The Rules of Sport are Failing to Create a Level Playing Field

July 7, 2021

By Trevor LaForce, OCT, Manager, Education, CCES

After the last few weeks we’ve had, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that a core tenet of sport is gatekeeping and exclusion.

Breastfeeding mothers were told that to represent their countries at the Olympics they would likely have to leave their babies at home. Namibian sprinters were subjected to “medical assessments” following remarkable performances, tests that resulted in banning them from competing internationally in distances between 400m and the mile. These women, arguably among the best sprinters in the world, are now ineligible to represent their country at the Tokyo Games or the international level in the female category without a course of medication to reduce their natural testosterone. Swimming’s international federation, FINA, rejected an application to allow the Soul Cap in competition, a swimming cap specifically designed for Black hair, apparently because the cap doesn’t follow “the natural form of the head.” And of course there is the one-month sanction for THC heard ‘round the world, again drawing attention to World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) continued inclusion of cannabis on the Prohibited List and now to its recent classification as a “substance of abuse.”

It is so cliché at this point that it is predictable. The opportunity exists for sport to embrace inclusivity and progress, and sport fails to capitalize on that opportunity again and again. And people get hurt.

Worse, there is an alarming trend here, nakedly visible to anyone keeping track. The ones who suffer the most are truly incredible women, often Black, and often from the global South. To say otherwise, to act as though this is not the case, is to choose to willfully uphold systems of discrimination and oppression.

The rules of sport are meant to create a level playing field. In this respect, the rules are failing. They fail to create sport environments that recognize the dignity and even humanity of some of its most spectacular participants. Sport is beginning to creak and crack under the weight of the decisions made by sport organizations, and so the decision-makers are reaching a crisis point: do we begin to make different decisions, or do we continue making the same ill-advised and exclusive choices that brought us here, and allow sport to collapse under the weight of them?

Here at the CCES we do what we can within the rules. We try to educate and advocate about sex and gender diversity, and we regularly advocate for cannabis to be removed from the Prohibited List, as we do not consider it to be performance-enhancing. Although cannabis remains on the Prohibited List, last year we exercised our authority to stop analyzing doping control samples from U SPORTS and CCAA athletes who meet specific criterion for cannabinoids. The fourth-generation Canadian Anti-Doping Program explicitly states that we will never use an athlete’s sample for the purposes of gender verification, or for other non-anti-doping purposes. We work to make sport fair, safe, and open and are seeing great success with Canadian national sport organizations and events adopting True Sport as a set of governing values and principles.

Within our sphere of influence, both at home in Canada and internationally, we try to make the case that the sport Canadians have told us they want – principle-driven sport that is rooted in the values of fairness, excellence, inclusion, and fun – is a model for sport that avoids these pitfalls. We question our own practices and policies, striking internal working groups and engaging outside subject-matter experts to train us and audit our work so that we’re more inclusive and proactive. We are in the early steps of this journey, but we choose to invite criticism and input to make our work more equitable, rather than choosing to maintain the status quo.

Leadership in international sport comes from the top, and WADA and the international federations that govern sport are empowered to make choices about how the rest of sport operates. Whether that’s about revising the Prohibited List to recognize changing societal attitudes toward cannabis use, or whether it’s about revisiting misogynist, punitive and outdated metrics for measuring womanhood, new and better choices must be made.

There were some wins, however. Olympic organizers reversed the policy that would have prevented breastfeeding mothers from bringing their children to the Games. Mandy Bujold won her case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is a meaningful victory that should give us all hope and will hopefully set a precedent for allowances to be made for pregnant or postpartum mothers. FINA, to their credit, are reviewing the Soul Cap ban following backlash, recognizing the “importance of inclusivity and representation.” These are the kinds of choices that should be made, not just in response to backlash from the public but proactively, recognizing the value of inclusion and humanity and dignity. These kinds of choices do level the playing field and will lead to more remarkable people competing, not fewer.

As we move into back-to-back Olympic and Paralympic Games periods, let’s remember the true power of these events. Not just for demonstrating human excellence, but in showcasing the diversity and dignity and equality of the athletes who compete. At no other event of this scale can we see people who look and think and sound like us compete alongside people who don’t. Everyone everywhere in the world can watch the Games and see themselves represented among the top echelon of human achievement. They can see what their own excellence looks like on the world stage.

They can – unless, of course, sport chooses to exclude them. So, going forward, we ask ourselves and the international sport community: what choices are we going to make?

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