The Case for a sports-for-all approach to sports governance
Updated: Aug 7
In this article, Mr Mridul Kataria, Chief of Staff at Sports and Society Accelerator tracks the emergence of the multi-stakeholder ‘sports-for-all’ approach, and advocates for its adoption as a way to reap the benefits of sports for physical wellbeing, sporting excellence and its ability to unite and include diverse groups of people.
Mridul is a participant of the 4th edition of the High Performance Leadership Development Program conducted by ELMS Sports Foundation
There is a sea change in sports policies across the globe. On one hand, there are governments prioritising medals in major sports events to benchmark success, while others like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom are recognising the wide-ranging benefits of a ‘sports-for-all’ approach and moving the needle in that direction. And all of this is happening in the context of what can be termed as a Global Physical Inactivity Crisis.
Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a first-ever “Global status report on physical activity” highlighting data from 194 countries showing that if we maintain the status quo, almost 500 million people will develop heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in this decade. In the same vein, this also speaks to the economic cost of physical inactivity, with the same report citing potential losses of $27 Billion annually, if governments do nothing.
Within this context, if we look at countries that are moving towards a ‘sports-for-all’ approach, there is considerable reliance on growing evidence that points towards participation in sports and physical activity having far-reaching benefits beyond the physical – including mental and social health. Benefits of participation in sports and physical activity can aid general well-being and reduce stress, making it a major tool in the fight against the inactivity crisis. In turn, this article aims to argue for sports policies and governance in general to take note of this, and consider these aspects in the process.
When we discuss a sports-for-all approach, we are talking of a perspective in sports governance that prioritizes inclusivity, access, and participation – ensuring that individuals are able to access sport and physical activity regardless of age, gender, disability, and general background. In that case, not only does it affect the sporting space, but has larger ripple effects on society fostering equality and promoting health and well-being.
As a result, what lies at the heart of policies like this is the principle of inclusivity and access. Policies of this kind actively work to address barriers that stand in the way of access to sports and physical activity, whether they are social, economic, or physical in nature. The Australian Sports Commission’s participation plan “Play.Sport.Australia” represents a good example of this. First published in 2015, the plan set out the importance of sport and physical activity, and laid out active steps to remove barriers to participation and increase opportunities for underrepresented groups. A multi-stakeholder effort, it involved not only broadening the base of people taking part in physical activity but also increasing knowledge about ongoing trends in sports and physical activity.
When we look deeper into this aspect of inclusivity, it brings out the unique aspect of sports having the ability to bring people together and foster social cohesion and integration. This is evident across the board, when we see major sports events and fans in the stands cheering together, or young people playing together in a team regardless of where they are from.
A crucial example of this principle is Canada, with the Canadian Sport Policy outlining its commitment to inclusion and accessibility in sport. Sport Canada has initiated many programs that have begun to have an impact on inclusion. This includes the establishment of a Gender Equality Secretariat, a specific program supporting sport for social development in indigenous communities, and even holding general discussions on inclusivity in and through sport.
When we place this all in the context of the inactivity crisis, making sports more accessible and encouraging participation make this approach a crucial tool to counter sedentary lifestyles, reduce the risk of chronic diseases and enhance overall fitness levels. And in this case, not only does it improve physical health, but it is also known to have a positive impact on mental well-being and overall health.
And countries like Australia, Canada, UK, and even Norway are adhering to that. For example, Canada has the ParticipACTION initiative that encourages people to go out and play. In the same vein, the Norwegian Government provides financial support to clubs to improve accessibility in sports facilities to make them more accommodating for individuals with disabilities. The United Kingdom government has taken similar steps under the “Towards an Active Nation” strategy launched by Sport England.
These examples highlight the growing importance of a sports-for-all approach and its relevance in today’s times. However, ancillary benefits need to be highlighted as well, with the most prominent being its potential to contribute to medal-based success as well. With a broader base of people playing or taking part in some form of physical activity, a sport-for-all approach can also provide the potential of a larger pool of athletes, making the case for one even stronger.
What it looks like
Taking a cue from the last point, a sport-for-all approach doesn’t need to be devoid of a pursuit of excellence in elite competition. However, it need not be the sole focus of policy design. That is why an integrated approach like the one available here calls not only for excellence but allows for innovation, capacity-building, and broad-basing of sport and physical activity to directly or indirectly affect participation positively. This allows for both focus on sport for physical health but also allows for room to promote the far-reaching non-sporting benefits of physical activity as well.
Secondly, an ideal sports-for-all approach is also multi-stakeholder in nature. This means moving the needle in terms of sport and physical activity being solely a responsibility of the government. There needs to be room for the private sector both in terms of training and improving infrastructure. At the same time, the social sector can provide immense contributions to increasing participation through various grassroots-based programmes. This means the integrated approach allows for sport and physical activity to be practised both recreationally and professionally, ensuring numerous pathways.
A whole-of-society approach is also better placed to increase communication and coordination between all the various sectors and is the path to a sport-for-all outlook for sports policies. It also enables more robust addressal of barriers, safeguarding and other issues that plague both professional and recreational sports.
This article made the case for a sport-for-all approach in the context of a Global Physical Inactivity Crisis. It outlined the various benefits of having the approach in place, with examples of how it is currently being implemented across the world. In terms of how this can work in India, there are multiple learnings that can be applied to the context. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, however, there are numerous ways in which we can move forward.