The future of sport

By Matt Burdett, 28 January 2018

On this page, we look at the growing importance of political and cultural influences on international sport participation, including international agreements, inclusion via changing gender roles and the growing importance of the Paralympics.

  • The Italian Tennis Open, Foro Italico, Rome, Italy. Tennis is growing in international popularity, but its biggest markets are countries where it has been part of the culture for many years such as France, the UK and Italy.

Politics and culture in sport

Politics and culture are both present in sports, especially with regard to the participation in international events.

Many people feel a sense of national pride when their country is doing well at sports. Politicians often try to associate themselves with sporting success, such as holding elections after sporting successes or being associated with sportspeople. The ‘feel good factor’ of a sporting event can help to balance negative media coverage of government policies. Politicians also see sports as a way to promote healthy lifestyles that result in better health within the population. And, many governments see the promotion of sporting events (and the hosting of international sporting events) as a way to give a boost to the economy.

That politics is mixed in with sport means this is a controversial issue. For example, one example of how sports people hold political power was the ‘Take a Knee’ protests by some players in the NFL in September 2017. This was a political act, and became a major political issue as politicians responded. Government support for international sporting events also brings controversy. The decision by FIFA for Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022 was viewed by some as corrupt.

Culture is also reflected in sport. The sports being entered in international competitions can reflect cultural values within countries. However it may also reflect economic status: low income countries frequently have low funding for sports facilities so are unlikely to produce international winners in swimming or skiing, for example.

International agreements

International sport can be encouraged through agreements between countries. For example:

  • Freedom of movement. Relaxing migration and tourism restrictions allows sportspeople to compete more freely (Bhuvanendra, n.d.). For example, in the European Union countries that have signed up to the Schengen Agreement do not need even to show identification to visit the other countries.
  • Legal basis for sporting cooperation. For example, Article 165 of the Treaty of Lisbon in Europe gave the European Commission some responsibility for developing sporting initiatives across many countries (Euractiv, 2009).
  • During the Olympics, countries who send athletes to the Games officially agree a UN backed ‘Olympic Truce’ in which hostilities and existing international disagreement should be halted (IOC, nd.).

Governments have a vested interest in making agreements through sports. Sports can help diplomatic relations between country. For example in 2011, three years after terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Pakistani and Indian Prime Ministers watched the cricket World Cup together and normal relations gradually followed. Coming together over sports is seen as low risk, low cost and high profile (Murray and Pigman, 2013).

Inclusion and intersectionality

The word ‘inclusion’ often carries a suggestion that people who were previously not included in an activity or movement will be ‘invited in’ to join the existing members of a group. In this way the term is ‘loaded’, meaning it makes some assumptions. For example, who has the authority to invite others to join in? Who did those people originally get into this group? Asante (n.d.) makes this argument and arrives at a definition of inclusion: “Inclusion is recognizing our universal ‘oneness’ and interdependence. Inclusion is recognizing that we are ‘one’ even though we are not the ‘same’.”

Inclusion in the context of sport is often used to refer to the addition of groups of people who traditionally were not involved in that sport. The two main groups are based around:

  • Gender. Women and men have traditional sporting roles, such as women playing netball and men playing football.
  • Ethnic and racial groups. Different ethnic and racial groups are often portrayed as participating in different sports. For example, people from India play cricket while people from Brazil play football.

This can result in discrimination against these groups when participants wish to be involved in non-traditional sports. This is a highly complex issue. Where an individual identifies themselves as part of more than one group, these identities join together to form the overall identity of the person. This is called intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality argues that discrimination does not operate based on each individual identity but instead that the mixture of identity creates complex systems of discrimination.

An example is that of gender and race. To understand the discrimination for this person, it cannot be understood simply through gender, but must also consider the combination of gender and race. For example, in the United States white women are paid 80 cents for a job when a white man would make 100 cents. However, this is worse for black women who would make 63 cents for the same job (Williams, 2017). Therefore, the discussion below about changing gender roles and disability is necessarily simplified.

Changing gender roles

Women’s participation in international sports has been increasing for some time. The graph below shows the number of events at the Olympics and shows how women’s sports have been gaining more recognition.

  • Number of olympic events by gender (Women’s Sports Foundation, 2017)

However, gender equality is still not reflected in most sports. The pay received between male and female competitors is significantly different. The graph below shows how for four major tournaments, men are paid much more than women.

  • Biggest gaps in prize money. Key: Red: Amount paid for men’s event (GB£). Green: Amount paid for women’s event (GB£). Source: Perasso, 2017

However, there has been an increase in the number of sports where equal pay is provided for women and men. The graph below shows the number of sports worldwide where equal pay is provided, although it should be remembered that this is a difficult area to quantify due to the number of different tournaments for each individual sport.

  • Sports paying equal prize money, Number of sports by year. Source: Perasso, 2017

A further demonstration of inequality and how it is changing is that of the appearance of women’s sports in the media. Two studies, from 2005 and 2011, show that the number of female athletes appearing in the media was heavily dependent on the sex of the journalist. Male journalists are significantly more likely to write about male athletes, while the numbers of female sports journalists are much smaller. The result is a much higher profile for male sports. However, this may be changing. Women were 9% of media coverage in 2011, which is higher than in 2005.

