Sport and Play

Sport in Development

Sport and Development (S&D), also called Sport in Development (SiD) or Sport for Development (SfD), is a relatively new concept and a growing area for intervention in international development. The idea of using sport as a vehicle for addressing development concerns, stems from the acknowledgement in a 1995 report by the World Commission on Culture and Development[1] that traditional approaches to development have failed to achieve their social objectives. The report suggested that existing social and cultural practices such as sport, theatre and dance, be considered as important vehicles for social change. Nearly two decades later, there are a significant number of S&D organisations using sport to address issues such as: sexual health; conflict-resolution; social inclusion; and gender equality. The UN recognises sport and play as human rights that must be respected and enforced worldwide: “sport has been increasingly recognized and used as a low-cost and high-impact tool in humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts […]. Sport can no longer be considered a luxury within any society but is rather an important investment in the present and future, particularly in developing countries.” (

Youth and Sport

Group games and team play offer important convening spaces for young people in all countries and cultures. The growing literature on sport and play in development points to the way that sport and play can be used to develop skills with youth that they may not have the opportunity to develop in school or other spaces. Coaching for Hope describe sport as “a force for good” enriching the lives of children and youth, and those of their communities. As the global network streetfootballworld point out, youth love to play and getting children and young adults out on to a playing field or court is easy. Once they are there, you have an opportunity to do more than just physical activity. For example, sport can be an effective tool for working with youth to develop skills and build awareness of key social issues.

Youth, Sport and Sexuality

The convening spaces opened by sport allow practitioners to initiate discussions about a range of topics and to communicate information that goes far beyond the demands of the games themselves. A significant number of S&D organisations work on sexual and reproductive health education with youth, and specifically on HIV awareness and education for young people who may be at risk of contracting HIV. The intersection of sport and sexual health is an ideal entry point for addressing sexuality. Many S&D programmes follow comprehensive programmes of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRH&Rs) that could be adapted to be more inclusive of alternative sexualities and gender identities. Since S&D organisations doing sexual health education are not limited by local government policy or state funding, as schools often are, they have an opportunity to adapt their curriculums to be inclusive of the experiences of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LGBTQI). Both inside and outside of sport, there are a growing number of examples around the world of SRH&Rs education programmes that are starting to include the experiences of LGBTQI youth.  For example, an association called Candela in Barcelona, Spain has been providing alternative and inclusive sex education to local schools, in an effort to normalise LGBTQI sexualities ( In Kenya, Akinyi M. Ocholla of the organisation Minority Women in Action has called for inclusive sex education in schools across Africa (, saying that it is the only way to change the fact that homosexuality is largely seen as a social taboo.

Sport and Social Norms

Challenging gender stereotypes activity

A common critique of S&D programmes is that they focus superficially on sport without an understanding of the societies in which the programs are located, ignoring aspects like gender inequality or lack or rights for LGBTQI individuals.  The instrumental use of sport within development can be problematic for several reasons, not least of which is that sport is traditionally a very masculine and heteronormative domain.  For this reason, S&D practitioners need to be careful that, in using sport they are not reinforcing existing social inequalities, but instead, finding ways to challenge them. 

One of the ways to do this is to see sport as an opportunity to challenge some of the social norms that are imposed by society.  These may be norms related to gender, which say that only boys and men can play football, or norms which say that only love between a man and women is natural and normal (heteronormativity). Performing in sport means performing in what has historically and socially been reserved for the heterosexual male.  This is especially true for contact sports like rugby and football. Participation of girls and women in football or rugby, can therefore be a way to challenge dominant norms around masculinity and create new spaces for girls and women to interact and play. In doing so, they are also opening out spaces which are more inclusive.

