COVID-19 exacerbates inequities in Canadian sport sector

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on the Canadian sport and physical activity ecosystem, and understanding its effects will be key to the process of building back better. A multitude of surveys have been conducted to examine the impacts across the country and in different sectors within the sport system, and most of the news is not good.

“We’re seeing large scale surveys in a number of different jurisdictions that all deliver the same dire message to the sport community: we’ve always felt COVID-19 has exacerbated inequities, but now we’re seeing that it’s backed up by data,” says Francesca Jackman, Senior Coordinator of Executive Services for Sport for Life.

“We already know that sport is integral to many people’s day-to-day lives. In 2021, a lot of the studies started to focus on equity-seeking communities specifically, and we’ve seen that women, people with disabilities, newcomers and families from lower income brackets have all been significantly impacted by the pandemic.”

As some sports have begun to restart, studies have suggested that lower socio-economic status has been a key contributing factor to participants experiencing barriers to returning to physical activity. Sports that require expensive equipment, registration fees or other expenses have been hit especially hard. So while some sports such as golf have seen a surge in enrollment, that has come at the expense of diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, many local clubs have been unable to access support funding offered by the federal government.

“It’s great and exciting to see that some sports thrived during COVID, and adapted for their participants, but you can always see a pro and con to these situations,” said Jackman.

Many sports have innovated, offering participants ways to engage virtually and otherwise, but these solutions are less than perfect.

“This isn’t to say local sport organizations aren’t doing the best they can under very challenging circumstances, especially with health guidelines and restrictions changing so suddenly. But in a lot of instances it becomes a question of accessibility. For instance, if a family only has one computer and one member needs it for work and maybe another needs it for school, where does sport fit into that?”

Another study completed by Canadian Women and Sport showed that one of every four girls weren’t planning to return to sport following the pandemic, meaning that as many as 350,000 girls will have effectively left the sport world. Jackman is alarmed by that statistic.

“Sport organizations need to keep gender equity at top of mind in Canada to ensure that it gets addressed.” she said.

In many cases, the numbers are still being gathered, but Jackman noted that in June 2020, 38 per cent of the sport organizations who responded to Sport for Life’s national survey claimed they wouldn’t make it six months without a cash infusion. Though government recovery efforts have been deployed and new federal funding has been announced, it remains to be seen how successful they’ve been at keeping these organizations afloat.

The outlook could be bleak, depending on how each organization approaches its return to sport.

“There could be one of two scenarios. In one scenario you’ll see less clubs, less participants, and less interested new members in organizations who are just trying to get back to the point where they’re stable. In the other, more idyllic scenario we could see sport organizations take time to think about accessibility and inclusion with new lenses and come back re-energized and re-fueled, and ready to adapt. Quintessential to this plan is adequate government funding to help bring in new participants and members,” she said.

“It’s a challenging situation because it also has to come from the participant side, and it’s great if you’re getting funds and putting on great programming, but our whole mentality as Canadians has changed and it may take a personal journey for each person to get back into sport.”

Sport for Life has been monitoring the situation closely since the pandemic began, conducting a study and sharing a report of the impacts at the national level. CEO Richard Way has collaborated with advocates such as Olympic athlete Catriona Le May Doan to figure out the best way to kick-start the sport sector once COVID-19 has passed. 

“There are so many people working hard at the local sport organization level, and that is the foundation of the sport system, so I believe we’ll find a way to build back better. We’ve had the pleasure of working with Catriona Le Ma Doan on the outstanding work she’s doing with the Calgary Sport Council. People like Catriona, as well as Gary Shelton of the Edmonton Sport Council, Mandi Graham of Engage Sport North, Marci Morris of Ottawa Sport Council and Kevin Arnsdorf of sport Community Sport Councils Ontario,to name a few, instill confidence that we will be innovative and resourceful to create a positive future,” he said.

Way has been on the board of many local sport organizations, and is particularly concerned about accessibility for lower income communities following the pandemic. 

“Canadian sport has a significant challenge ahead of it, to ensure there’s a rich selection of viable sport organizations. We can see from the Olympics that one of our strengths is we medal in a large number of sports. That’s a reflection of the variety of sports being provided by loc sport organizations,” he said.

“Within that group of top performers, we have many athletes that come from lower income situations. Providing those opportunities is the essence of Canada. In providing a rich mosaic of opportunities to all Canadians, allowing them to have opportunity to be high performers as well as vibrant contributors to the fabric of Canada.”

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