Why (and how) running and other mass-participation sports need to be more diverse

The data from Sport England’s most recent Active Lives Adult Survey shows that significant inequalities exist in activity levels for certain minority ethnic groups in England. While the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a clear and worrying drop in activity levels among all adults in England, Sport England’s data shows that the drops are larger for Asian (excluding Chinese) adults and adults from ‘Other Ethnic groups’, meaning that inequalities have further widened.

Its data also shows that adults from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in England are under-represented across running, cycling and swimming. And if you’re someone who takes part in these sports regularly, this likely won’t surprise you. A look at the startline of a marathon or triathlon, or even within your local leisure centre, and it’s clear to see that those who participate in these sports are overwhelmingly white. But why is that? And what can be done to change it?

Nana Badu, founder of Black-led non-for-profit Badu Sports, says that the reasons are multifaceted and rooted within the systematic inequalities present within our society. ‘The people from our communities are constantly trying to survive, so sport or triathlon or swimming is a luxury – that’s how we see it, where for everyone else, it’s their human right.’

But while Badu cites the socioeconomic factors that prevent Black or minority ethnic people from participating in certain sports, he says the number one barrier they face is inclusion. ‘Everyone misunderstands and thinks that it’s about price or so on, but it’s about walking into a space and feeling like you are going to be OK here and not have to be othered, or present as non-threatening, or worry about whether you can fit in.’

Working in communities across East London, Badu Sports utilises sport to educate, empower and uplift children and young people, with a focus on those from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds, low-income families and Black and minority groups.

‘We feel it’s important they are shown as many different options as possible – and that they belong everywhere in the world,’ he explains. A recent example of its work is a new initiative, developed in partnership with LimeLight Sports Club, to break down the barriers traditionally associated with triathlon. Via a mentorship programme, 100 young female and male athletes from ethnic minorities, aged between 16 and 79, were given the opportunity to train for, and compete in, this year's London Triathlon.

Photo credit: Limelight Sports Club
Photo credit: Limelight Sports Club

Startling figures released by the British Triathlon Federation and Sport England show that just two per cent of British Triathlon/Home Nation members are Black or from ethnic minorities – and it’s a figure that will remain stagnant, or even worsen, unless pathways are created to provide access. ‘Growing up, you didn’t really see people doing triathlons, especially round here [East London],’ says Naomi Donkor, an athlete who took part in the programme. ‘It’s not something you’d expect someone to do, because if you don’t have exposure to it, you don’t actually know what it is. But if you see another person that looks like us doing it, you think, “Cool, we can go out and do it as well.”’

A traumatic history

Photo credit: STEFANIA CURTO
Photo credit: STEFANIA CURTO

Until she took part in a pilot version of the programme with Badu and Limelight Sports Club at last year’s Blenheim Palace Triathlon, like most Black adults in England, Donkor did not know how to swim. Shockingly, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim – and the reasons for this are not only multi-faceted but deep-rooted in a historical context of racism, segregation and dangerous stereotypes.

A look back to the Jim Crow-era in the US from the late 1870s through to the 1950s, when Black swimmers were banned from public pools, and a traumatic history starts to paint a picture of the reasons why this might be. But as Badu points out, the dangerous and unfounded perception that ‘Black people can’t float’, which has driven a perpetual fear of water through generations, can be traced back even further to the tragic transatlantic slave trade – and how children are taught about it in schools today.

‘Within the Black community there is a lot of racial contexts, in terms of slavery and how education teaches you about slavery,’ Badu says. ‘You hear that and go, “What, you all drowned?” People don’t understand that psychological trauma that sticks in your head. And there’s been research before saying that Black people’s bone density means they can’t float, and now everyone’s saying that’s rubbish, but with years of not having the ability to enter a swimming pool, in certain countries at certain points, there’s a historical context, with barriers that need unpicking, not just a barrier that sits in one place.’

Zenice Hall, head of Women in Sports at Badu Sports, is a mentor for young adults at Badu. She states the importance of securing sports coaches for Black and minority ethnic athletes who understand this context. ‘They don’t necessarily have to look like you, but it’s about finding someone who understands your background, the struggles, the backstory.’

