Updated: Nov 13, 2020
It’s time for sport is start taking its own development and the guardianship of its values seriously and conventional wisdom tells us, the first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one.
By Tim Harper | equitysport Founder & Chief Executive
Sport is, more often than not seen to provide a level playing field, where those with sufficient talent and commitment can succeed, regardless of their race, gender or socioeconomic status, but if we scratch beneath the surface, just a little, the research paints a very different picture.
Ultimately, the reality is that sport in 2020 is structured to maintain the dominance of whiteness and wealth. Wealthy western nations are at the centre, while non-western societies are on the fringes. It actively reinforces society-wide hierarchical structures, and despite popular narratives to the contrary, is rarely a vehicle for social mobility, and is more a tool for the reproduction and entrenchment of social stratification and inequality along gender, race, nation and class lines.
“White males from middle-class backgrounds benefit most from social mobility through sport.”
— Spaaij, Farquharson & Majoribanks, 2015 (Sociology Compass)
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 at the top end of 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.
While there are of course, some instances where sport has successfully challenged existing social hierarchies, these are relatively rare and can be chalked up as exceptions to the rule rather than an exciting new trend.
“Without being, strictly speaking, rigged, sports competition resembles a handicap race that has lasted generations.”
— Pierre Bourdieu, Sociologist
Conventional wisdom tells us, the first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one, and whilst sporting evangelists are all too keen to point to modicum of success that sports development projects have enjoyed over the past few decades in tackling inequality, perhaps now is the time to confront the systemic problems the global sporting ecosystem is not only ignoring, but actively contributing to.
Protectionist insecurities over the image and purpose of sport in the public eye and the perception of its role in society among the influential and powerful has led to a covert undermining of the internal value system in sport and cloaked an erosion of the lofty and aspiration ideals that should really be shining a guiding light on how we can combat the inequalities we now face.
If sport is to continue to act as melting pot of soft power, diplomatic influence and to be used as a tool to better understand and tackle the complexities around social structure and inequalities, then it’s time for sport is start taking its own development and the guardianship of its values seriously.
To continue propagating dogmatic myths and untruths about the “power of sport” in order to facilitate the use of it as a vehicle for social change, whilst doing nothing to challenge the unintended but hugely detrimental impacts the sporting ecosystem is having on those from disadvantaged groups around the world seems utterly perverse.
It’s time to recognise the Frankenstein version of sport we have created through our own complacency, that the “power of sport” is now an empty vessel from which everyone is trying to take a drink. It’s time to reengage with the values and ideals that reintroduced sport back into modern society in the late 1800’s, and go about implementing the reform it so desperately needs to be fit for purpose. Then, and only then, can sport realistically be used to further any other social cause.
The alternative is we do nothing and say nothing, and sport, and it’s potential as a force for good will sink into irrelevant obscurity as a badly damaged, superficial form of entertainment.
Sport & Social Inequalities by R. Spaaij, K. Farquharson & T. Marjoribanks
Sociology Compass, 2015
Sport & Social Exclusion in Global Sport by R. Spaaij, J. Magee & R. Jeanes
Routledge, London, 2014
Sport, Theory and Social Problems by E. Anderson
Routledge, London, 2010
Planet Sport by K. Woodward
Routledge, London, 2012