Monday, 25 June 2012

Sport, equality and the Olympic ideals

On July 27 and August 29 the Olympics and Paralympics open respectively. Following on from the European Cup during June we are having a deluge of sporting activity on our TV screens.

It is generally assumed that sport is one of the few arenas where equality is achieved, albeit that separate events are held for men and women and the Paralympics are just open to disabled athletes – recognising that in order to have a equality at a substantive level it may be necessary to have “separate but equal” provision. But within each of the necessarily separate sporting events, athletes/participants are selected based on objective achievement; and ultimate success is based on the “best past the post” principle. But is this really true?

No doubt once you are in the race, so to speak, then “first past the post” achieves an equitable outcome. But this is not the whole story by any means. To gain recognition in any sporting area and to represent your country all sorts of socio-economic hurdles have to be jumped (apologies for another sporting metaphor!) which are completely independent of the abilities or potential of individual athletes – with huge differences in opportunities between, and within, countries who make up the Olympic movement.

“I have often seen very successful athletes struggle to get sponsorship. In the Beijing Olympics I was the only athlete in the final who had a full-time job to support my Olympic dream of winning a medal”
Larry (Onochie) Achike
I have always been intrigued as to why there are not more black swimmers or participants in horsy-type events and sailing. But the answer is, I think, really quite simple: swimming pools, horses/stables and yachts are expensive to provide and maintain (particularly to Olympic standards), as is the paraphernalia of clubs and coaches required to succeed (unless there is significant governmental support or private sponsorship for such sports). There are also strong class-based biases attached to these sports – thus effectively excluding many poorer people and nations from participating.

Many countries – particularly in developing ones (all, on whole, “non-European”/white”) cannot really compete with wealthier nations or private income.

“I think racism is everywhere, however if you reach the selection standards on your event and achieve that time and/or distance then racism cannot really come into play as your performance cannot be argued with”
Tasha Danvers
On the other hand sports such as running (and athletics more generally) can, theoretically be open to all – as this requires few if any expensive facilities (although clubs and coaching or governmental or private sponsorship are still necessary to reach the highest level) and, at the end of the day, truly outstanding talent has the potential to come to the fore and succeed. Is this why East African nations (Ethiopia/Tanzania), alongside Black Americans and poorer nations do relatively well in these sports?

When undertaken equality training I have sometimes asked participants why Black people appear to do well in athletics and white people in swimming. I have been surprised by the number of those who put this down to genetics rather than social/economic factors – despite almost universal scientific consensus for over 60 years that there are few genetic differences worth speaking of between the groups – and certainly nothing to suggest that genetics explains differential performance in different sports. Some Black participants also believe the stereotypes - demonstrating how in a society in which Black peoples’ achievements are rarely celebrated or apparent, success in international athletics is something to hang on to and link with “Blackness” – thus demonstrating that prejudices are held universally by people of all racial groups – although the nature of the prejudices may differ!

Despite the continuation of inequalities, in terms of both access and substantive equality, the Olympic ideal is nevertheless worth treasuring in a world which is increasingly cynical about it due to the escalating costs of hosting it, the growth of dubious and unethical commercial sponsorship and the growing levels of corruption. But it precisely because of such cynicism that we must hold on to our ideals and not let those who would undermine them get the better of us.

For the record it is worth re-stating the principles of the Olympic movement as follows:

The fundamental of Principles of Olympism:

1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings.

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

5. Recognising that sport occurs within the framework of society, sports organisations within the Olympic Movement shall have the rights and obligations of autonomy, which include freely establishing and controlling the rules of sport, determining the structure and governance of their organisations, enjoying the right of elections free from any outside influence and the responsibility for ensuring that principles of good governance
be applied.

6. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

These principles are worth having, cherishing and promoting more widely. Is this an antidote to the cynicism which is so widespread? At the end of the day, though, sit back and enjoy the spectacle of people form all over the world participating in an event which signals the potential for the world to unite and work together for common human endeavour.

The schedule of events for both the main Olympic and the Paralympics’ can be found here:



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