Guest Blog – November 2022 eNews

by Professor Ramón Spaaij, Institute for Health and Sport, Victoria University.

Participating in sport as a player, volunteer or spectator can shape our identities and sense of belonging both to our local communities and to society more broadly. At its core, playing sport is about having fun, being playful, socialising with others, competing, and developing skills.

There is strong scientific evidence for the health and social benefits of sport participation. Focusing on new and emerging communities, research shows how sport participation can contribute to positive outcomes for health, wellbeing and settlement. Sport participation can help newly arrived migrants to navigate the challenges of life in a new country, through the pleasures of being physically active, connecting with others, feeling part of a sporting community, celebrating achievements, and – at its most basic – being able to play.

Unfortunately, not everyone has similar access to sport. Australia’s culturally diverse communities are not participating in sport as often as the broader Australian population. Women from new and emerging communities are among those least likely to play organised sport.

Barriers to participation operate at multiple levels.

  • Structural barriers include for example policy gaps, socio-economic inequities, resource constraints, and a lack of collaboration (or co-design) between sporting organisations and community groups.
  • Sociocultural barriers may include hostile sporting environments and practices, social or community norms (especially for girls and women), and the absence of family or parental support.
  • Personal barriers include language, lack of leisure time, competing responsibilities (family, work, study), limited knowledge about sport systems or participation opportunities, and the absence of prior sport experience or skills.

Taken together, these barriers highlight the need to understand community members’ needs, aspirations, and strengths; the importance of low financial cost, geographic proximity, and flexible delivery; co-design with communities; engagement of (extended) families; developing coaches’ and administrators’ intercultural competences; and – where appropriate – gender-segregated provision.

Discrimination is key barrier to participation in sport.

Even though sport participation may contribute to health and settlement, it can also have the opposite effect of exposing participants to racial or religious vilification. Research has consistently documented the adverse impacts of racism in sport.

Racism has been shown to pose a serious and persistent challenge to new and emerging communities’ participation rates and sense of belonging in sport. Our own research found that racial vilification is a common occurrence among players and spectators in junior sport in Australia. It is occurring across most sports, with non-white children and young people being the targets of most abuse.

Addressing these barriers will not solely benefit members of new and emerging communities. Sports clubs can benefit from cultural diversity and inclusivity in many ways, for example through increased membership and volunteers, greater club capacity and sustainability, enhanced intercultural awareness, and a stronger connection with local communities. Clubs frequently report feeling under-resourced to engage in diversity and inclusion initiatives, a concern that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent initiatives, such as the Change Makers community of practice, aim to provide clubs with hands-on support and a space where they can share experiences with other clubs that are on a similar journey towards greater inclusivity.

There appears to be momentum towards tackling some of these issues head on.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, Victorian Human Rights Commission, Play by the Rules, VicSport and other organisations have all developed valuable resources to assist sport organisations in becoming more inclusive and anti-racist.

The Centre for Multicultural Youth has been an undeniable pioneer in this area through its longstanding delivery of specialist support services, training/consultancy, knowledge sharing and advocacy to address barriers and enablers young people face as they make Australia their home.

I look forward to continuing our collaborative work to make sport welcoming, safe and truly inclusive for people of all backgrounds and abilities.

– Professor Ramón Spaaij
Institute for Health and Sport, Victoria University.