Sports and Diversity: Challenges and Opportunities

Sports is part of any culture in the world. That’s why people who practice sports and those who become professional athletes are inevitably diverse. There is rarely a top professional sports team without athletes from various backgrounds, be it nationality, religion, social status, race, and others. Sports obviously doesn’t lack diversity, yet it is not completely free of diversity issues.

In its most simple definition, diversity means a range of human differences, including but not limited to nationality, religion, age, race, sex, sexual orientation, social status, physical attributes, political beliefs, and others.

When Diversity Is Not an Issue

Some sports clearly lack athletes from diverse backgrounds, yet it doesn’t mean that a diversity issue exists. It is important to note that biological factors and cultures have a significant influence on people’s personal choice, including the choice of whether they are going to involve themselves in sports and what sports they will choose.

Aside from football, all other sports are popular only in certain regions in the world. Americans are into baseball and American football. Germans and Balkan countries are into handball. African and Carribean nations produce great runners. Indians love cricket, while Chinese make table tennis one of the world’s most popular sport. Moreover, the world’s greatest swimmers come mostly from well-developed countries, where warm Olympic-standard swimming pools are abundant and easily accessible.

From a perspective of diversity, does this mean that we lack more Chinese baseball athletes? Does table tennis lack more black players? Do we need diversity policies to involve Europeans in cricket?

What can seem like a lack of diversity on the surface, is, in reality, a freedom of choice influenced by culture. It is normal for a seven-year-old boy in the US to choose to practice baseball because Americans have a cult for baseball. Unlike him, a girl in China will be fascinated by the tensed table tennis games on TV and will dream of becoming one of them and being admired by billions in her own country.

The point is that the lack of diversity in these sports is due to choices that people make. No one stopped or prohibited them from getting involved with any sports. They have done it as they wished.

When Diversity Is an Issue

However, that’s not the case with all athletes around the world. How about the girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan who are publicly shamed for playing football? Or, the boys who show interest in figure skating? These people have made their choice, but they are not allowed to practice it in peace due to various reasons. Some may think that football is a men’s sport, while figure skating is for girls. If that’s the reason leading to a lack of diversity, then we have a real diversity issue. If anyone who wants to practice or play any sport is undermined from doing so due to their attributes, such as gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, age, social status, and others, the diversity in sports has been threatened.

Sports and Diversity: Challenges

Even though sports often promote diversity in society, there are challenges that are yet to be tackled, such as:

Racism and nationalism. Racist and nationalist chants are the folklore on many sports fields. The hardcore fans sometimes do not tolerate even the differences between them and the players in their own favorite teams. These fans are rarely numerous, but they create the impression that everyone in the stands is equally xenophobic.

Women are not being let in. In the parts of the world where cultural and religious norms are more rigid, women are often denied the opportunity to practice sports. Sometimes, they even get life threats. In these areas, sports are reserved for men only, which is bad for diversity.

LGBT people stay in the closet. Although the number of women in professional sports who come out publicly as gay grows steadily, that’s not the case with gay men. They seem to be deterred from coming out, despite the clear signs of acceptance for the athletes who have made it after retiring from active playing.

Social class still plays a significant role. We have heard many stories about children from the slums who have made it to the famous sports arenas and improved their financial status and that of their family. However, these rags-to-riches stories are true only to kids who don’t need a lot more than a ball to show their abilities to scouts. Enter swimmers, tennis players, and others who need expensive equipment to practice. Getting a tennis coach for a child is always a financial burden to their family. When it comes to swimmers, it is important to note that poor areas often lack swimming pools. Many countries, in fact, struggle with building a sufficient number of swimming pools. It is no wonder that most of the successful swimmers come from well-developed countries, such as the United States, Australia, France, Sweden, and the likes.

Sports and Diversity: Opportunities

Diversity issues are not exclusive to sports only. They are just a symptom of a much wider problem. In fact, there is no issue in sports that is not already present in other parts of society. If you notice a problem in sports, you can be sure that you’ll notice the very same issue in any other area of life.

However, sports have a power that other areas don’t – it can be a powerful agent of change. Athletes have a great opportunity to create changes in society. They are idols of many. They are the heroes who dare to reach the heights that others don’t and manage to do so; therefore, many people follow their lead. If they raise their voice for the disadvantaged, others will as well. If they fight and beat the odds, others will follow.

The example with racist chants in stadiums around Italy is the best example: when one player left the field due to it, many others followed. That led to getting wide support from the Italian society, which eventually led to the racism-free stadiums they have today. It is true that sports face human rights and diversity challenges, but it is also true that it provides a great opportunity to make meaningful changes in society for the better of all.

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