  • Gender of Athletes in the media. Source: Play the Game, 2005

  • Gender of Athletes in the media. Source: Play the Game, 2011

However, some people argue that the development of gender equality in sports is a distortion of the actuality. For example, the separation of males and females in contact sports can be considered necessary to ensure that women are able to compete with a chance of success as men are more physically dominant; perhaps male and female brains work differently in relation to sports; and the difference in prize money reflects the apparent enthusiasm of the general public for males sports over female sports. Efforts to achieve gender equality are therefore “special pleading and reverse discrimination” (O’Reilly, 2016).

The Paralympics

The Paralympics was first held in 1960, although it stemmed from a 1948 event held for World War Two veterans. By 2012, it had grown to 4,250 athletes from 164 countries and included 20 sports with 2.7 million spectators plus those watching on television (IPC, n.d.). The Paralympics is an interesting area for the study of intersectionality because female and athletes from non-HICs (non High Income Countries) are less likely to appear at the Games than men from HICs. HOwever, since 2004, the number of events has overall grown and the number of female-only events has also grown.

  • Events at Paralympics by gender. Source: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2017.

This follows the general trend of having more participation at the Paralympics overall, regardless of gender. The graph below shows that the Paralympics has grown and been stable in male attendance since 2004,, while female participation is still growing.

  • Historic Participation in Paralympic Games by Gender. Source: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2017.

This may reflect changing attitudes in three ways (Gray and Verdonck, 2016):

  • Disabled people are being recognised as role models for their ability to overcome adversity, leading to a greater awareness of the Games and its increasing importance
  • Acceptance into mainstream. As the awareness of disabled athletes improves, the Games take a more mainstream role and lead to a snowball effect as other disabled sports are promoted, e.g. the Invictus Games (for military personnel and veterans) in 2014 and 2016 were very high profile.
  • Mainstream media takes moe note of disabilities in general.

However, the growing importance of events like the Paralympics does not reflect underlying issues of intersectionality. Countries that have lower incomes are much less likely to participate, especially women. The cost of participation (including equipment, travel, training and facilities) means that athletes from HICs like the USA, Sweden and Norway are up to 3.4 times more likely to participate than people from countries such as South Africa and India (Bantjes and Schwarz, 2017).


Asante, S. n.d. What is Inclusion? Accessed 28 January 2018.

Bantjes and Schwarz, 2017. The odds are stacked against athletes from poor countries in paralympic sport. Accessed 28 January 2018.

Bhuvanendra, n.d. International Treaty on Sport Accessed 28 January 2018.

Euractiv, 2009. Lisbon Treaty gives EU a say on sports. Accessed 28 January 2018.

Gray and Verdonck, 2016. The Paralympics is changing the way people perceive disabilities. Accessed 28 January 2018.

IOC [International Olympic Committee], n.d. The History Of The Olympic Truce. Accessed 28 January 2018.

IPC [International Paralympic Committee], n.d. Paralympic Games. Accessed 28 January 2018.

Murray and Pigman, 2013. Mapping the relationship between international sport and diplomacy. Accessed 28 January 2018.

O’Reilly, 2016. Gender pay equality in sport: a market distortion under the guise of equity Accessed 28 January 2018.

Perasso, 2017. 100 Women: Is the gender pay gap in sport really closing? Accessed 28 January 2018.

Play the Game, 2005. The International Sports Press Survey 2005. Accessed 28 January 2018.

Play the Game, 2011. First Results of the International Sports Press Survey 2011. Accessed 28 January 2018.

Roy Morgan, 2015. More girls now playing soccer than netball. Accessed 28 January 2018.

Williams, 2017. Serena Williams: How Black Women Can Close the Pay Gap. Accessed 28 January 2018.

Women’s Sports Foundation, 2017. Women in the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games: An Analysis of Participation, Leadership and Media Coverage. Downloaded from Accessed 28 January 2018.

The future of sport: Learning activities


  1. Identify two international agreements that may have helped the increasing participation in international sport. [2]
  2. Suggest why some governments are keen to develop their nation’s participation in international sporting events. [4]
  3. Define inclusion. [2]
  4. Define intersectionality. [2]
  5. With reference to an example, explain why inclusion can be difficult due to intersectionality. [3]
  6. Describe the changing role of women in international sports. [3]
  7. Suggest reasons for the growth in female participation in international sports. [4]
  8. Explain why some people argue that gender equality in sports is an impossibility. [3]
  9. Outline the change in participation in Paralympic sport. [3]
  10. Suggest reasons for the growth in participation at the Paralympics. [4]
  11. Explain the link between intersectionality and participation at the Paralympics. [2]

Other tasks

Read Serena Williams’ Fortune article and identify your response. Is she right to be concerned, and are the millennial black women mentioned in the article right to be optimistic for the future?

(The article is Williams, 2017. Serena Williams: How Black Women Can Close the Pay Gap.

Going further

A key issue for the politics of sport is about who is in charge. Go to the following link and identify the change in the decision makers over recent years.

Click to access 2016-Gender-Balance-In-Global-Sport-Report.pdf