Social Inclusion through Sport: Analyzing Effective Interventions and Policies to Tackle Social Exclusion

Session report from the 23rd annual congress of the European College of Sport Science held in Dublin, Ireland – July 4th – 7th 2018


The annual congress of the European College of Sport Science was held in Dublin, Ireland this July. The congress, hosted by University College Dublin and Ulster University had more than 3000 attending sport scientists from all over the world. This year, the congress theme was “Sport Science at the Cutting Edge”, with the local organizing committee aiming to provide opportunities for delegates to learn from, and contribute to, the latest developments in Sports and Exercise science in a stimulating social and professional setting.

Part of the multidisciplinary academic program was the invited session in social science and humanities titled “Social Inclusion through Sport: Analyzing Effective Interventions and Policies to tackle Social Exclusion” chaired by Professor Reinhard Haudenhuyse from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium. Included in the session were three academic contributions:

  • ‘Inclusion and exclusion through sport: two sides of the same coin?’ Reinhard Haudenhuyse, Vrije Universiteit, Brussel/Belgium
  • ‘The inclusion exclusion conundrum: a critical account of youth and gender issues within and beyond the spaces of sport for development and peace (SDP) programming’ Holly Collison, Loughborough University/United Kingdom
  • ‘Public health through collaborative innovation – social inclusion in sport and physical activity’ Anne Tjønndal, Nord University/Norway

In the session’s first presentation, Professor Haudenhuyse argued that it is difficult to determine the effectiveness and impact of sport-based interventions aimed at social issues. Using examples from the research project ‘CATCH – Community Sports for At-Risk Youth: Innovative strategies for promoting personal development, health and social cohesion’, professor Haudenhuyse demonstrated how social inclusion is often defined in relation to social exclusion, and as such, remains undefined. Furthermore, how social exclusion in sport interventions is a vague concept that lacks a general definition. As a consequence, sport-for-inclusion/sport for all policies run the risk of becoming ‘merely’ about raising participation rates of specific target groups. As a conclusion to his presentation, Professor Haudenhuyse called for new research projects that challenge simplistic, elitist and individualistic perspectives on sport and social inclusion/exclusion.

The second part of the session program was a debate session created by Dr. Holly Collison. Here, Dr. Collison used empirical examples from a comparative research project of sport for development programs (SDP) in five international locations: Kosovo, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and Zambia. All of these SDP had three primary themes: 1) human rights, 2) peacebuilding and 3) reconciliation and disability. With this background, the attending delegates at the session discussed five statements/questions:Sport for development (or social inclusion) programs mainly give voice to (male) individuals with athletic ability or sporting interests, and thus fail to be fundamentally inclusive.

  • If targeting development populations prevents social inclusion beyond Sport for Development and Peace spaces, does ‘open access’ lead to inclusive participation?
  • Building strong relationships with people in the margins of society, requires a targeted strategy with a low-threshold (‘open’) access approach and space and time for individual attention for ‘recruitment’. Facilitate or hinder?
  • How can social inclusion and ethnic division be challenged via Sport for Development & Peace, when physical boundaries are in place? Is the assumed neutrality of sport enough in the absence of ethnically neutral spaces?
  • The realities on the ground suggest that different dimensions of inclusion (spatial, relational, functional, power) (Bailey 2007) are experienced by the few and not the majority. Inclusion questionably becomes an opportunity for those already with a sense of agency, the talented and the targeted. How to challenge/transform this?

Lastly, my presentation on collaboration between public sector agents and volunteer sport organizations in social inclusion programs was up.  This presentation was based on a research project with a qualitative approach consisting of interviews with 32 public sector employees and leaders in public health departments at a County and at a municipality level in Norway. The aim of the project was to investigate how public sector agents collaborate with volunteer sport organizations to promote social inclusion in sport and physical activity. Based on the analysis of the material, in my presentation, I argued that while public sector agents see volunteer sport organizations as highly valuable assets for public health work and claim to collaborate a great deal with volunteer sport organizations, the forms of collaboration between public and volunteer sectors are limited. Often, these ‘collaborations’ involve public sector funding some of the activities of volunteer sport clubs. Hence, it is neither innovative or collaborative. Furthermore, the public sector agents have limited knowledge of the effect and durability of the activities they fund. Concluding my presentation, I highlighted that this project point to three main findings: 1) there are some incompatible logics of sport, health, and inclusion between public and volunteer sector, 2) public sector agents are influenced by cultural narratives of the health benefits of participating in volunteer sport clubs and 3) public sector agents appear to have unrealistic expectations of volunteer sport organizations.

About author
Anne Tjønndal is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Science, Nord University, Bodø - Norway.
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