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Sports Equity and Inclusion in British Rowing

British Rowing: A critical review

Rowing is a sport which involves propelling a boat on a body of water using oars to push against the water and produce a force to move the boat. Rowing itself can be recreational or competitive and competition in rowing can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. Modern rowing as a sport dates back to the 10th Century in London. The arrival of “Boat Clubs”, for example, the Leander club in England, and the formation of University and public school rowing teams, especially at Oxford, Cambridge, and Eton in the early 18th Century, propelled the popularity of the sport to other Universities and boat clubs around the globe including the U.S and Germany (Burnell, & Page, 1997).  Rowing is also one of the oldest Olympic sports. Initially it was part of the 1896 Olympics but the racing could not go ahead due to bad weather. Since 1900 it has been present at every Olympic Games with competitions ranging from individual races (single scull) to eight-person shells (coxed eight). Rowing has also had women participants from 1976 and Paralympic athletes from 2008 (Olympic Studies Centre, 2015).

Despite being an amateur sport, rowing in Britain has always reflected the division of social classes by being synonymous with the more upper classes. Sugden, & Tomlinson (2000) support this by suggesting that involvement in Henley’s boating regatta can be a clear sign of high social status. Social classes, in their most basic form can be described as “a division of a society based on social and economic status” (English | Oxford Dictionaries, 2017). Later in the report I will analyse this further using different theories and concepts.

During the rise in popularity of sports in Britain in the 18th century some sports, for example, football and Rugby, were more associated with the working and lower middle classes and other sports, for example, tennis and golf, where more associated with the upper middle and upper classes (Wilson, 2002). This can be attributed to all cultural consumption, including sports consumption, which requires the right tastes and preferences as well as knowledge and skills. This is called cultural capital. (Bourdieu, 1986, cited in Holt, 1998). Cultural capital is defined by “access to cultural processes and products. These include the way by which educational, social and intellectual knowledge can used to advantage the social and economic position of a particular individual or group” (Bourdieu, 1986, cited in Beedie, & Craig, 2010, p. 268). The access to higher levels of educational knowledge in the 18th Century was achieved through the public schools which required fees to attend. Therefore, they attracted students from more economically advanced backgrounds and wealthy families that could afford the fees. These included schools like Westminster, Harrow, and the previously mentioned Eton (UK Parliament, 2017). As rowing was only available at boat clubs, universities, and public schools, all of which were out of reach to all but the ruling class, rowing became the preserve of the higher classes. People in poverty and low social classes, therefore, found it harder to participate in the sport.

Rowing in England today is governed by British Rowing. The organisation was founded in 1882 and oversees both indoor and on-water rowing. They are responsible for the development of rowing in England and the selection of crews and individual rowers that represent Great Britain. They are affiliated with the International Rowing Federation and the International Olympic Committee. British Rowing has roughly 30,000 individual members that range in age from 11 to over 80. Individual members are usually linked to one of 550 associated rowing clubs, which in turn are within ten rowing regions in England. Each region has a regional rowing council and representatives who represent them on British Rowing’s Council. The British Rowing Council is made up of the members of the Board, the Regional Chairmen, the Honorary President, the Honorary Rowing Safety Adviser, the Regional Representatives, Home Nations Representative, and Honorary Life Vice Presidents (“Governance – British Rowing”, 2017). The members of the Board are the Directors of British Rowing who meet regularly to manage the business of the organisation. This is headed by the chairman, Annamarie Phelps, CBE. Together they create and govern the policies and initiatives of British Rowing. This report will look specifically at the Equity and Inclusion policies and initiatives for British Rowing.

Equity is about being fair and impartial and examines inequalities resulting from race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, religion, or disability (Fletcher, & Dashper, 2014). Being inclusive is about providing many different options to suit people of all ages, skills, and backgrounds, in the most appropriate manner that is possible. Therefore, Equity and Inclusion in sport can be defined as being fair and providing a range of opportunities for different people from different backgrounds to participate in sport. By being equitable and inclusive, a sporting organisation, or sport in general, can help to tackle inequalities that are present in wider society.