Socioeconomic barriers

While everyone should be able to access and enjoy the mental and physical health benefits of sport, the reality is, swimming, cycling and running remain inaccessible for those from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘A lot of our communities come from poverty,’ explains Badu. ‘Parents are working several jobs, so we don’t necessarily have the luxury or the privilege to say we’re going to pay for swimming because we’ve got to pay for food. And a wetsuit – how much does that cost? Cycling – how much does that cost? And training – you need decent running trainers to do that.’

The only way to improve inclusion, then, is to improve accessibility. ‘A lot of our affluent parents see how amazing our clubs and programmes are, and they actually pay extra to make sure it’s free for some of the kids that can’t afford it,’ says Badu. ‘That’s inclusion. That’s people wanting to see a place diverse. So if you know pricing, inequalities, equipment and access are barriers, then those who have the most make it easier for someone to just walk in. That’s how it can be done.’

But while direct action at a community level is needed to make access easier, sports governing bodies also have a key part to play – as do event organisers and brands. ‘It’s not even society saying these are white-run sports and it’s not diverse, [from my experience] participants want them to be diverse, so it has to be the people at the top,’ says Badu.

Top-down diversity

For there to be greater equality within mass-participation sport, though, there needs to be increased diversity at the top of them. A 2020 diversity in sports governance survey by Sport England revealed that just less than eight per cent of board members from funded governing bodies, which included British Cycling, British Triathlon, England Athletics and British Swimming, are from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds.

Diversifying sports boards so that those in decision-making roles understand, embrace and champion diversity is paramount to bringing greater parity in sport. However, right now, the lack of diversity of thought and experience at board level is telling.

Harmander Singh, president of the Sikhs in the City running club, is passionate about creating a more inclusive environment within running for Asian runners, but says his attempts to implement remedial suggestions to bring greater equality, such as the appointment of Asian board members and ambassadors, have been met with resistance.

He uses his suggestion of appointing 111-year-old Fauja Singh – the first centenarian to complete a marathon and an icon among the Sikh community – as an ambassador. ‘Despite our efforts, there was silence and a patronising response of “we are concentrating on women first”,’ he says. ‘We offered Asian grandmothers who our club has trained to run marathons and more, but no response.’

Photo credit: Sikhs in the City
Photo credit: Sikhs in the City

The importance of safe spaces

According to Sport England’s Active Lives Survey, just 50% of Asian (excluding Chinese) adults are ‘active’, meaning only half of the UK’s Asian population are exercising for 150+ minutes a week. And when it comes to running and cycling, Asian adults have the lowest participation rates, with only 15% of Asian adults having participated in running over the past year.

For Muslim women specifically, safety is a key concern, says keen runner Rahaf Khatib, whose instagram account, @runlikeahijabi, is aimed at empowering both Muslim and non-Muslim female runners. Khatib told RW that she has experienced open racism and abuse for wearing her hijab, and she even received death threats when she appeared on the cover of the US edition of Women’s Running magazine. ‘I get many comments like, “Aren’t you hot in that?” or “Why do you wear that?” Some people are just curious, but others say it passive-aggressively. Though I welcome questions about my faith and beliefs, it’s hard to take it all in.’ And she says she’s not the only one. ‘It’s not just me – I know other Muslim women who won’t run in the street alone, or in the dark.’

Khatib is flying the flag for female Muslim runners and believes that representation is key to breaking down prejudices. ‘Some people have never met a Hijab Muslim runner before. If I can be that one Muslim person they talk to, to change their negative or ignorant beliefs about me and my faith, then why wouldn’t I go out there?’ she says. ‘When we show up at start lines, we are making a social change within the running community.’

The work of local community organisations can play a significant role in helping to create a safe space for marginalised ethnic groups to participate in sport. Saheli Hub – a Birmingham-based women-only group empowering ethnic minority women to participate in sport – is a great example. Funded by Sport England, the group’s mission is to challenge the stereotype that ethnic minority women, especially Asian women, don’t take part in sport.

