20 September 2021

Sport brings people together – doesn’t it?

Diversity, equal opportunity, respect: What exactly does the word ‘diversity’ mean in the world of sports, and what might a more diverse sports world look like?

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Everyone has a unique body and their own individual needs – that much is clear. Experiences, social conditions and cultural influences are also extremely personal. Yet sometimes it is still necessary to define specific categories for bodies and performance. This is especially true when people are competing against one another, such as in the world of sport. In light of this, how can diversity be made a reality in the world of sports, and how can body and cultural diversity be given the necessary respect?


Diversity: Theory versus reality
In order to answer this question, one must first have a clear idea of what diversity is. The word ‘diversity’ refers to individual, social and structural differences and similarities between people and groups. These include age, ethnic background, nationality, sex and gender identity, physical and mental capabilities, religion, ideology, sexual orientation and social background. None of these factors should have a negative impact on the possibilities or opportunities available to people within a society. That is the theory – in reality, however, things often look much different.

In Germany, the significance of discrimination in the world of work due to these factors and the things that can be done to combat this are set down in the Charter of Diversity. With the help of diversity management, it is possible to think and act holistically and ensure that all people are given the respect and equal opportunity they deserve.


What does diversity mean in the world of sports?
In the world of sports, diversity can be relevant on various levels, from fair pay and sponsorship opportunities to the ability to compete, frequency of competition and the rules regarding what is worn. This last criterion, for example, ended up triggering a debate about sexism at the European Beach Handball Championship. Players on the Norwegian women's team wore cycling shorts instead of the bikini bottoms that had been mandated and were hit with a fine by the European Handball Association (EHF) as a result. Changing the rules that made it necessary to wear revealing bikini bottoms, on the other hand, would have been a far more appropriate response and one that was in keeping with diversity and the elimination of sexist and outdated traditions in the world of sports.


A lack of (sufficient) opportunities for women
There also continue to be sporting disciples that were reserved for one sex in the past and which continue to be subjected to discriminatory conditions today. Some of the more familiar examples include the Tour de France and Formula One, sports where sponsors spend almost nothing on women’s sports, making it impossible to hold competitions on anywhere near the same scale as those for men. Tennis began offering prizes that were not based on gender in 1973, while surfing did not begin doing so until 2018. For the Summer Olympic Games, it was only in 2012 that all sports were finally made available to both women and men – with boxing being the most intransigent holdout. On the other hand, women are still waiting for their own Nordic Combined competition at the Winter Olympics.


Binary thinking is out
One possibility for surmounting the gender gap lies in mixed teams, an approach that is possible or has already been implemented in various sporting disciplines. With racquet sports such as tennis, table tennis and badminton, for example, mixed doubles are a regular part of the schedule. Mixed gender teams are also featured in various water sports such as sailing, rowing and canoeing, as well as in curling, floorball, volleyball, softball, football and Ultimate Frisbee.

In other words, as long as there is a clear, binary division between women and men, it is possible to have mixed teams or gender-specific teams in a variety of sports. There is far less agreement (including amongst sporting associations) when it comes to intersex or transgender persons. This leads to examinations of a person's gender and disqualifications of athletes – and yet sports, a field that serves as a unifying force in so many ways, could actually be a pioneer here in the search for solutions that go beyond binary thinking.


No one is excluded
Various initiatives have set out to do just that. The Gay Games, for instance, are a much more diverse counterpart to the Olympic Games. These sporting competitions, which have been taking place once every four years at various locations around the world since 1982, promote equal rights, diversity and inclusion through sport and culture. People of all ages and professions are eligible to take part on a professional or amateur basis. The principle is simple: no one is excluded. This is also the philosophy behind the EuroGames, an annual European sports festival that was launched in 1992 and based on the Gay Games, and like that event it also takes place in changing locales.

In other words, the LGBTQIA+ community is very active globally in the field of sports: the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), for example, has set up its own ‘Equal opportunity and diversity’ department to promote diversity in German competitive sports, while BuNT – a national convention of queer sports clubs – has been meeting and networking sports clubs throughout Germany since 2018. There are also many smaller-scale initiatives that are making diversity a reality, including ‘Seitenwechsel’, a Berlin-based sports club for women, lesbians, transgender and intersex persons and girls.


Good to know: Places to turn
No one should suffer from discrimination – particularly systemic discrimination – for any reason whatsoever. That is why there are various organisations that specialise in the field of sports to which people can turn for help. The German ‘Sport&Politik’ network in Frankfurt am Main works to promote fairness, respect and human dignity in the field of sports and lends its support to sports clubs, initiatives and projects related to the field of sports. In the same way, Germany’s Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency works to protect the rights and interests of persons suffering from discrimination in any situation.