In sociology and sport the idea of inequality has been broadly characterized and has been connected to different political ideologies. Inequality, as characterized from the right, is unavoidable, or is important for society to cope well. Conversely, from the left, inequality is a social detriment and ought to be killed by vote based or progressive means. This can mean democratically via policies and initiatives or even via revolution and forced change. As indicated by Donnelly (1996), “Sport by its very nature, produces, and displays inequality”. Early research proposed that sport reflected existing inequalities – i.e., it was a microcosm of society. Regardless, more critical research of sport has since uncovered that, as opposed to being a passive component and simply reflecting inequality, sport, by means of social operators’ collaborations with sporting spaces, is effectively involved in creating, repeating, supporting and indeed, acts as a site for resistance when it comes to inequality (Dashper, & Fletcher, 2013). Jarvie, & Thornton (2012) add to this by stating that “Inequality is often limited to two notions of inequality namely inequality of condition and inequality of opportunity”. Inequality of condition refers to factors such as time, income, occupation, and education, whereas, inequality of opportunity focuses on the individual and the degree of freedom they may have. Equity and inclusion policies should aim to negate these inequalities. In order to correctly analyse the equity and inclusion policies and their impact on a group within society an organisational SWOT analysis will be conducted for British Rowing in regards to their Equity and Inclusion policies and initiatives (Appendix).

A SWOT grid / matrix is a grid that highlights the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats associated with an organisation. The strengths are positive factors that are internal to the organisation and within their control. The weakness are also internal factors that may hinder the organisations ability to attain their goals. Opportunities are external factors that the organisation can use and take advantage of in order to progress. Threats are also external factors that could jeopardise the organisations progress.  Once the grid has been filled the information is analysed to ascertain the limitations and issues affecting the organisation. The benefits of a SWOT analysis are that it is cost free, quick and easy to use, anyone can conduct it, it can highlight strengths, weaknesses, deter threats, capitalise on opportunities, provide a better understanding of the organisation and help develop goals and strategies. There are, however, limitations to a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis cannot provide solutions, doesn’t prioritise issues, it is open to human error, can produce a lot of useless information and doesn’t address complex two sided factors that could be considered a strength or a weakness. Taking these into consideration I have listed 3-5 key points in each grid and will expand on them during the analysis.

The first strength that was highlighted was that the British Rowing Equity Policy identified key principles in regards to equity in rowing. It stated that “Sports Equity is about fairness in sport, equality of access, recognising inequalities and taking steps to address them. It involves changing the culture and structure of sport to ensure that it becomes equally accessible to all members of society” (“BRITISH ROWING EQUITY POLICY”, 2014). It goes on to explain that no members will be treated differently due to certain factors (age, class, gender etc.) and that anyone can have an equal opportunity to participate. This shows that the equity policy has considered the two notions of inequality as previously discussed and that it will try to address these issues. The second strength highlighted was the implementation of an equity action plan to display their commitment to sports equity. The action plan is 5 points and one key point is the commitment to tackle under representation should effort be unevenly distributed. They also state the need to review the policy annually which is good practice. The third strength highlighted was the recognition of the legal requirements to be fair and equitable. This includes The Equality act: 2010 among others. The forth strength highlighted was the Adaptive rowing initiative designed to encourage people with disability to join rowing. Through this initiative, they also recruit people to participate in the Paralympics. This is an excellent strength and one that is surely equitable. The final strength was a statistic from 2013 showing that 52% of new recruits were men and 48% were women which displays a very even split between the two genders. This shows their equity policy is working to break down gender barriers as previous stats showed a 60/40 split in favour of men (British Rowing, 2013).

The first weakness in the equity and inclusion initiatives was that participation from state schools remains low. 7% of the U.K’s school children are educated by independent schools but 54% of Great Britain’s elite rowers from the 2012 Olympic games were educated at independent schools. Those from state schools learnt almost entirely from boat clubs (Brown, 2016). The second weakness was that the cost of equipment/membership. Membership at clubs can be on average £150-300 for a junior participant and even more for adults (“Club rules, forms and prices”, 2017 and Smithson, 2017). There is also a membership fee with British Rowing from £17 for a junior to £1150 for a lifetime membership. These fees may not be affordable for those who are struggling financially and who are in poverty and therefore the costs of the memberships act as a barrier to participation for those individuals. The final weakness is that equity policy states that “British Rowing will publicise this to all employees, members, volunteers and officials through its website, Almanack, magazine and club mailings (“BRITISH ROWING EQUITY POLICY”, 2014). This is good to an extent but there is no mention of publicising its equity policy beyond its members and inner circles. By publicising its equity policy to a wider and more diverse audience in the public it is possible to encourage more participation from individuals that may not realise the opportunity is there to join the sport and that it is inclusive.

