July 30, 2021
WHAT DOES “UNITY IN SPORTS” REALLY MEAN?
SARA GROSS - Ironman champion, PhD in Women's History.
I woke up this morning and reached for my phone, as I do most mornings, to make sure there is nothing urgent I need to respond to and to get a sense of what’s happening in the world before getting up and pouring my coffee.
Our world is coming out of a global pandemic in which some countries and demographics clearly fared better than others, where lines between the “have’s” and “have not’s” have become more deeply entrenched, or perhaps simply more visible than before. Countries with bigger populations in poverty struggled the most, and in the US, women and people of color took on the lion’s share of the job losses and financial burden.
This morning, my social media feed is filled with conversations about Sha’Carri Richardson, the US sprinter who crushed the competition at the Olympic trials only to test positive for marijuana a short time later, The Fédération Internationale De Natation (FINA) decision not to allow swim caps that fit natural black hair, and female athletes from Africa being banned because of their naturally high testosterone levels. Not to mention the raging debate about how we define a “woman” for the purposes of elite sports… and the list goes on.
And now I sit, staring at a blank page on my computer, tasked with writing a blog on “Unity in Sports” and I can’t help but think twice about the topic. Do sports really bring us together? Or are our beloved games just another means to divide social classes, and justify racist and sexist decisions so we can pick a “winner”?
IF WE DON'T HAVE UNITY IN SPORTS, WHAT DO WE HAVE?
As triathlon is starting up again and we’re moving back into a world of physical “unity”, it’s tempting to say “yes, sport does bring us together and create unity,” but if that unity is created at the expense of black athletes or trans women or women with a natural hormone advantage, do we really have unity or are we just turning a blind eye?
I’d also like to be clear here on another point- it is really important that sport continues to be a force for good, bringing people together, unifying us. I’ll tell you why;
If we can’t find unity while doing simple things like kicking a ball around a field or running to see who is the fastest, then what hope do we have of finding unity in more important tasks like helping impoverished communities, cleaning up our oceans or dealing with climate change?
Frankly, when it comes to sports, we better get it right.
If sport is a microcosm of society (which I think it is), then we better be darn sure we can come together when the stakes are relatively low (ie. who kicked the ball the best?) so when the stakes are high (ie. how do we make sure everyone gets to eat today?), we have the right skills to deal with important decisions.
MY INHERITANCE AS A WOMAN IN TRIATHLON
As someone who has benefitted from a sports tradition focused on gender equality, I can tell you first-hand what a difference it has made to me and many women around the world that TriathLon’s heritage was one of gender equality.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Triathlon was born in a time when gender equality was a central mandate of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a strategic effort was made to develop women’s elite triathlon as a means to become an Olympic sport.
In 1989, the pro women and men together disrupted the first meeting of the then-fledgling Inter-national Triathlon Union (ITU) in France to demand equal prize money. Between the IOC man-date and this figurative “storming of the castle”, a precedent was set in our sport from which we rarely deviate.
Unity, by definition means “the state of being united or joined as a whole” and I have definitely felt like I belong in triathlon, as a whole, because of this heritage of gender equality.
CONTRIBUTING TO SPORTS UNITY
As competitions are starting up again around the world and we are finding ourselves back with “our people” celebrating our bodies as we race together with common goals of health and fitness in order to be fitter and faster than our previous selves, I would also challenge our community to look around and say, “who is included in our unity and who are we leaving behind?”
One super practical way to create unity in a mindful way is to ask yourself where you have pow-er, and how the decisions you make will affect others. Then once you identify these “points of power”, look at the decision you are making from as many points of view as possible. Ask others how your decision might affect them. I can almost guarantee that whoever was making deci-sions at FINA last week did not take natural black hair into account. And whatever science is deciding how we define “woman” for the purposes of sport has some significant blind spots in its methodology.
If we all commit to broadening our thinking then yes, sport will continue to be a unifying force now and well into the future.
ABOUT SARA GROSS
Sara Gross is a two-time Ironman Champion and holds a doctorate in women’s history. She founded Feisty Media, "a haven for the unapologetically fit and feisty" in 2017 as a way to celebrate fresh and empowered voices in triathlon and beyond. Sara lives in Victoria, BC with her daughter Rosalee.
ABOUT FEISTY MEDIA
Feisty Media is a progressive media company designed to serve the "unapologetically fit and feisty." Founded in 2017 by Ironman Champion Sara Gross, PhD, Feisty is now home to 8 podcasts, including the IronWomen podcast, Girls Gone Gravel and Hit Play Not Pause. Feisty educates and amuses the masses daily on Insta and TikTok as well as hosting several events such as the Women's Performance Summit and Feisty Menopause Summit.