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  • Writer's pictureDavid Thibodeau

Social Inclusion through Sport

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

I thought it was appropriate to start Sports for Social Impact off with something that I am extremely passionate about: inclusion. In this post I will explore how we can use sport as a policy for creating social cohesion and inclusion outside of sports. When everyone is included in a society, everyone benefits. Inclusion through sports can have a huge social impact.

What exactly is social inclusion?

The World Bank’s definition of social inclusion is the process of improving the terms on which individuals and groups take part in society - improving the ability, opportunity and dignity of those disadvantaged on the basis of their identity.

Being socially included can mean things like:

Experience a sense of belonging

Are accepted within their communities

Have valued roles in their communities

Actively participating in their communities

How can sport contribute to social inclusion?

Sport is about participation. The most basic element of sport is people coming together to play. This is an extremely powerful tool.

Sports break down barriers and build bridges where boundaries usually exist. Sport can be understood across cultures, languages and religions. These things that are often very divisive in today’s society are no longer a barrier.

Sport can be a facilitator for making things more accessible, empowering women and girls, and build communities for newcomers, long-time residents and marginalized groups in our society.

We know that sport touches many aspects of someone’s life, such as:

Social networks

Sense of connectedness

Sport can create a feeling of inclusion in society, no matter what age, sexual orientation, gender expression, whether you are able-bodied or disabled, religion, ethnicity or socio-economic status you are or hold.

And in bigger cities like Ottawa, you can even find “community-specific” teams like gay and lesbian friendly sport leagues that can help people find other people like them and a better sense of belonging.

How to Leverage Policy to Accelerate Inclusion Through Sports?

One policy area that can be improved in Canada is focusing on settlement and integration of newcomers. Sport organisations and the Government of Canada can increase their settlement programs that focus on sport as a facilitator for integration. Sports can have a huge impact on a newcomer’s ability to make friends and connections on a sports team. These connections can create a better connection to the community around them and help newcomers establish roots in their new home. Settlement agencies are often unaware of the benefits of sport and physical activity programming/partnerships can have in helping integrate newcomers into new lives. I think community sport organisations can also do more in the way of using sport to help bring in newcomers.

Governments need to prioritize after school sport programs in priority neighbourhoods. Making this a policy will keep youth in structured programs that provide spaces to express themselves in safe ways and learn important life skills. Policies like these will help social inclusion for those in underserved communities, helping marginalized groups in our cities and towns.

When possible, sport administrators and coaches should plan practices where athletes with different abilities practice together. From what I have seen, a group like Special Olympics mostly practice on their own. And in many cases, this is what is required for training needs and space restrictions, but why not practice sometimes with other groups? Inclusion means everyone participates in society, that means different groups work together. Are we truly an inclusive society if we are creating division? This is one thing that I really love about the Canada Games, all athletes are competing at the same time, instead of being different weeks (like the Paralympic games following the Olympic games for example).

Sport organisations need to implement and promote policies that protect participants (athletes, coaches, volunteers) from discrimination. These policies ensure that everyone can participate in sports without fear. These policies will provide a platform for where inclusion can start.

There has been a push to make inclusion policies in Canadian sport. One such example is the Policy on Sport Persons with a Disability from 2006. And the more recent Working Group on Gender Equity in Sport of the Minister of Science and Sport in 2018. These initiatives are great and need to be replicated to include newcomers, LGBTQ and other marginalized groups.

An example of a program is the Commonwealth Games Canada is launching a sport for newcomer program and the expected outcomes are increased sport frequency rates and retention of young newcomers to Canada.

Challenges to Inclusion in Sports

Of course, there are challenges to inclusion in sports. The first challenge is always money. Whether that is money to afford participation in sports or money to offer sport and recreation programs. Most sports are expensive. Registration fees, equipment, and weekends away for competitions can all add up and make sport programs inaccessible too many.

Another challenge to inclusion is sport culture. The current landscape in sport culture is very male centric. In sport we often value characteristics that are often associated with men. This culture will often deter people from participating. The people who often don’t participate because of this culture are women and girls and LGBTQ+ people.

As a swimmer, I quit after my second year of swimming in university because I didn’t think that I could be both an athlete and gay. For a long time as I struggle and thought that who I was wasn’t compatible with who I was becoming. I had never heard of any gay athletes and I never really felt like I could belong in sports. To create a more inclusive environment, we need to change the culture of sport and make it more welcoming to everyone. We need diversity at all levels of sport leadership.

The infrastructure in Canada is aging. The pool that I swam in in Fredericton was built in the 1960s was not built with accessibility in mind. The only way to get to the pool was down stairs. This is just one example of how our facilities do not meet the needs of today and how they pose a challenge to inclusion in sports.

Our facilities are also not inclusive to trans, or non-binary athletes: change rooms are male and female and do not make for a safe space for some.

Another challenge to inclusion through sports is that many coaches and sport administrators are volunteers. This presents a challenge because often volunteers do not have the means (financially or time-wise) to commit to getting coach training or doing research on how to create a more inclusive environment. Volunteering is a really important for giving back to our communities and making sport programs available, but often the sport program is not their number one priority.


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