The Commonwealth Games is well under way in the Gold Coast, Australia. This major international sports event, which is held every four years and features athletes from 71 countries, is nicknamed the “Friendly Games,” and it is already living up to its name with inspiring moments, sporting triumphs and a healthy dose of fair play and comradeship.
Sport has the power to lead on many issues which affect society. For example, a number of leading sports organizations have taken disability very seriously and done something about it, including the Olympics, which has embraced the ideal of inclusion by creating the highly successful Paralympics, usually held a couple of weeks after the Summer and Winter Games have finished.
The Commonwealth Games have taken this a stage further and integrated para-sports into the 11-day sporting itinerary. This means that spectators can watch a session which includes events for the disabled as well as able-bodied athletes. Each race is as thrilling as the next and you quickly lose the sense that one race might include only disabled athletes. This is real inclusion.
As one spectator told me: “The real beauty of this format is that you immediately forget about the disability of the athlete and you concentrate on the race that you are watching in the same way that you’d watch any race.”
It also means that people stop seeing people as “disabled” and see them first and foremost as athletes representing their country with pride in the same way as everyone else.
Sammi Kinghorn, who will compete for Scotland in the T54 1500m and T54 Marathon events in the Gold Coast, won both the 2017 Disability Sport Award and the overall Scottish Sports Personality Award at the prestigious sportscotland Scottish Sports Awards last year – the first disabled athlete to win the overall award.
After receiving a standing ovation, she said: “When you do your sport you do it to do well on the big stage and win medals, you don’t expect to win awards after it. It is nice to get that recognition, particularly for para sports.
“It is important that para sports are seen alongside able-bodied athletes. It makes our sport more respected by the public.”
Another athlete said: “Every year we have an award for Sports Person of the Year and one for Disabled Sports Person of the Year but I don’t think we need that separation any more; we should just have one award for everyone.
“In years gone by, we would have fought tooth and nail to have our 'disabled' category but things have moved on so far that we are almost at a point where we have no exclusion and we feel part of the overall sports world.”
Sportscotland, which is the national agency for sport in Scotland, invests considerable amounts of money in disabled sport. This is in keeping with its policies of equality and inclusion, which are a key part of the DNA of the organization, making sure that sport enables anyone to play regardless of who they are and where they come from.
Last year, the organization, as part of its commitment to these policies, opened the redeveloped National Sports Training Centre following a £12-million investment. The facility is the first of its kind in the UK, providing a residential sports training centre designed with inclusivity in mind for disability sports, including performance and community users. Sportscotland is only one example of sports organizations which are taking this approach.
Sport is devoured by millions of people worldwide and the Commonwealth Games expects global viewing figures of 1.5 billion over 11 days. The message of inclusion is loud and clear because the proof is right there in front of your eyes as you watch the athletes perform. You don’t need a big poster.
Society has moved on considerably in terms of inclusion for disabled people. Go back just 50 years and you will see how disabled people were discriminated against and excluded from society. It is a totally different world nowadays but it still has a long way to go before it can be described as fully inclusive for disabled people. Sport has played a lead role in changing attitudes and showing how we can live and participate successfully together in an inclusive world.
The Commonwealth Games takes us another step forward by organizing its agenda in a truly inclusive manner. Other sections of society are sure to follow, and that is what makes these sporting events so inspiring and significant.