The first opportunity highlighted was the increased popularity in rowing after the success of the 2012 Olympic games in London. British Rowing endured a spike in new recruits of 12.2% in the final 6 months of 2012 (British Rowing, 2013). British Rowing could take further advantage of this by specifically targeting certain groups in society that have low participation levels. The second opportunity is related to the first. It was that the one of the Olympic legacy’s goals were “Promoting community engagement and achieving participation across all groups in society through the Games” (“London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Annual Report February 2011”). The final opportunity is that rowing is one of Britain’s most successful sports. They have accumulated 68 medals, including 31 gold, in men’s rowing alone at the Olympics, 3rd overall in the history of the games. This can inspire more people to join and be part of the sport.

The first threat highlighted was that costs may remain high or even grow with inflation. Costs to participate is a barrier for individuals but the cost for state schools to build facilities and buy equipment, such as boat houses, indoor rowers, storage rooms etc., can be a major factor in state schools deciding not to become involved in rowing. Another threat is that, despite being one of Britain’s most successful sports, rowing still falls behind other sports such as football, rugby, tennis, cricket, badminton, swimming, and athletics, in terms of popularity (Russell, 2014). Other sports may be more appealing to new participants and sports that are played regularly at both state and independent schools will inevitably have higher participation levels and a more diverse participation pool. The final threat is that now that the 2012 Olympics is long over, and the buzz around rowing is diminishing, the opportunity to encourage state schools and people from social deprivation backgrounds to participate could be fading.

From the SWOT analysis, we can see there are issues and challenges for people in social deprivation and in the lower classes of society. To fully understand the context and impact of this, definitions must be understood and sociological theory must be applied. Sociology, as defined by Giddens (2001), is “the study of human social life, groups and societies”. A theory is a “framework for understanding, but it always develops within a particular cultural context and is always provisional… theory provides us with a starting point for our understanding but it begs to be expanded, contradicted, refined, replaced” (Birrell, 2000). Therefore, a sociological theory is a framework of understanding around the study of human social life, groups, and societies. Three key terms must also be understood and they are ideology, power, and politics. Ideology is “the shared ideas or beliefs which serve to justify the interests of dominant groups” (Giddens, 2001). Power is “the ability of individuals, or the members of a group, to achieve aims or further the interests they hold… Many conflicts in society are struggles over power” (Giddens, & Sutton, 2013, p. 584). Politics “takes place wherever conflict exists about goals and the method of achieving those goals” (Houlihan, 2002). The way in which society develops unequal layers based on wealth, income, status, and power is defined as social stratification (Beedie, & Craig, 2010, p. 116). Karl Marx’s Conflict Theory can be used to better understand the social stratification from the perspective of poorer groups and less powerful of people.

Karl Marx’s work on conflict theory can be best understood by taking into consideration the context of the social world in which he lived. He developed his work during the mid-19th Century, which was a time of deep political and social unrest, due to the rapid expanding system of industrial capitalism and the political and economic issues that accompanied it (Foster, 1979). These political and economic tensions helped to further divide society in the form of social classes, that competed against each other, forming a class conflict. The Marxist view on social class can be basically divided into two main groups but the reality is that there are at least four groupings, which Marx identified to a certain extent. They are the lumpenproetariat, the proletariat, the petite bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie. They can also be called the underclass, the working class, the middle class, and the upper class. Each have their own problems and goals and are interconnected and interdependent to a certain degree. This makes it hard to allocate class labels at times as it be a fluid and elastic term that is ever changing. Nevertheless, Marx describes the upper class as the class in control of the means of production and the classes below are the ones that make these means possible by selling their labour for wages. This division of labour causes relationships between classes to become exploitative where the upper classes exploit the lower classes by maximising commodity production for profit rather than need. This profit driven ideology is based on and creates inequalities and these inequalities between the classes cause conflict. This relates back to the definition of power where by conflicts in society are struggles over power and that the groups that wield the most power (upper class) can further their aims and interests that they hold. This also then relates back to our definition of politics; that it takes place wherever conflict exists about goals. This explains why some of the most powerful people in society are located at the summit of politics (Rigauer, & Tomlinson, 2002).

