Sport for All?
Canoeist Magazine Articles


a) - Introduction
b) - Gender
c) - Ethnicity
d) - Sexuality
e) - Conclusion

a) Introduction

Over the years I have written about a variety of different canoeing related subjects, but the one consistent theme, submerged in most of the articles, is the theme of equality and diversity.

This sport of ours has developed over the decades to suit certain sorts of people. Others do not cope so well because of a wide variety of personal differences. How can we modify the sport to make it increasingly available to more and more people? I thought it could be helpful to take a break from articles about paddle-strokes, and talk a bit about the theory and practise of equality. What exactly do we mean by discrimination, disadvantage and other similar terms. Is it a real problem in sport, especially in Canoeing?

Firstly, what exactly is discrimination? It is defined by various laws as an act which treats a person "less favourably" than somebody else on the grounds of, for example, gender or race. The most important point to realise is that this act need not be deliberate. It could be an inadvertent act, committed by a well meaning and sincere person in total ignorance of the effects of their actions. But if it treats somebody less favourably it is still defined as discrimination. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

b) Gender

The way we practise canoeing in Britain evolved over the years by a trial and error method. What worked was kept, what did not was dropped. As 95% of those taking part were men, what worked for men was kept, and what did not work for men was dropped. In coaching, boat design and the social life surrounding the sport, we now have a structure which evolved in a way that suited men. Unfortunately in coaching, boat design and the social life surrounding the sport, the structure does not always suit women, who are different. This is nobody's fault. It was not intentional. I am sure that everyone involved in those decades of development was sincere in their actions. Nevertheless the fact remains that we now have a system which inadvertently discriminates against women, it treats them less favourably.

I am often told that there is no discrimination in sport, women are free to join any club and take part in any activity. It is true that there is little overt, deliberate discrimination, but it is the hidden, inadvertent, unseen discrimination that is the real problem, and what needs to be discussed.

I have often talked about these things in previous articles so I won't repeat myself here, apart from saying that we are now comfortable about discussing the physical differences between men and women, such as the need for boat and paddle size changes. We are a lot less comfortable in discussing the emotional differences. When dealing with feelings like exhilaration and fear, men tend to bury emotions whilst women need to share them. Many male coaches find this quite difficult to deal with, being unused to sharing their own feelings. How do we provide coaching which deals with the emotions in a way that suits women?

c) Ethnicity

Moving on, what about ethnicity or culture, do black canoeists have a problem? Let me give you two examples. Firstly consider these questions:

I suspect that I am like many people in that I learnt much from the Scouts, and the rest from my parents who were Youth Hostellers just after the war.

As an Asian youngster, however, how do you learn the same skills. Until recently the Scout Association only admitted Christians, so Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs etc were banned. That has changed, and now you are allowed in if you swear allegiance to a God. Allah is acceptable, but atheism is not. Only last year two long serving atheist Scout leaders with excellent records were sacked when they refused to make a promise to God.

If as a young Asian canoeist you cannot join the Scouts, then you have a problem, as your parents or the local Asian youth club leaders may know more about the countryside around Islamabad or Karachi than the countryside around the English Cities.

Think about how this affects us as we teach canoeing. What countryside skills and equipment do people need, apart from canoeing skills? Knowledge of maps, cooking stoves, tents and fleece jackets. What do you do in a rain storm, and how do you find a good cafe or pub? These are skills which nobody teaches apart from your parents or the Scouts. Could this be why there are so many black people in city based sport, and so few in the countryside?

If your religion forbids alcohol, then how comfortable will you be with the pub-based evening culture of most kayak training courses and competitive events.

I do not know what is the answer to the problem, but we should at least be aware of it, and not say "there is no discrimination in sport".

There is another problem too. Think of the classic, often talked about nightmare, walking into an important meeting, full of people, and finding that everybody is staring at you. You realise in horror that you are wearing no clothes, then you wake up. Think what it must be like to be always stared at and talked about, wherever you go.

I have a friend, a black woman who loves walking in the countryside. She will not go to the Peak District National Park alone, although she feels perfectly safe on the streets of inner city Nottingham. She cannot cope with being the only black woman visible on the hills, and being constantly stared at, talked about and generally made to feel conspicuous and embarrassed.

Recently a group of teenagers from a local Asian youth club went climbing on the South coast. They too felt exposed and uncomfortable, being stared at and talked about in an all white countryside. On their way home a car load of white climbers drove past their minibus waving a sign reading "Nice sun tans!". It was probably meant as a joke. It wasn't funny.

d) Sexuality

There is one more disadvantaged group which is worth mentioning, and that is lesbians and gay men. Many people refuse to believe there is a problem, or that it needs to be talked about. There is, however, one quite serious problem to be addressed, and that is protection for those employed by the outdoor education / recreation industry.

There are laws which protect people against discrimination in employment, education and housing on the grounds of gender or race. The law does not apply to sexuality, and it is quite legal to sack a person simply because they are gay.

In a famous test case (Saunders v Scottish National Camps Association, 1980) a worker in an Outdoor Centre was sacked for being gay despite having an exemplary record, and there being no suggestion that he was liable to break the law or cause problems. At an Industrial Tribunal the judgement was passed down that many parents believed that gay men were a danger to children, and therefore the management were reasonable and legal in taking the same view and sacking Peter Saunders.

I happen to be gay myself, and that is the source and motivation for much of my work on equality issues. I am able to make that statement because I no longer work in canoeing, so my income is safe. I work for the local Council, which has good anti-discrimination policy. I am a member of a Trade Union, UNISON, which is active in equality issues. I live in a big City so I have a chance to make many friends; canoeists and non canoeists, male and female, gay and straight, who can give support when things get rough.

Now think of the average outdoor centre worker. There are few equality policies in employment. Recruitment is often by word of mouth. There are no trade associations or trade unions. You often live in isolated areas with few chances to make friends away from the Centre. Would you risk being honest if you were gay when in a recent survey 58% of people said that gay men should not be allowed to be primary school teachers.

It is now generally accepted that in most industries or institutions it is a good thing to offer protection against discrimination to the workforce. The police, teachers, banking, civil servants, all are protected by their employers who realise that the law is not sufficient. The outdoor education and recreation industry is a major employer responsible for thousands of young men and women. Is the industry aware of this problem, and working to protect it's staff?

e) Conclusion

I hope I have persuaded you that there is some discrimination and disadvantage in sport and in canoeing. The examples above are only illustrations, many others exist. Any one problem by itself may be trivial, but if they build up into a pattern over the months and years they may be difficult to overcome. These problems are often inadvertent, and nobody's fault, but they are there nevertheless and need to be addressed.

I cannot offer answers to all of the problems, but I know that there is only one way forward and that is dialogue. If we deny that there is a problem, then nothing can be done. If we admit that the problem exists, and talk about it, solutions can appear. The problem with asking for dialogue is the common belief that "you cannot bring politics into sport".

It is said that working for equality and against discrimination is a good thing when dealing with jobs and housing and other problems in real life, but that "political" work has no place in sport. Under this view sport is somehow isolated and pure and a world apart. I was once told that "you cannot be allowed to use sport as a platform for your own political views".

If somebody could write an article stating the reasons why it is a good thing for people like myself to use our political skills of persuasion and argument to improve matters in parts of our lives, but that we should be discouraged from using the same skills in improving our access to sport, then I would be interested to see what arguments were used. Until then I will continue to write articles like this.

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