Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench 3:07, 21 March 2024

My Lords, I declare an interest: I am chair of Sport Wales and, with that, I sit as a board member of UK Sport. I also have a number of other declarations in the register—but I emphasise that these are my personal views.

It is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—I like to call him my friend in sport. I agree with much of what he said this afternoon. We talk about sport and politics not being linked, but I note that, actually, the medal table is soft politics: “Which is the best country in the world?” When I first came to your Lordships’ House, I was frequently asked, “Is it not really difficult moving from sport to politics?” Actually, sport provides one of the best political training grounds you could wish to have.

I agreed when the noble Lord talked about boycotting. Athletes are being asked to give up a relatively short career and, unless the Government and Ministers do much more around that to offer athletes support, it does not change the conversation too much. I remember that, prior to the Rio Paralympics, which nearly did not happen, a number of Ministers had gone to the Olympics, and then a decision was taken by the Government not to send a ministerial delegation to Rio. I was asked by a number of journalists, “Won’t athletes be desperately upset that Ministers aren’t going?” With all due respect to the Members on the Front Bench, who I know care passionately about sport, I have not met a single athlete who spent many years of their life training to compete in front of a Minister. But there is a value in our role in educating athletes so that they understand the countries and jurisdictions they go into.

I have long said that many athletes should have families like mine. Way before the internet, when I was competing in Seoul, which was my first Paralympics, my father made me go to the library and take out a whole pile of books and make a conscious choice about what my participation in sport was going to be.

This debate is really important because sportswashing gives us a lens to look at the power of sport, but it is only one lens. There are lots of different types of washing. There is purplewashing, in terms of how disabled people are treated and used. Merely putting a wheelchair user in a picture of people doing sport does not mean there is inclusion in a governing body or an international federation.

There is also greenwashing. In my time in sport, I competed at five Games. At the beginning, I am not sure anybody was looking at the green credentials of the Olympics and Paralympics. By the time of Sydney, that was really important: they gathered rain from the roof of the main stadium to water local farms and vegetable patches; they had worm farms for recycling food; athletes were not allowed to take food that they were not able to eat. By the time of Athens, there was a mass recycling programme for collecting the lids of water bottles; if you got 2,500 lids, that bought a wheelchair for a local child. I still argue that that was the biggest competition at the Athens Games, because athletics beat swimming by quite some way. It is educating and moving people along as you go.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I worked on the bid and delivery for the 2012 Games. The strapline was: “Inspire a generation”. Well, you cannot have a strapline that says: “Vaguely inspire a few”. But I am really pleased to say that gone are the days when we just dump a big Olympic park into an area and not think about the legacy or the impact it is going to have on the environment around it.

When we look at sport, we have to look at the bigger picture: what is the point of sport? Is it for sport’s sake or for changing lives? I argue that it can be both. Back in 2000, Nelson Mandela famously said:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand”.

That is the best of sport, but, as other noble Lords have mentioned, there are also huge challenges in terms of what we do. As we push younger and younger children through the pathway as we aspire to win Olympic and Paralympic medals and World Cups, we have a duty of care to those we encourage to go through the system. I wrote the Duty of Care in Sport report back in 2017 for the Government. Many of those recommendations, based on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, are still waiting to be enacted. It is really important that we talk about these issues and do not just focus on the amazing things sport can bring.

In turn, we have to challenge the international federations. What is the International Olympic Committee doing? What is the International Paralympic Committee doing? What is FIFA doing? Over the years, they have done some work to diversify themselves. It is possibly slower than I might have hoped, but can we really expect an international federation to change the world? The International Paralympic Committee has a campaign called “WeThe15”. Some 15% of the world’s population are disabled. It was a great campaign for the time of Tokyo, but can the IPC really be expected to change the lives of disabled people in every single jurisdiction around the world? I think that is asking too much of sport on its own.

Many noble Lords have heard me say that 2012 was the most amazing Olympics and Paralympics but it did not change the world for disabled people. Just this week, there has been a report from the UN rapporteur on disability rights saying that the UK is a difficult and challenging place for disabled people to live. Most people would be surprised by that. If the UK is a difficult place, other countries are challenging as well.

