“The pandemic has highlighted inequality in sport” | Interview with Sarah Townsend

Sarah Townsend is a General Secretary of ENGSO’s associated member, the European Gay & Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF), and a member of the Equality Within Sport (EWS) Committee. She is also one of the 15 experts selected to the European Commission’s High Level Group on Gender Equality in sport.


In the following interview we discussed Sarah’s sports journey, the inequality in sport the pandemic has exposed, the need for an inclusive post Covid-19 recovery and more.

ell us a bit about your sport journey; what is your sport background and what is the importance of sport in your life? Sport or physical activity has always been there. I was in a boarding school and it was an integral part of the curriculum. Being on teams was a great way to stay busy in school! I stopped with organised sport for a while but continued swimming, hiking and cycling independently and invested more time in the LGBTIQ+ sports world, privileging events like Gay Games and EuroGames for their inclusivity, then came back to mainstream club sports via rowing, where I now coach and I am particularly enthusiastic about using sport as a tool for wellbeing. Since 2015 I have been active in sports advocacy as a Board member of the EGLSF (European Gay & Lesbian Sports Federation), working with the FSGL (Fédération Sportive Gaie et Lesbienne) in France, and as an international delegate and site selection committee member for the Federation of Gay Games, and more recently, the ENGSO Equality Within Sport committee.

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You are a member of the European Commission’s EU High-Level Group (HLG) on gender equality in sport. Why do you think the EU High-Level Group (HLG) on gender equality in sport is important? What are the groups’ aims and objectives?


The purpose of the EU High-Level Group (HLG) on gender equality in sport is to make proposals to the European Commission, Member States and the Sport Movement in the field of gender equality in sport which will lead to the implementation of concrete actions at national and European level. I think bringing people of different profiles in sport together to reflect on how sport can move to its next step is essential. The general goal is to level the playing field with regard to sport, making it accessible to everyone; and finding the means by which to do this. I believe it is time for sport to move beyond the binary consideration to make it truly democratic; the work being undertaken by both EGLSF and the ENGSO EWS committee supports this wider perspective for sport, the goal being inclusion, challenging discrimination in sport and improving access to sport for all LGBTIQ+ people.


As a member of the EWS committee; in your opinion, how is Covid-19 changing the equality versus inequality balance in the European sport sector?


I think the pandemic has highlighted inequality in sport on many levels – in elite and grassroots sport, and in the traditional binary gender division of sport. At the elite level, financially, women athletes have always been in a more precarious situation than their male counterparts. They are usually on lower salaries and have less advantageous contracts for example, so even if they are furloughed on a salary percentage, this may not result in a living wage. And certain athletes’ salaries depend entirely on presence at matches or training camps so their loss of income is 100%. For women trainers and coaches, as investment in women’s programs is halted, and women’s teams are cut, so are the already sparse support and management roles. When we can get back to some kind of normalcy, the recovery for women’s sport will be complicated. Even at an amateur level, in grassroot sport, with revenues slashed or non-existent, in recovery many sponsors will fall back on investing in “traditional sport” – read men’s sport – because of the perceived profit advantages. The momentum that had started to gather as a result of events such as the FIFA women’s world cup in 2019 has been stopped and getting it back will be an uphill battle. The mediatisation of women’s sport – that plays an important role in motivating people to sport – is down: of 52,7 % of the articles in the French sport paper ‘L’Équipe’ written about COVID19 between March 14 and May 10 2020 only 2,42 % mentioned women’s sport. And the vitriol around inclusion in sport needs to be addressed quickly – sport is one of the key battlegrounds of the anti-gender movement, which has gained momentum during the pandemic – resulting in decisions such as that taken by World Rugby to institute a ban on transgender women competing in global competitions like the Olympics and the women’s Rugby World Cup. Decisions like these are sending a signal that there is no place for Trans athletes in sport – at any level. And this is a real concern. The post-COVID recovery subject is huge and deserves a great deal of reflection, but we do need to ensure that the reflection and decision-making processes are inclusive!


What do you think needs to be changed in the European sport sector in order to reduce inequalities and achieve equality?


As already highlighted in the “Gender Equality in Sport – Proposal for Strategic Actions 2014-2020”, inequalities in sport are also a reflection of societal inequalities – domestic situations and legacy from physical education at school – as well as considerations from the sport environment and structures – coach/trainer attitudes and lack of gender-diversity understanding, safe sport environments, traditional decision- making boards and processes that prioritize sport unfairly. We are at a moment now that we understand what needs to be done – at least at some level – and now it needs to be done. We need action. Maybe some form of reporting system so that monitoring and evaluation can be established? There needs to be better consideration for disenfranchised sport sectors such as the LGBTIQ+ community; better cooperation between EU Institutions and the sport movement at both elite and grassroots level.

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What do you think is the main challenge the sport for the development sector is facing today, and why?


If we see sports development as simply encouraging participation in sport, then a major challenge is still the democratisation of sport – simply putting sport on an equal footing for everyone. Just last year in Spain 200 players in the women’s domestic football league had to strike before signing an agreement ensuring holiday and maternity pay and a basic minimum wage; USA’s FIFA World Cup-winning side were still fighting their governing body in an Equal Pay dispute among comments that women footballers had “lesser physical abilities” – abhorrent arguments to still be hearing in 2020! And as I mentioned earlier making our sport fields and arenas welcoming to all athlete profiles. Equal representation – at all levels. We need to move away from talking about how to break through in sport for a large majority of the population to how to thrive in sport.


If you would be a superhero that would be able to fix one global challenge/issue; what challenge/issue would that be, and how would you use sport to fix it?


There are a lot of global challenges at the moment, but I suppose the basis of many is working together as so much drops out from this – if we could pull together, we’d have world peace and a sustainable planet! And sport has its lesson to teach for that – playing well with others and sharing the credit is key to a successful team, in sport, in business. Scoring the goal is great, but knowing when to pass to others is essential. If they score a goal, everyone celebrates. If they miss, work out what could’ve made it a goal pass.

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