Reimagining the future of sport and development

Authors: Paul Hunt, Project Manager at The International Platform on Sport and Development (sportanddev)
and Ben Sanders, Development Consultant.


Sportanddev launched a call for articles on the future of sport and development. They received a record number of responses from their community, reflecting a need to reimagine the role of sport.

“Sport must change. This was true before coronavirus and will still be true well after.” SchweryCade


As the coronavirus pandemic has profoundly affected sport, including professional leagues and competitions, many have begun to question the role of sport in society. Should we be seeking to go back to business as usual? Or is it time for sport to change? What needs to be done?

We launched a call for articles on the future of sport and development, linked to the future of sport itself. We encouraged submissions on a range of questions, such as:

  • Does sport need to change to better serve society? If so, how and why?
  • What can sport and development actors do better in the future?
  • How can sport play a greater role in contributing to development and peace?
  • Can we reimagine the role of sport? Do other realistic utopias exist for sport?
  • Can we resolve the conflict and contradictions inherent within sport? If so, how?

Read the articles on the future of sport and development

Common themes

Articles focused on the need to reimagine the role of sport and sport for development, and #buildbackbetter during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Below we have provided a snapshot of common themes from the 55 articles.


Building a more equitable and inclusive sport for development and sport sector

“To emerge stronger from this crisis, it is necessary to acknowledge and address the inherent inequalities in sports that discriminate on the basis of body, gender, sexuality, age, ability, caste, race, tribe, location class and religion.” – Madhumita Das and Sanjana Gaind, activists, rights advocates and consultants

One article pointed out that sport and the coronavirus have one thing in common: they are both sometimes described as a ‘great leveller.’ Some say coronavirus affects us all equally, regardless of rank, religion, race, financial status and other characteristics, and people also argue those things also don’t matter on the sports field. But this is not the case. The poor and marginalised are most at risk during the COVID-19 crisis, and they are also most likely to be left behind in sport.

Authors emphasised the need to challenge the current inequities within the sport for development and sport sectors. The crisis means resources are constrained, and they will be for some time. We need to ensure this doesn’t lead to previous gains (e.g. in relation to women’s sport) being reversed.

Women Win outlined six actions to make sport for development both relevant globally and more equitable, inclusive and responsive to local needs:

  • Hold the line – focus on the most vulnerable to ensure social gains made are not reversed
  • Act local, feed the global – ensure sports programmes meet the needs of communities while creating virtual networks for the global sharing of resources and knowledge
  • Leapfrog – leverage technology to our advantage
  • Create unusual alliances and plan for multiple new realities
  • Prepare for the predictable – focus on economic resilience and trauma
  • Advocate, advocate, advocate for a healthy sport for development ecosystem
Investing in grassroots sport and sport for development

“The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the community sport sector as a whole, review support and investment models, and innovate to open up sport participation and its associated benefits to a much broader section of the community.” – Ruth Jeanes and co., Monash University, Edith Cowan University, Victoria University and University of Amsterdam

Writers repeatedly emphasised the need for sport to go ‘back to its roots.’ This includes investing more funding in grassroots sport and sport for development initiatives that provide access and opportunities for all. When doing so, it is important to pay special attention to marginalised groups such as women and girls, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, and gender non-conforming individuals.

Authors highlighted the need to invest in building the capacity of sport for development organisations and local sport actors, including community coaches. Articles also emphasised the need to develop the skills and competencies of youth. Contributors called for greater recognition of informal sport’s potential to promote inclusion and to build stronger, thriving communities.

One article also highlighted the role of indigenous games in contributing to the COVID-19 recovery. These are traditional recreational activities that originate in a particular cultural group or community. They exist in many countries – including India – but are often marginalised.


The need to change elite sport

For the world of sport to return to the no-compromise, over-funded, over-resourced pursuit of perfection that has become the aspirational modus operandi for sports organisations in the ‘developed world’ seems at best misguided, at worst a little vulgar.” – Tim Harper, Equity Sport

Responses to the call for articles included critiques of an excessive focus on elite sport and performance. Resources are disproportionately allocated to professional sport and their associated rewards. Certain authors argued that elite sport does not adequately serve the needs of society and reinforces inequities.

Sport bodies need to improve their governance, transparency and leadership, with a focus on sustainability and social responsibility. This may help rebuild trust in sport, which has often been seen as self-serving, disjointed and driven by profit rather than people and planet.


Focusing on people and communities – not the sport itself

“Sport, as a human, social phenomenon is irreplaceable. So why are we not talking about this more? Why are we not priming ourselves to create a future that embraces more of the assets of sport that go beyond the charts and spreadsheets in the sports industry?” – Marjorie Enya, International Olympic Academy and Brazilian Rugby Union

A common theme was the need to prioritise policies and programmes that focus on developing individuals and communities through sport rather than the sport itself. While there are overlaps between development through sport and the development of sport, it is important to acknowledge the different focus and ensure that community needs are prioritised. A bottom-up approach to sport and sport for development is necessary to level the playing field.

If we truly intend to prioritise development through sport then it is time to change the way we view and celebrate sport. Sport should not only be taken seriously when the sport itself is serious (i.e. elite, competitive and performance-based). Grassroots sport and sport for development remain just as important, reminding us that sport is human. The sport industry is on pause, but this does not mean sport and physical activity have stopped altogether, and certain sport for development activities are as critical as ever.


Uniting different approaches and actors

“Now is our time to seek out a better future for individuals and the planet as a whole. By embracing the UN’s 2030 Agenda and using the SDGs as a compass for sporting programmes and policy development, all stakeholders have an opportunity to contribute to this positive momentum.” – Sophie Spink and Mark Abberley, Portas Consulting

While there is value in recognising the distinctions between different forms of sport, writers also argued that integrating sport for development, sport for all and elite sport as a united sector would contribute more effectively to sport playing a role in development, including to the SDGs as a collective framework.

