Sally Hancock: Sport at a time of social change

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. – Nelson Mandela

It’s a quote which many SportBusiness readers will be well aware of, but right now, as I sit at my desk, horrified at the extraordinary political chaos, divisiveness, anger and anxiety currently sweeping through the United Kingdom, Nelson Mandela’s often-reported quote has never resonated more strongly.

It’s easy to contemplate sport at face value. On any given day, in cities, towns and communities the world over, matches are played, teams and players win and lose, we celebrate a triumph, we bemoan a defeat and we turn our attention to the next. We are briefly brought together by a unifying common interest, regardless of our political beliefs, religion, age or sex.

In the Times on September 8, Matthew Syed remarked: “At a deeper level, [sport] is about sociality and community. In a nation that is becoming increasingly polarised and where bitterness has reached epidemic proportions, this is worth remembering. Sport reminds us that we are united by far more than the temporary political animosities that divide us. It is, in this sense, part of the glue that holds the nation together.”

The 2019 Rugby World Cup has brought this sharply into focus. Clubs, pubs and bars all over the country have been filled to the rafters in support of the Home Nation teams, and for a brief and very necessary moment, we’re fully distracted and totally absorbed – by the quality of competition, the talent and strength of the players and the energy of the fans – regardless of our political beliefs and the things that otherwise divide us.

Scotland’s 28-21 defeat against Japan was watched by an audience of 5.7 million in the UK, and a staggering 53.7 million people in Japan – a country struggling to come to terms with the devastating impact of a recent typhoon. And the Women’s World Cup this year showcased the very best of women’s sport to new audiences the world over, with record-breaking viewing figures, attendances and a whole new generation of young girls inspired to kick a ball and take part, with all the health and societal benefits we know that this can bring.

US co-captain Megan Rapinoe summed this up perfectly when she said: “We have a unique opportunity in football, different to any other sport in the world, to use this beautiful game to actually change the world for better. So that’s my charge to everyone. I hope you take that to heart and just do something, do anything. We have incredible power in this room.”

No participation activity, in my opinion, tackles this issue at a local level better than a park run. The concept is mind-blowing in its simplicity: register, turn up, run, walk, talk, and share. For free. This extraordinarily simple community run has, over the last five years, reached a combined distance of 162m miles (260m km) at 53.8 million individual parkruns globally, adding up to 3,118 years, 25 days, 22 hours, seven minutes and 18 seconds of running and walking. In spite of our differences, in opinion, age, race, income, and ability, this brilliant event brings communities together, with clear social and health benefits, and every sporting governing body in the UK and beyond is now on the hunt to create its own mass participation equivalent.

Sport is more important than ever, as we enter into a period of upheaval and great uncertainty in the UK and beyond. We must never lose sight of the power of sport to bring people together across a political divide, engage and inspire young people to get active and share positive experiences, and bring communities together, regardless of beliefs, be they political, religious or otherwise.

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