Opinion

Celebrate the Commonwealth Games and the Lionesses. Then fight for real diversity

When you’re a minority, it’s easy to feel that your world has shrunk. That’s how I’ve felt over the years, as a disabled woman. But sport has been fundamental in opening the world up to me again.

I first caught the bug watching the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Seeing female wheelchair para-athletes racing on TV that day 20 years ago inspired me as a young mum, newly arrived in the UK from Kenya, to get into a gym. From there, I started training as a para-athlete, which has given me access to opportunities I could never have even imagined as a disabled girl in Kenya.

Watching the Lionesses secure their history-making win this month reminded me of the galvanising power of sport and its potential to act as a life-changing springboard for marginalised groups.

But seeing the lack of diversity on the Lionesses’ team has got me thinking about the true nature of meaningful participation. Undoubtedly, the Lionnesses’ win was a step towards women being taken more seriously in sport. But which women? The team’s 11 starting players, and five of the substitutes, were white. While 43% of players in the men’s Premier League are Black, this figure falls to just 10% in its female equivalent – the Women’s Super League. What is plainly evident is that more needs to be done to better represent marginalised groups in sport.

Huge strides have been made in our reframing of what sportspeople should look like – and these are clear at the current Commonwealth Games, where, for the first time, more medals are being awarded to women than men. But just 1.6% of executive, leadership and ownership positions in football are held by Black people, according to a report commissioned by the Black Footballers Partnership, and 4.4% of managerial positions usually taken by former players are occupied by Black employees. We need quality training, investment and commitment from leaders and investors to ensure participation is not just a box-ticking exercise – and that sport is open to all wanting to get involved starting from the grassroots level.

That process begins with a clear understanding of how sport and physical activity are tied to our values as a society, such as access to health and education; equality; and even peace and security. These are values that should be available to all, but if you have a disability, are a woman, or come from a diverse or low income area, the odds are stacked against you.

Disabled children struggle to access playgrounds, or take part in meaningful physical education lessons. Women from minority backgrounds are faced with the extra challenge of accessing safe spaces, despite increasingly urgent calls to introduce better safeguarding policies that ensure duty of care to all athletes. And that should apply to coaches and supportive staff too. To improve representation in sport, we need to tackle a systemic lack of investment in marginalised groups, which too often translates to a lack of opportunity and a diminished voice in society.

Anne Wafula Strike at home.
Anne Wafula Strike at home. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Ultimately, we need to understand that physical activity is a non-negotiable prerequisite to healthy living. It’s vital that we democratise sport, so that anyone, regardless of race, gender, location, socio-economic background, physical ability or educational needs can experience its benefits without being subjected to barriers or abuse.

We need to call out exclusion and reduced participation in sport when we see it, and name a lack of diverse representation for what it is: discrimination. This is not just a problem for sporting institutions, but should also be of grave concern for any governments that truly believe in equal and democratic values.

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 and destructive ideologies such as apartheid, and has seen us unite to tackle climate change. I believe we can once again use the strength of these shared values to work together to make sport fully representative of the society we live in.

Strides are being made in the right direction. Ahead of this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, ministers committed to using sport to protect human rights for LGBTQ athletes, as well as increasing investment in sporting projects that target improved health and gender equality and boost sustainable development. It’s a start but there’s more to be done. It would be foolish to underestimate the power sport has to change lives.

Anne Wafula Strike MBE is a Paralympic wheelchair racer

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