This relates to a broader issue. Should sport for development consider itself a separate sector? Or is it rather a methodology and approach that uses sport to promote outcomes beyond the playing field? Greater synergies between sport for development actors, traditional sport structures such as federations, the public sector and development institutions are needed to make such approaches more widely used and accepted.


Making gender equality the priority

My hope […] is that the sport for development movement will see tackling this issue as not only as an opportunity for us but ultimately as a main priority. I hope that we will step up to the responsibility of teaching the largest demographic that plays sport [adolescent boys] about how we can live in peaceful and safe societies not just for men, but for all.” – Jon Hamilton, Inspire Football Foundation

Women and girls are particularly at risk during and after the current crisis. One article pointed out that the structures that control women have strengthened during lockdowns. Domestic violence rates have increased, and sex education, contraceptives, safe abortions and other reproductive health services are restricted. The COVID-19 lockdowns could lead to millions of unintended pregnancies if it goes on for six months, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Writers emphasised that steps need to be taken to prevent gender-based violence and ensure previous progress on gender equality is not lost. They argued that sport needs to play a transformative role in tackling gender stereotypes and promoting equality.

They also urged men to play a greater role in promoting gender equality and preventing abuse of women. Adolescent males are the demographic that plays sport the most in many countries. Sport can therefore be particularly useful for educating boys about violence prevention and women’s rights.


Adapting and considering new delivery models

“Demand for sport will not decrease; how we deliver sport will be the question.” – Professor Hans Westerbeek, Victoria University

In-person interactions are at the heart of most sport for development programmes, but the current crisis has hampered them significantly. Sport for development organisations need to continue to adapt and innovate, considering new approaches.

This includes using technology and social media to scale the reach and impact of sport for development work in the future. We need to take a broader view of sport, beyond physical and competitive activities. Board games and other intellectual recreational pursuits have shown positive effects on cognitive capacity and health. Greater consideration of the role of e-sports is also merited.

Furthermore, it is clear that sport, and sport for development organisations and programmes, need to be better prepared for disasters and emergencies. This should include better planning to guide relief, response and recovery efforts.


Using sport to tackle mental health problems and trauma

“This is sport’s moment to heal. Never in its history have we seen a time when sport is more needed.” – Lou Bergholz, Edgework Consulting

With so much attention on physical health and economic recovery, there is a risk that the COVID-19 response will not focus enough attention on mental health. The crisis is exacerbating mental health problems, especially among vulnerable groups. International development actors often underestimate the importance of psychosocial support programmes, and they can be hesitant to support such work as they view its impact as difficult to measure.

But sport can play a critical role in healing, using trauma-informed approaches to promote mental health and recovery. The therapeutic benefits of sport will be especially important.

And the current crisis does not necessarily make sport and play activities impossible. Some approaches and games can be used without breaking physical distancing guidelines, which means it is still possible to run psychosocial support programmes.


Investing in teaching, learning and research

Educating our youth on how sport can enhance and affect the body, the mind, relationships and communities can truly transform the thinking of the new generation.” – Rhonda Clarke-Goden, University of Trinidad and Tobago

Teaching, learning and research remain important fundamentals to educate and sustain the sport for development movement. Making sport for development more prominent within educational institutions can enable new leaders in this field to emerge. After all, students represent the future and need to be critically engaged.

There should be more sport degrees, educational seminars, life skills workshops and community breakout sessions. Combining coursework with opportunities for internships and fellowships is vital. Partnerships between scholars and practitioners may help to bridge gaps between theory, policy and practice.

Greater synergies between sport and academia may broaden the use of sport in education, while using science and approaches from elite sport can help us better measure and understand the impact of sport for development.


Turning challenges into opportunities

“The future should be bright for those in sport for development who have risen to the occasion and the offered a pathway and leadership for others to follow to really show the true worth of sport to the community.” – George Halkias, Street Soccer Movement and the Big Issue Community Street Soccer Program

The current crisis presents challenges and opportunities. A global economic recession will mean even more limited resources, including among sport bodies and funders. Things may well get worse for the sport for development sector. As Lauren Schwaar says: “The real possibility exists that an event as cataclysmic as COVID-19 could create an even wider schism between established high-level sport and emerging sport due to depleted resources.”

The future of sport for development may be at stake, especially for smaller and less well-resourced actors who may struggle to adapt and survive. This may even consolidate power and resources in the hands of a few, reinforcing current inequities in the global sport ecosystem. To combat this, sport for development actors need to mobilise to ensure that their actions are seen as critical in the relief, response and recovery efforts – and beyond. This requires greater commitment from donors, partners and governments. In this regard, we welcome the creation of a Sport for Good Relief fund by Laureus and other partners.

On the other hand, this crisis presents an opportunity for the sport for development sector to increase its profile. While elite sport has generally been on pause, many sport for development organisations are directly involved in relief efforts. These actors have innovated and adapted their programming, and they continue to engage communities. This marks an opportunity to gain greater recognition and visibility, illustrate the value and viability of sport for development policies and programmes, and ultimately promote the widespread use of such approaches.

In fact, there may be positive outcomes that emerge from this crisis. These include the localisation of sport and physical activity, and trends (e.g. regular home exercise) that may continue beyond the pandemic and provide a means for communities to be more physically active, engaged and healthy.

Whatever the case, it is clear that sport for development needs to plan and mobilise for a ‘new normal’ – there is no going back to business as usual, and reducing risks and enhancing opportunities is urgently required.


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