The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games provided many powerful role models from diverse backgrounds. It was great that athletes like Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah, Christine Ohuruogu, and Hannah Cockroft were celebrated but the common conclusion that this “proved” Great Britain was at ease with diversity was a fantasy.
Despite the positive black, asian, brown, LGBT and disabled sporting role models on the field of play, off the field this representation only goes so far. If we want to achieve genuine equality then inclusion must be about representation at all levels. Research from Sporting Equals is startling; only 2 out of 45 individuals on National Governing bodies are black and minority ethnic people, with 35 white males and 8 white females.
Sport has a huge cultural and global presence and therefore provides a platform to shine a light on inequalities in a way few other cultural practices can. So sport itself comes to be seen to represent wider societal values, just as elite sportswomen and men become responsible as powerful role models.
As a woman of colour, racism and sexism doubly affect my own opportunities, so when an athlete of colour decides to take a stand about something beyond sport it is hugely inspiring to me. As demonstrated when Nicola Adams came out as bisexual long before other high profile athletes and to less media coverage.
You will be hard pressed to find someone who denies the transformative nature and symbolic value that sport has. From Billie Jean King and the struggle for equality in tennis and women’s sport more broadly in the US, to the Tommie Smith and John Carlos salute for the Olympic Project for Human Rights at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, sport is often at the forefront of social movements.
Sportswomen in particular are powerful role models and an inspiration to other girls and women. I would encourage more and more female athletes to speak out on issues that they are passionate about. When Lizzie Armitstead won silver in the London 2012 Olympic cycling road race she used the opportunity to courageously speak up about sexism in her sport. It’s not just the power of the words that athletes have but also the extent of their reach. Sport provides the space to have the discussions that people don’t want to talk about. Sport crosses divides and talks to those who don’t even like sport.
As women’s sport becomes more visible, it’s thrilling and exciting to see the strides that have been made. With increased visibility comes success, as new names are catapulted onto our TV screens. Today’s track and field athletes are standing on the shoulders of those who came before. I think back to the time when I watched in awe as Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread claimed gold and bronze medals in the javelin at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Sanderson became the first black British woman to win Olympic gold. The power of seeing someone who looks like you claim victory is instrumental in visualizing your own success both on and off the sports field.
The media across the board are slowly recognising the sporting success of women, the captivating characters and the stories to be told. Together let’s make these stories as representative of our nation as possible, just like the phenomenal finalists this evening who come from a variety of backgrounds.
Movements, agitation, and collective and shared responsibility all have a place in the pursuit for equality. We all have a contribution to make and sport provides us with an environment where we can play our part. When we stand together we are stronger, yes we will stumble but we will also get right back up.
Diversity and Inclusion Advisor to the Women’s Sports Trust