A level playing field? Addressing discrimination in sports | Stonewall
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A level playing field? Addressing discrimination in sports

Stonewall’s Director of Programmes, Liz Ward, celebrates the out and proud LGBTQ+ athletes from this year’s Olympics and Paralympics, but asks: “Is this enough?”.

The theme for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics was ‘United by Emotion’. After a year in which we all faced incredible challenges, the theme felt fitting. At its best, sport has the incredible power to unite us, no matter our religion, background, sexuality, or gender identity.

And earlier this year, we saw a record number of lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer (LGBTQ+) athletes compete. From New Zealand trailblazer Laurel Hubbard to Brazil's Edênia Garcia, at least 162 openly LGBTQ+ athletes played at this year’s games. The opening ceremony brought together these athletes under the Olympic oath, with a focus ‘solidarity, inclusion, non-discrimination and equality’. This rooted the games in a sentiment that is so needed right now.

At Stonewall, we filled our social media channels the hashtags #OlympicsForAll and #ParalympicsForAll in celebration of this oath. But while the Olympics organisers were of course right in saying that there is strength in diversity, we failed to see this sentiment play out in the policies and practices surrounding the games.

This year, World Athletics banned Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from competing at the Olympics for having natural testosterone levels that ‘surpassed’ regulatory requirements. While we would rightfully praise Michael Phelps for having a unique physique that allows him to be one of the fastest swimmers in the world, Black athletes that are trans, intersex, and LGBTQ+ are not afforded the same privileges or praise for being exceptional.

How can we thrive on the field when our safety is in jeopardy as soon as we leave the stadium?

As we see global increases of hate crime towards LGBTQ+ people, it was also disappointing that the Japanese Government failed to pass a national non-discrimination law to protect LGBTQ+ people before the Olympics and Paralympics. It’s amazing to see more of our community compete, but how can we thrive on the field when our safety is in jeopardy as soon as we leave the stadium?

We know that over 80% of LGBTQ+ people who take part in sport have witnessed homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the past 12 months, and over 40% of LGBTQ+ people think public sporting events aren’t a welcoming place for them. It’s no wonder that many LGBTQ+ people leave the sports they love, and that some feel unable even to spectate. But as Olympic gold medallist and US Women’s National Team Football player Megan Rapinoe rightly said during 2019’s women’s world cup: “You can’t win without gay players.”

It’s vital for LGBTQ+ people at every level of sport to feel included.

At Stonewall, we want all LGBTQ+ people to thrive in sport. It’s vital for LGBTQ+ people at every level of sport to feel included – whether they’re a gold medallist or they spend their weeks looking forward to five-a-side in the local park. The more diverse our sports fields, pitches and pools, the better. After all, sport should be everyone’s game – not just Olympians’.

So, how can you help? Research shows that almost half of fans who saw our Rainbow Laces campaign wouldn’t speak up for LGBTQ+ people at live sport fixtures if they saw discrimination. Stepping up an ally to the most marginalised people in sport is a vital part to play in improving the sporting world for everyone. Check out our top 10 tips for allies, read about why trans inclusion in sport is so crucial, and learn how you can tackle racism and LGBTQ-phobia when you see it.

Visit our Rainbow Laces hub.