalised communities around the world.
The continued relevancy of sport, it's wider influence and utility in advancing a society in which all people are truly equal in rights and status will depend on our collective ability to find ways for it to include rather than exclude, to build bridges, embrace compromise and celebrate difference.
Such a commitment would see these values ripple outwards, influencing at first athletes and their supporters and then ultimately, wider society.
Pierre De Coubertin, father of the Modern Olympics once remarked that "sport did not reappear within the context of modern civilisation in order to play a local or temporary role. The mission entrusted to it is universal and timeless. . . it is not a luxury pastime, nor an activity for the few, sport is the birthright of all, equally and to the same degree."
It is those words that must be front and centre in our minds as we reimagine the future of global sport and re-engage with its true values of universalism, equality, intersectional solidarity and global togetherness."
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, targeted advocacy, vocational training and education programmes 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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