Why action is needed to stop the beautiful game becoming an ugly experience for some

by Lord Chris Holmes

Published: 19 Feb 2015

The London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games were full of so many incredible moments but there are two that will live long in the memory. 

Margaret Maughan, Britain’s first ever gold medallist at the Paralympic Games, lighting the Paralympic cauldron at the Olympic stadium and Mo Farah bursting through the finishing tape to claim his historic second gold medal.

Margaret Maughan was selected as part of Britain's delegation to the Ninth Stoke Mandeville Games, later known as the Paralympic Games, in Rome in 1960. She won gold in the archery competition and went on to win three more golds in a long sporting career. She had found the sport while recovering in hospital from a car accident that had left her unable to walk. Mo Farah arrived in London at the age of eight from Mogadishu in Somalia, speaking very little English before his talent was spotted by his PE teacher.

Both examples underline the opportunity that sport can provide for people and its unique power to transform lives and inspire others. I know this from my own personal experience.

Of course, not everyone will match these levels of achievement but everyone should have the opportunity to participate, spectate or volunteer. Winning is obviously a great feeling but the benefits for participants and spectators go wider. We are all too well aware though  that there remains a significant inequality of opportunity even in our major sports such as rugby, cricket and football.

Some groups, particularly women and girls, Asians, Muslims and disabled people, have disproportionately low rates of participation in sport – as players, spectators, volunteers, officials and employees. 

According to Sporting Equals, an independent body that promotes ethnic diversity in sport, 89% of those who take part in sport are from white backgrounds and 11% are from non-white backgrounds. Rugby union has one of the lowest participation rates for ethnic minorities at around 3%.

Sport has an important role in health, social interaction and inclusion and can help build skills and self-confidence which can enable  people to succeed in other areas of life.

That is why we bid for additional funding of £1.9million from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, separate from our core budget to get stuck into inclusion in sport.

We launched our initiative to team up with Premiership Rugby last year. We have already committed £600,000 to rugby in 14/15 and 15/16, working through Premiership Rugby to recruit and train more BME and female teachers and coaches, encourage more female and BME school pupils to try rugby and increase those who join local clubs.

The remaining spend will improve access to stadia for disabled people, address low participation of women, girls and ethnic minorities in cricket and football, and provide guides and training for sports governing bodies on promoting opportunity.

We expect to announce a partnership with the England & Wales Cricket Board soon, and we are looking to expand to other sports including football having had initial discussions with the Premier League and other organisations.

We will set-out more information in coming weeks and months and no final decisions have yet been made in relation to football.

Some people have asked why we work with commercial sports organisations, especially where they may have significant financial resources. In starting this programme, what mattered to us was impact – providing opportunity for as many people as possible – not ideology. 

We are providing the expertise, kick-starting action and putting in place programmes that will have long-term impact.

Professional clubs are often uniquely placed to help tackle sporting inequality due to their infrastructure, links into local communities and the power of role models to inspire. This maximises value and return on investment for activities to promote inclusion which would not happen otherwise.

The funding goes through organisations like Premiership Rugby not to them, promoting sports inclusion at the grassroots rather than subsidising professional sports clubs.

We will also not be afraid to criticise national bodies or the clubs when we don’t feel they are pulling their weight or meeting their legal responsibilities.

For example, people are right to ask whether Premier League football clubs are failing disabled fans. Whether it is access to tickets, spaces for wheelchairs or the views of disabled supporters – the beautiful game can be an ugly experience for some.

Previous research has shown of the 20 clubs in the Premier League, when it comes to access, eight fail to offer even half of what they should under national guidelines - a situation that has remained largely unchanged for several years.

Given the windfall the Premier League has just enjoyed, it would be scandalous if clubs don’t do more.

For our part, we are committed to continuing to do all we can to promote participation for all including by increasing access to stadia.

While there are no guarantees we will create stories quite like Mo Farah’s and Margaret Maughan’s, we can support happier and healthier lives and enable sport to be accessible and truly inclusive for all.