Sport isn’t as inclusive as it thinks it is. Is it time for a rethink?

So here is my story ….

By Holly Woodford 

It is Saturday morning and I have just finished a Parkrun with a group of women who have walked and run 5K together. As usual, Parkrun started with a throng of running vest-clad, compression sock-wearing, club runners frothing at the mouth hoping to beat their 5K personal best (PB) or at least better than last week’s time. 

As a tidal wave of runners reaches the first-kilometre marker we are only just getting going. We are a happy, cheery, bunch of women both returning to running and doing Parkrun for the very first time. As we run-walk we picked up several other women and a few chaps who were also struggling by two kilometres. With good humour, we invited them to join us on the fun ‘walk/run’ bus and they gladly accepted a ride. The Parkrun marshals are always a delight and they cheer us on as we eventually make our way over the finish line. Enthusiastic clapping and cheers of ‘You are nearly there’ ‘Keep going’ ‘You are doing so well’ was both welcoming and oddly humiliating as we crossed the line with the finisher tunnel being packed away behind us. 

If you are a Parkrun enthusiast, you are probably thinking this is a shining example of inclusivity. I get it. Parkrun is a great experience; it is social, and it is a community of runners that support and encourage each other to achieve their personal best. It doesn’t however mean it is inclusive. Inclusivity is subjective. For those that love Parkrun, it is an amazing experience. It is a great way to test yourself against others and see if you can ring the bell at the end to mark your PB. 

I have spoken to so many women over the years and almost without exception, they will tell you they jog not run and are very slow. The vast majority of these women find the whole experience of Parkrun or joining a sports club intimidating. The fear of coming last, not being fit enough, having no one to go with and turning up in the ‘wrong kit’ means they will never set foot at a Parkrun or a club session. The Parkrun average time after all is 29 minutes which is probably why there is a long thin tail of runners left behind by the first 1km, many of which are women. If you have never experienced the loneliness of being the slowest, then it is hard to explain how it feels. 

Sport is great at technical language and fast imagery that reinforces all your worst fears. How sports describe and present themselves has a profound effect and often turns women (and I am sure men too) away at the outset. You only need to review British Triathlons Instagram account to see the vast majority of images are of elite athletes or age groupers. I have had several Her Spiriters tell me that they thought the ‘sprint’ in sprint triathlon means it is a fast race for the more athletic individuals. Instead, they opted for the standard distance triathlon because they thought it was slower and more suitable. Little did they know that sprint means short, and the standard distance triathlon is twice the distance of a sprint! Only when you see it through their eyes do you realise how logical they have been in their assumptions. 

It is clear to me that running, along with swimming, cycling and triathlon are failing to introduce women less fit or able to their existing environment. I sit on a Sport England working group on running and it has many of the main national running organisations around the table. Privately everyone acknowledges that there is a need to make running more inclusive and appealing to men and women particularly those who find the current running offer intimidating and unappealing. 

I know from talking to hundreds of women and reading multiple comments on social media that far too many women have a poor experience within running clubs and say they will never join a club again. I am one of those and I would consider myself to be a fairly confident sporty person. For every club that is offering a fantastic experience ( and I know there are some outstanding clubs) for women of all abilities, there are many others that aren’t, and I am not convinced really want to. I have heard stories of some clubs actively encouraging slower runners to join other clubs. Their loss of course is a more inclusive club’s gain. 

This brings me to the crux of the debate. Should we insist every club, group, event, or organisation is inclusive? What are the realities and merits of changing long-established rituals and traditions that work for a good few million? 

Is a wholesale change of the current system just barking mad or should we be looking to build a new type of club more aligned to the needs of less active groups, more flexible and digital to fit around the family and modern-day pressures? Should our ‘pathways’ be less linear and more interconnected with opportunities to meet our goals at whatever stage of life we are at? 

I want to stress that this isn’t just a running issue but an issue that affects most sports. My experience within the Her Spirit community is that plenty of women do want to run, swim, cycle and do triathlons but they don’t want to or can’t as full-time working parents find the time to join traditional sports clubs. They do want to get fitter, stronger and healthier, they want to be challenged and they do want to be active with others. With careful support and the right environment, many will achieve sporting goals they never thought they were even capable of. 

I am a realist and I think it is unlikely that all clubs can or will want to make the transition to be truly inclusive. I don’t actually have an issue with that per se. After all, we are all different so why should one size always fit all? Clubs and experiences like Parkrun work for a good number of people and I am not suggesting we shouldn’t have them. What I am suggesting is that we do need to redefine the notion of what a sports club is, what it looks and feels like and accept that the current system isn’t best placed to create these new types of sporting environments. It is no coincidence that we are seeing the rise of online and women-only ‘clubs’ and platforms like Zwift (gaming for cycling) becoming the first choice for millions. 

Now is the time for a re-think and with that a redistribution of funding away from one out-of-date ‘traditional’ system that isn’t inclusive and has a limited prospect of becoming so any time soon. 

I would love to hear your views on sport and inclusivity. What works and what needs to go. If you want to join the debate then tune in LIVE on the 25th of April at 3 pm for the first in our LIVE Women’s Sport Disrupt talk series.

You can also join me and Co-Founder of Her Spirit Mel Berry at the Include Summit on the 3rd and 4th of May where we will be digging further into the issues that matter for women.

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