When applying this sport, it is important to understand, as previously mentioned, that sport can act as a microcosm of society and reflect the fractures and divisions within society. If modern sport was developed in the 19th Century in tandem with the rise of industrial capitalism, then it is understandable that the same divides and conflicts that were in society at the time were reflected in sport. Houlihan and Malcolm (2016) add to this and state that “Sport reflects and reproduces the ideologies of capitalism like aggressive individualism, ruthless competition, elitism…These ideas…in sport, reflect the broader structure of capitalist society”.

Having considered the historical context of rowing at the beginning of the report, it is clear to see how Sugden, & Tomlinson (2000) suggested that rowing was a sport more associated with the upper classes. As rowing as a competitive sport began to form in independent schools, which became less and less accessible to the lower classes with the rise of industrial capitalism, the only class with the opportunity to participate in the sport were the upper classes that attended the high fee paying schools and as a result rowing, with its lack of lower class members became a sport for the upper class in the 19th century.  Beedie, & Craig (2010) support this with an example of the town of Bedford. Bedford is a town with a tradition for rowing due to the River Ouse which flows near it. The grass roots entry points to rowing here were dominated by the fee paying independent schools and thus, any school children from state schools wishing to get involved in rowing had a very little opportunity to do so. They go on to state that “rowing does not reflect the cosmopolitan diversity of social groups living in Bedford, but instead remains populated by those privileged educationally”.

Despite conflicts of social classes being less volatile and society being more integrated in the modern era of sport, the class divide in British Rowing is still clear to see. Of the 12 board members in British Rowing, only 2 attended state schools and of all the elite athletes that represented GB, 54% were educated in independent schools. Despite the organisations significant steps to improving inclusion for disability and female participants, it still has an identity as an upper-class sport. This could be further explained again using Marxism as Marx suggests that “the ruling elite …controls the means of mental production” (Storey, 1993). If the people in charge of British Rowing and the lead figures and elite athlete are constantly coming from upper class backgrounds, then the image and idea of rowing being an upper-class sport cannot be changed. As I have previously mentioned, equity and inclusion polices should seek to negate the inequalities associated with that sport. One of those inequalities was highlighted as a lack of opportunity for people in poverty and the lower classes as poverty is at the core of exclusion (Collins, & Kay, 2014).

To combat this inequality and exclusion, I recommend that British Rowing should seek to reach out to other organisations to form a partnership with the goal of bringing more water sports to state schools. Craig, & Mellor (2010) state that “the recognition of, and involvement in, common activities enables and promotes social cohesion”. Therefore, if more and more people from poverty and social deprivation backgrounds can have a better opportunity to participate in rowing it would improve relations between social classes even more and help to alleviate any barriers. For British Rowing, it will also provide a much larger pool of athletes to choose for elite level competition, for example the Olympics, and this could boost Great Britain’s success in the sport even further. They have proven that initiatives for specific populations (Female, Disability etc.) can improve participation and success in those groups and further effort for people in poverty could boost participation for that group also. Other potential means of improving participation could be to place a cap on membership fees so that they can’t rise to a level that will become unaffordable to more people. Reaching out to state schools and providing them with equipment would be highly costly to the organisation. As sport becomes more commercialised and media heavy it is perhaps an option for British Rowing to negotiate a TV or sponsorship deal to raise capital for initiatives to improve equity and inclusion in their sport. Events at the Olympics and ‘The Boat Race’ are the two main televised rowing events. As ‘The Boat Race’ is one day per year and events at the Olympics only come once every 4 years, opportunity to highlight the sport to wider audience is not as frequent as some of the sports competitors. Staging exhibition races or creating completions for television could get more regular coverage and help to spread interest in rowing and also raise funds for initiatives to improve equity and inclusion. As sport not only reflects society but also helps to shape it, by using rowing to break down social barriers within the sport, and within social groups, society too may be effected in a positive way. Breaking down these barriers will help to provide more opportunities for participation and to be more fair and equal.

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