A Lesson in Equality: What Sport Can Learn from Athletics

Equality is very much a hot topic in today’s society, highlighted daily by the media. Whether it’s homophobia, racism or sexism, the modern world is generally conscious of these pressing matters. Global sport has the platform to tackle these deep-seated cultural issues but predominantly fails to impact the sports-fandom. Sport could be a catalyst for change, or it may be a reflection of society as a whole.

Of course, however, sport is not homogeneous. Different sports have embraced equality to varying degrees and with varying success. It is often money, in particular the demand from advertisers and the paying public, that is the determining factor. Money talks, and it often seems to be saying: “I would rather see able-bodied men play sport”.

‘Lad-culture’, weighing in heavily on sports such as football, rugby and cricket, has created a vacuum of interest in the women’s respective games. Growing lad-culture coupled with aggressive feminism has created a divide in some sports.

Money talks, and it often seems to be saying: “I would rather see able-bodied men play sport”

What does equality mean? Clearly, ability, sporting prowess, strength and other physical attributes differ between the genders, and between the able-bodied and those with a disability. It would be wrong to think of equality as meaning equality of competition.

Rather, equality should refer to equality of opportunity, access and reward. This would address issues of gender, race and disability.

A comparison between football and athletics offers some useful insights: football is (largely) racially-inclusive and as a sport is loved, played and followed the world over. However, although on the rise, women’s football lags far behind, whether in participation, spectators, prize money or profile. Disability football follows even farther behind.

Contrast this with athletics. The sport is completely racially- and gender-inclusive. It is open to all. Athletics events, from junior club leagues to the Olympic Games, offer fully integrated programmes of male and female events and all are followed with the same interest and intensity by the fans and the media. Recognition is based on performance. The sport’s superstars, earning the highest reward, offer a telling cross-section: Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Valerie Adams, Mo Farah, David Rudisha, Mutaz Essa Barshim, Renaud Lavillenie, Allyson Felix.

The list could go on – the 32 winners of the 2014 Diamond Race are equally diverse and, notably, all male and female winners receive equal prize money.

Some attract more attention than others – Usain Bolt is an example – but this is in large measure down to personality accompanying performance. It’s not a measure of inequality of opportunity

Everyone does the same events (save for minor differences in race distances and throwing weights) and all get equal billing and media attention. As in any walk of life, some people attract more attention than others – Usain Bolt is an example – but this is in large measure down to personality accompanying performance. It’s not a measure of inequality of opportunity.

The Paralympic Games in 2012 set a new benchmark, offering the clearest example of equal opportunity, recognition and popularity of disability sport – once again on the same stage of the athletics stadium. Every session was sold out and the atmosphere was as wildly euphoric as it had been at the Olympics. There is clear demand to watch the sport which, as in the able-bodied events, is simply individuals striving to achieve the best performance they can.

The integration of disability athletics is evident from grass-roots level to major international meetings. Able-bodied and disabled athletes compete in the same events, as in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games where the Paralympic events were fully integrated into the athletics programme. The result is the same: genuine inclusivity.

Athletics is one of the few sports where there are genuine para-stars – following on from Dame Tanni Grey-Thomson, the current generation includes the likes of Johnny Peacock, David Weir and Hannah Cockroft, all of whom have a massive following in the sport.


Equality of opportunity requires equality of accessibility. Here, there is more work to be done in all sports, including athletics. The major stadiums are all designed for ease-of-access for athletes with a disability, but more needs to be done at the lower levels (there are few that offer access for wheelchair racers). Nottingham’s own Harvey Hadden Sports Complex – currently being redeveloped – is one and, as a result, has frequently staged major disability meetings including national championships.

Because athletics is about testing your own limits, it’s equally suitable for anyone

Why does athletics offer greater equality than some other sports? Are schools partly to blame? There still appears to be an element of stereotyping in schools in which girls are pushed into some sports and boys into others. Because athletics is about testing your own limits, it’s equally suitable for anyone. The fierceness of competition arises not only from pitching yourself against those of similar standards, but also from striving to better your own performance.

These principles apply equally to male and female competition and to disability sport in which the classification system makes for genuine competition. It’s that competition which makes the sport compelling for both participants and spectators.

So not only should other sports learn to encourage universal participation from early childhood, they should also follow the athletic world’s lead by creating competition between people of similar ability, not separated by race, gender or perceived disability, and organise events to be fully integrated. Similarly, encouraging the media recognition of stars within the sports based solely on performance is key, while offering equal prize money will rid sport of its long-standing discrimination.

Finally, there is something a little more intangible about the spirit of athletics which has a bearing on its success in fostering equality. This is mostly about respect – both for fellow athletes and for performance. On the track and in the field, competition is fierce, but the competitors recognise, encourage and respect the performance of others. The same can hardly be said about some other sports.

Perhaps the key is friendliness. There are few, if any, friendlier sports and, as a consequence, few that offer the same level of equality.

Nicholas Lawrence


Follow Impact Sport on Twitter and Facebook


21-year-old Ameri-Czech student of Politics & Economics at the University of Nottingham. Sports Editor @impactmagazine. FFC worshipper. European.

Leave a Reply