The running arm of the charity – Saheli Hub Running – launched in 2015 when founder Naseem Akhtar was asked by the local council if she would train Black, Asian and ethnic minority women from the community to take part in the Great Birmingham Run. She told RW: ‘When we first talked to these women about running, they looked at us as if to say, “Why would you want to do that?” In my community, it was unheard of.’

Now the group meet locally three times a week and train for multiple races together every year. She cites concerns around safety as a barrier to participation for Asian women, as well as a lack of female Muslim role models. ‘Imran Khan was my hero as a kid because that’s what I saw on TV: him winning the cricket World Cup with Pakistan [in 1992]. I do not know of an Asian sportswoman who is my hero.’

Why representation matters

Photo credit: James Appleton/inov-8
Photo credit: James Appleton/inov-8

Sabrina Pace-Humphreys, co-founder and trustee of Black Trail Runners, a community and campaigning charity seeking to increase the inclusion, participation and representation of Black people in trail running, says role models are key to making running more inclusive and diverse.

Data from Sport England reveals that Black adults have the second-lowest participation rate in running and cycling in the UK, with participation at around 17 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. For Pace-Humphreys, media representation has a key part to play in increasing these numbers in running – and specifically trail running. ‘Trail running has a problem with diversity. When we’re looking for inspirational role models, people who not only look like us but represent us, share our own lived experience, and we don’t hear about them, read about them or see them in the media we consume, it tells us we don’t belong here, this is not a space for us,’ she explains. She also highlights the importance of the media in publicising discussion around race and inclusivity, to improve social understanding and education.

‘If you want to see examples of the amount of work that needs to be done in terms of addressing media representation and discussion around diversity on the trails, just look at comments on social media posts about this topic. About the lack of diversity – of Black and Brown faces – across our sport. We’re told time and time again, mainly by white people, that the trails are “inclusive”, that we need to “just get out there”. The voices of Black people are dismissed, with detractors wanting to simply stop the conversation or negate our experiences.’

She says that this is just one of the reasons Black Trail Runners was set up in the first place. ‘We are a grass roots organisation that acts. We know what the barriers for our people are, and we address them via the initiatives we work on. Why are we successful? Because we’re not a talking shop. We enact change because we truly want to see a diverse trail running space, a globally representative outdoors. And if you want to create real change it starts with having representatives from the communities you want to engage, from grassroots to boardroom level. At Black Trail Runners, we provide a safe space where similar lived experiences can be discussed, community action can be encouraged and barriers to access can start to be broken down,’ she says. ‘It’s not rocket science.’

The Black Cyclists Network is another community group set up to address the overwhelming lack of diversity in cycling – both at a local and elite level. Now funded by cycling’s governing body, British Cycling, and supported by cycling apparel brand Dhb and nutrition brand SiS, it aims to inspire those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds to get involved in cycling via greater visibility in competitive cycling and through creating pathways for those at grassroots level to reach the highest level of the sport. The group meet in Regent’s Park every Saturday morning and organise rides for all abilities. It now also has a professional team racing at amateur-competitive level.

This year, there was not one black rider in the peloton at the Tour de France – the biggest annual event in the cycling calendar globally – and this lack of representation is just one of the reasons Black, Asian and minority ethnic cyclists continue to be under-represented in the sport. ‘It is difficult to be what you cannot see,’ says Mani Arthur, founder of the Black Cyclists Network (BCN). ‘We want to break the mould by forging a new path in cycling.’

Paralympic gold medal winner Kadeena Cox is the only Black cyclist of the 80 British road and track cyclists on top-level British Cycling funding. ‘I stepped into a very white and middle-class sport and stood out like a sore thumb,’ she told Sky Sports. ‘So for any children that are looking at that sport, it’s like, well, actually, there’s no one that looks like me doing that – do I want to get into that?’

For Badu, role models are a critical piece to the puzzle in empowering and uplifting adults and children from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. ‘It’s the reason we do what we do at Badu Sport,’ he says. ‘We need our community to see themselves in glory, we need them to see themselves winning. They need to see every single one of these young people, adults and parents become that person who walks into their estate and the young eight-year-old goes, “What you doing? Wow, can I aspire to be that? Is there a different world to what I’m existing in?” That’s why we do it.’

You Might Also Like