“When it suits us, we’re happy to talk about the leadership role that sport can play; its capacity to inspire a nation or to transform lives. But there’s an elevated level of discomfort when talking about race and culture in sport and we need to get beyond this if we are genuinely going to do something about the ethnicity gap.”

These weren’t the words of an MP or leading sports figure being asked their opinion in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd and the marches and unrest that have followed.

No, this was Sport England board member Chris Grant speaking back in January this year, following the organisation’s publication of Sport for All?, a report shining a light on the shockingly low rates of sports participation in many BAME communities in England. 

Six months ago Grant, a former CEO of Sported (the London 2012 legacy charity), was calling for a ‘clear-sighted and honest’ conversation about race and it how it can do more to help black, Asian and ethnically mixed communities be more active – his words were urgent then and sadly have struck a prescient note in the past few weeks.

Sport is not at the forefront of the conversation around the death of George Floyd and the ensuing reaction, but much of Sport England’s report reflected the central issues that are being discussed across all channels all over the globe ever since. And sport has a major role to play as communities seek to find a way forward.

“We’re currently excluding and letting down whole swathes of our population,” said Grant in January, calling on sports leaders to stop talking a good game about ‘Sport for All’ and take affirmative action.

A headline figure from the report was that 29 percent of England’s black adult population was ‘inactive’ compared with 24 percent of the white British population. With children the numbers were 38 and 29 per cent respectively. The report also highlighted the fact that the figures have been almost exactly the same for the past four years. An alarming indication of inactivity and apparent complacency.

The troubling study, based on surveys of more than 100,000 adults and children, also found that while the gap exists across all ethnic groups, it is most pronounced for women of black African and Asian heritage. It showed 61% of White British women are active compared to only 41% of Pakistani women, 46% of Bangladeshi women, 52% of Indian women and 54% of Black African.

Worryingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the chief reason given by the black community for a lack of participation was ‘opportunity’. And this is the area the campaign sought to address:  “to lower the barriers to participation across the country and improve understanding of the intersectionality between issues such as ethnicity, gender, age and affluence”.

While there are some brilliant initiatives and events in the country to get people of all ages active, if you look at the coverage of the various runs, rides and multi-sport activities the images are definitely not of a diverse Britain all coming together to get active.

A major reason for this lack can be seen at boardroom and executive level of the companies that organise these events. There was widespread support for the BLM movement and BlackoutTuesday social media campaigns from these organisations last week but hardly any of these organisations have black representation at board level. That fact alone must influence a lack of participation.

Another major reason given for the lack of black participation is socio-economic – that a disproportionate number of black people live in British cities with a lack of access to outdoor space compared with white British adults. That may be true, but if so it should not be given as a reason for the discrepancy in numbers, but rather a reason to over-compensate and create opportunity where it is lacking.

As mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, the first sports to ‘return’ as lockdown eased were golf and tennis – two sports which still carry with them a whiff of privilege and white elitism. It is of little surprise that we see so few black golfers and tennis players on our courses and courts in England when there are so few role models for them to aspire to.

In America, of course, we famously saw Tiger Woods blaze a trail for all black sportsmen in the late 90s and early 2000s and similarly with the Williams sisters in the world of tennis. But they are really the exception – and certainly in England we have not seen anything like the success of these brilliant, black sportspeople in these sports.

So what can help make the difference?  Is it time for clubs and organisations to take affirmative action and introduce quotas? 

After years of trial and tribulation in South Africa, with its own, on-going, incredibly troubled history with apartheid and racism we saw Siya Kolisi, a black player, lead his team to rugby World Cup glory last year. 

It was an incredible moment, 24 years on from the ‘Nelson Mandela’ final. South Africa are now aiming to fulfill a quota of ensuring 50 per cent of its national rugby squad is black by 2023. It is a controversial plan, and one that Kolisi does not appear to support 100 per cent, but what is indisputable is that it ensures a conversation is on-going and active in South Africa and makes the public and sporting bodies think hard about all their choices.

On a micro scale, back in England, all local sports bodies, clubs and teams need to be having the same hard conversation and thinking carefully about their choices. Even if they stop short of announcing quotas, would it not be a bad idea to at least make targets?

As Grant says: “Denying and wasting talent on an industrial scale is not just morally wrong. As a nation, we also need to make the most of all the advantages at our disposal.” England possesses these advantages, but does it really enable the opportunity?

Sportside wants to be all about celebrating sports participation and in an ideal world that is all we would do – but we also recognise that hard, uncomfortable questions will always need to be asked. And action, not words, needs to be the next step. Then we may have something to celebrate again.

Sportside influencer and GB Basketball star Kieron Achara says Sportside can be at the vanguard for change.

“Sportside has a competitive advantage over a lot of sporting bodies because we are new and have a fresh look at the sport and physical activity landscape.

“What I have been most impressed with is the fact we are scouring the country to gain vital intelligence on all the stakeholders involved in sports participation in the UK.

“Sportside speaks to organisations, asks questions and – most importantly – listens. Having information on what activity already exists and speaking to communities makes it easier to see where there are barriers and why they exist.

“A lot of organisations want to support BAME representation in their sports but they don’t take the time to understand where there has been success before. Instead they rush into campaigns to become more inclusive without understanding how.”