Inclusivity in Sports: Why it is the need of the hour?? Because, several sports are played by numerous people around the world. These various sports is what brings people together. Whether it be cheering for a favourite team to win or supporting athletes from around the world who have mastered the art of playing the sports we love. While some people play sports for recreational purposes, there are many whose dream it is to represent the country till the international level. Hence, inclusivity in sport is the need of the hour.
What is Inclusivity in sports?
While the term diversity refers to the different characteristics of people who make up the community. This includes the following characteristics:
- Gender (including male, female and unspecified)
- Race (including nationality, ethnicity and colour)
- Sexual Orientation (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Queer)
- Disability (including intellectual, physical or sensory disabilities)
Within families, friendship groups and local communities we may find diversity amongst people. In fact, the way each individual relates to these characteristics may differ. An individual is not defined by just one of these characteristics. Diversity is a strength of our community. It is also the reason sport organisations should be inclusive in order to engage a wide range of people to participate in sport. While diversity is important to continually promote the harmony and peace in sports, the term inclusion refers to what a country or an institution should do in order to ensure that the diverse community is reflected in its sport participants. Being inclusive means being proactive in the way a country plans, leads and controls the delivery of sport and recreation opportunities for everyone. Inclusion in sport means everyone in the diverse community, regardless of their gender, age, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation or ability, is afforded a range of opportunities to participate.
A person is not defined by a single characteristic such as their age, religious affiliation or sexual orientation. Yet some communities are under-represented in sport participation. To achieve this, sport organisations should provide choice and opportunities to support greater participation to:
- People with disability
- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) communities
- Tribal communities and STCs and OBCs
- People from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds
- Women & Girls
- Older adults
In addition, people who are experiencing social or economic disadvantage are less likely to participate in organised sport or be physically active. In understanding the need for inclusivity in sport it is important to remember that individuals may identify with some, or all, of these characteristics.
Characteristics of Inclusion:
These characteristics may mean that sometimes people face certain barriers to participation, such as language, accessibility, attitudes or even discrimination. If someone experiences multiple barriers it may be harder for them to participate in sport. Inclusion is about taking proactive steps to remove these barriers; and barriers are the result of the way sport products and services are often designed and delivered – not the characteristics of the individual. Every person has the ability – and the right – to participate in sport.
A successful approach to inclusion will give the community a voice and empower the minority to contribute to solutions, program design or other important decisions affecting them. Doing this helps to create welcoming and inclusive environments and can lead to greater involvement by diverse communities as participants, volunteers, administrators and officials.
In India, a country with 1.2 billion people, according to the 2011 census, there are 30,000,000 differently abled persons. This figure is probably close to four times this number based on World Health Organization (WHO) statistics. India can lead the way, and other countries in this region would have a remarkable example to follow and/or adapt. This has huge potential implications for creating inclusion, not only for the differently abled, but also for any person/group who feels left out of the mainstream. This is also important as sports can also be used for children with intellectual disabilities to help make them feel more included.
People with disabilities have been representing India at international events for over four decades. However, sports for persons with disabilities was outside mainstream conversations surrounding disability rights in India till 2007, when the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was ratified by India and pursuant to it the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPD Act) was enacted. Section 30 of the RPD Act elaborates on the measures that have to be undertaken to ensure sporting rights of Indians with disabilities. It mandates restructuring of courses and programmes to ensure access, inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in sporting activities; redesigning infrastructure; developing technology to enhance potential and talent; allocation of funds, etc.
India at Paralympics
Despite a stellar performance at Rio in 2016, the Special Olympic World Games, Deaf Sports events, etc, little has changed at the grassroots in India, from where most international medal winners come. Para sports persons, with some exceptions, continue to be denied entry to major sporting facilities and there has been no tangible attempt to enhance support systems for them. What is urgently required is democratisation of these sporting bodies and providing accessibility to all sporting facilities on an equal basis with others. Side by side enhanced spending on para sports, putting in place governance and oversight mechanisms as also enforcement of the mandates of the UNCRPD and the RPD Act are called for. Conversations around para sports should gain more credence in the days ahead and get mainstreamed. This will, for sure, also impact the way society treats the disabled from being objects of charity to holders of rights.
Pride in our Sports
Apart from the differently abled section of the community, it is also important for the scenario in Indian sports to be more LGBTQIA+ friendly. The most conspicuous concern today, ironically, is the invisibilisation of the LGBTQIA+ cause in the Indian sporting narrative. In fact, trans and non-binary gender identities (such as genderqueer and intersex individuals) rarely feature in our sports policies.
For example, the Haryana and West Bengal sports policies limit their language only to “men and women”. The draft Kerala Sports Policy fails to even mention gender, but promises to be inclusive and accessible to the ambiguously worded “diversity of Kerala society”. In this regard, perhaps the Karnataka Sports Policy can provide a much-needed starting point for the rest of the country. It uses conscious language to replace the normalised “both genders” or “two genders” with “diverse genders”, building a foundation in sport for representation.
Language of our sports policies aside, our sporting infrastructure ignores the sheer existence of non-binary individuals. Public spaces such as stadiums and community centres lack gender-neutral changing rooms or restrooms, leading to their marginalisation. Even with respect to individuals who conform to a binary identity, most of our sports policies ignore the specific problems faced by people because of their sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual).
While these individuals face no discernible barrier to sport, softer forms of exclusion such as bullying, fear and confusion play a vital role in their careers. Even in cases where openly gay players have been drafted into teams, they have struggled to stay on for long, and have maintained that their sexuality has hurt their chances. In elite sport, where athletes have no choice in who they play with or train under, “fitting in” becomes imperative. Particularly in team sports, casual homophobic banter which may otherwise seem harmless and normal has the capability to inflict more harm than expected. In such a scenario, mere policy changes may fail to influence the dressing room environment. Instead, senior players, captains and coaches must be sensitised about soft barriers to inclusivity in sports, to build trust and an inclusive space for minorities.
Further, the fact that Indian LGBTQIA+ athletes haven’t emerged in the forefront isn’t an issue to be left to elite sport alone.
Domestic and school-level sporting structures have an equal, if not greater role to play: if most young people feel the need to drop out of sport at an early age due to non-inclusive structures, there is a slim chance of them returning to sport later on. Any young athlete belonging to a minority group faces the threat of bullying particularly in team sports, owing to peer pressure and increased competition for a few coveted spots. However, this doesn’t preclude similar concerns in individual sports, where young players train using a common pool of resources such as the same swimming pool, shooting equipment, or tennis court. Hence, it is as important to actively enable inclusion and representation at the grassroots-level in both team sports and individual sports.
This can be worked towards inclusivity in sports by introducing
- anti-bullying policies and seminars for children and coaches,
- diversity in coaching staff, and
- ensuring the availability of mental health experts at community centres set up under the sports policies.
In conclusion, it is imperative to make inclusivity in sports accessible to all, irrespective of the age, gender, sex, religion and caste. Sports brings people universally together and mere stereotypes and classifications should not come in the way of this unity.