Studying the role of sporting activities in social sustainability

Various types of sporting activity have become increasingly common in socioeconomically vulnerable areas during the past two decades. Politicians, both in Sweden and internationally, hope that sporting activities can promote integration, bring down crime, and prevent substance abuse. But research shows that other initiatives are necessary in long-term work with social sustainability.

Kids playing football. Alyssa Ledesma on Unsplash

“Sporting activity has been seen as a sociopolitical tool to create integration and prevent crime and drug abuse. It can also be seen as a way to increase participation in democracy and improve public health. The idea has become more common for politicians and representatives for the sports movement that these activities should contribute to counteracting inequality in society”, says David Ekholm, senior lecturer in social work.

Together with colleague Magnus Dahlstedt, professor in social work, David Ekholm has spent the past five years investigating how sporting activities in socioeconomically vulnerable areas are organised. The researchers have examined the ideas held by, among others, politicians, representatives and participants that form the basis for these activities, and they have analysed the significance of the initiatives.

Initiatives are often taken in collaboration between public bodies and active clubs and societies. The Swedish state and municipalities distribute huge amounts to finance social sporting activities, and sports clubs are placed under increasingly strict requirements to contribute to social sustainability.

David Ekholm and Magnus Dahlstedt. Photo credit Anna Nilsen

Also within the UN, sporting activities have been described as a tool for social sustainability. In 2019, David Ekholm participated in a meeting of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has been charged with drawing up guidelines and recommendations for Agenda 2030. Together with colleagues from other countries, he presented research results that show the role that sporting activities can play in the work for social sustainability.

“Expectations on sporting activities are high, and they are expected to solve inequality and social problems”, says David Ekholm.

A short-term solution 

Researchers, however, are critical to the idea that sporting activities can satisfy these expectations.

“What often happens is that the underlying causes of social problems, namely structural inequality and marginalisation, become somewhat overlooked. Instead of finding out what causes the inequality and working actively to prevent it, there’s a tendency to treat the symptoms or effects of the inequality. The symptoms are seen in the trends in society we see today with increased inequality, criminality and drug abuse”, says Magnus Dahlstedt.

It is against this background that we must look at sporting activities, even though it is difficult to investigate whether the initiatives are reaching the desired objectives, since they seldom follow a plan with a clearly defined aim.

“But saying that sport can solve inequality as the politicians have formulated it – well, that’s rather naïve. Sporting activities cannot be a long-term solution to inequality”, says Magnus Dahlstedt.

Long-term action to improve social sustainability requires professional initiatives on a more comprehensive level, within the framework of social work and social pedagogics. Policymakers must attack problems such as segregation, exclusion and economic inequality, and not focus solely on vulnerable areas. In order to gain more knowledge about the causes, research is being conducted in, for example, choice of schools. Magnus Dahlstedt is currently leading a study into the significance of choice of school for equality.

“We’ve seen that many people do not make a conscious choice of school. Why is this? What are the consequences of it, and can obligatory choice of school be one way to promote equality?”  

Sporting values

Even if sporting activities cannot solve inequality, they have a major social significance and are a strong positive factor for the young people who participate, David Ekholm points out.

“The people we interviewed in our study all agree: they find sport to be a meaningful and fun activity that is extremely valuable. It’s important to make this clear, not least because sporting initiatives make sport available to young people who otherwise would not have had the opportunity. This is an important value in itself.” 

In the winter of 2021, Magnus Dahlstedt and David Ekholm plan to publish their book Idrottens kraft? Ungas livsvillkor och ojämlikhetens problem i en segregerad stad. 
 
Translated by George Farrants

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