The Paralympics in China in 2008 certainly did not change the lives of most disabled people in China. That was the first Paralympic Games in which China competed seriously, and it came top of the medal table. It is almost impossible to see that it will ever do anything but that, because there are something like 85 million disabled people in China.

However, what the Paralympics did for Beijing was to change the lives of some of the disabled people living there. It changed the underground—Beijing has a step-free underground system in Beijing—and tactile paving was put in the city. It started that change. Without the Paralympics, that would not have happened.

I went to Beijing in 2005 and was sitting in a meeting and somebody noticed my wedding ring. They asked me whether I was married, and I said yes. Then I mentioned that I had a child, and the room emptied. I was trying to think about what I had said that had potentially been mistranslated; then everyone from that floor of the organising committee was brought in to meet me, because I was the disabled woman who had been allowed to get married. In Beijing at the time, I was not allowed to hire a car, because disabled people were not allowed to drive—or indeed be married or have children. It is heartbreaking when you see those things. The Paralympics helped to move that on at least a little.

I am going to introduce a new phrase, which I am not sure has ever been mentioned in your Lordships’ Chamber, which is “inspiration porn”. You can safely look at it on a government computer; it has not yet thrown up anything too dodgy. It is about the way in which disabled people are treated. This is another conversation that we do not have often enough, about what we are using sport for in changing the rights of disabled people. The challenge with inspiration porn is about how it is reported in the media that every disabled person is inspirational just because they are in society. That is quite hard in sport, because there are inspirational moments. But we have to challenge ourselves in what we are doing, as much as we challenge other countries around the world.

I worked at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Qatar, where disabled people are called “people of determination”. I really struggle with that as a phrase, but actually it explains the life that a lot of disabled people have to lead in coping with their impairment. Having the chance to go there—I would not have gone there in any way other than working in the media—gave me at least some experience of what life is like there for some disabled people. We have to think about whether going to a country shines a light and can shift the dialogue in a way that, if sport was not there, would not be able to happen.

As for how we push back at the IOC and IPC, they have to look at what the Games are going to be in future. The Games are getting bigger and more expensive, with more sports being added. The Athens Olympics cost $15 billion. We demand bigger and better opening ceremonies. The opening ceremony in Beijing had 15,000 people taking part although there were only 11,000 athletes at the Games. The estimated costs of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were $38.5 billion, of which more than £20 billion was spent on infrastructure. With regard to the responsibility of the IOC and IPC in moving forward, they can do things in a very different way. The reality is that, if the Games are going to get only more and more expensive, the only countries that will be able to or will want to host them are ones with which we have a fundamental disagreement about human rights.

A slightly brighter area to look at are the Commonwealth Games, which have done some amazing things in inclusion and spreading a really important message of bringing people together. However, the Commonwealth Games are facing a crisis at the moment of countries being unwilling to host, or struggling to host—and in the UK that is something that we will find very hard to do. Sport has to refocus and think very differently about what it wants to be. It comes back to the question of whether it is sport for sport’s sake and physical activity, or whether it is going to do more to try to change the world.

A lot of the area that I work on is around women in sport. The 2012 Games was known as the “women’s Games”—both the Olympics and the Paralympics—with British women dominating. It is incredible to see the rise of women in sport. The number of people who go to watch women’s football is unbelievable; it is something that I dreamt of for years. I have still not forgiven the team behind not giving Mary Earps her own shirt, which was a gross mistake and a missed opportunity.

There are still challenges for women’s sport. For example, the Swiss Football Association has just cut its support for women’s football from £13.5 million to £3.6 million. Women’s sport will be put in a situation where it has to make difficult decisions about where it goes and what support it gets—which, ultimately, will not develop what it is trying to do.

I was very lucky as an athlete because I was never asked to boycott a Games; I honestly do not know what I would have done. It is important, at the moment, for athletes to have that platform. In British sport we now talk about giving athletes a voice and a platform, allowing them to talk about the things that matter to them. We have a responsibility as administrations to educate and support them so that they are not cancelled for having an opinion, but are able to use the very best that sport gives them to keep changing things for the future. We need government support to do that; it cannot be done by sports and athletes on their own. Look at the number of British individuals who sit on international federations in the world of sport; we have to use those voices because, quite frankly, sport can do better. We can do better for sport, but we can use it to change the world.