Example from Burkina Faso

In order for a sexual health education curriculum to be inclusive, it does not have to explicitly be designed for LGBTQI individuals or to address LGBTQI issues. For example, coaches and trainers who teach integrated football and HIV education sessions could open out the discussions they have around HIV transmission to include sexual experiences that are not explicitly written about in their curriculum guide.  Coaching for Hope in Burkina Faso, delivers training for football coaches on how to coach an integrated curriculum on sexual health and HIV awareness that they can use with their teams of young people.  This approach is well received by coaches, who recognise the potential of using their skills and experience as sport coaches to benefit their players and the wider community.

One of the sessions taught to coaches is about using football to raise issues relating to HIV transmission with young people.  The session begins with a modelled activity on the pitch, where all of the coaches (who will later use this activity with their youth teams) play a game that demonstrates how not using protection in sexual interactions can lead to the transmission of HIV.  After the game, the trainer brings the group together for a talk.  S/he then models asking questions about the game and what the players observed. The trainer then introduces the topic of transmission and how it relates to the game, raising the importance of communication and awareness when having sexual intercourse, kissing or oral sex. At this point, the trainer then goes on to talk about anal sex, mentioning that this could be between a man and a woman, OR between two men. The conversation may go no further at this point, particularly if coaches do not feel comfortable or have not received training in how to talk about same-sex sexual experiences. However, even if the conversation stops here, the issue of same-sex sexual conduct has been introduced in the context of a ‘safe’ space and opens out an opportunity for the issues to be raised again at a later date. While some might see talking about sex between men only in the context of HIV transmission as problematic, this may be the first time that coaches have approached the issues in such a public way. Using a language with which they are familiar can provide a useful context for them to discuss the issues again at a later point in their training.

Click here to read our inside story - Empowering young women through sport

Alison Carney

Alison is a football coach, social activist and freelance consultant who has been working with Sport & Development projects around the world since 2002. 

Football session in Burkina Faso

I began working with Sport in Development projects in 2002, when I was part of a partnership to start a soccer camp for girls from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.  Working in Bosnia between 2002 and 2008 I became hooked on the idea that sport held the potential to create space for social change, beyond just youth learning sport skills and playing a game.  I experienced a change in attitudes and in levels of openness in spite of persistent prejudice in the greater community around us.  Since 2002, I have been seeking out interesting and innovative projects to work with, especially on the topic of gender equality, and this search has taken me to different contexts and cities around the world.  In almost every single country I have worked, regardless of religion, cultural norms or political climate, at least one young woman has come out to me and shared her story.  Many of these young women tell me that they were only able to realise their sexuality and feel comfortable with themselves through playing sport.  Additionally, most of these women have told me that sport is where they meet other lesbians, either on a sports team or working at a S&D organisation.  Hearing these stories, and being invited into a space of trust by these young women, has had a great impact on me; especially in cases where we were living in a community and a country where homosexuality is illegal and frowned upon.  I also reflected on how so many of their experiences reflected my own experience with sport when I was younger.  This confirmed for me that, although it can be complicated, sport is a universal tool with great potential for social change and self-empowerment.  I realised that sport, in the cases of these women, is a liberating experience that creates a space for transgression of dominant sexual norms and gives them a community in which to express their sexuality and gender identity.

Unfortunately, none of the programmes I have worked with over the past 10 years explicitly address LGBTQI sexualities and gender identities through their curriculums or when talking about sexual health and bodies.  This omission by S&D practitioners seems odd and needs to change because in my work with S&D projects I found that experiences of sexuality and empowerment through sport, for lesbians in particular, are widespread. I think there is great potential to expand this platform to work with youth, including LGBTQI youth, and to talk about sexual diversity and sexual rights. This would also help to raise the visibility of LGBTQI youth in general.   

Other Campaigns

UK LGB charity Stonewall run a rainbow laces campaign to show support for gay football players and fans and to help kick homophobia out of football. Stonewall teamed up with Paddy Power and the stars of Arsenal Football Club to produce this promotional video: 


See the Club Zone page for more details of how you can get involved.

What you can do:

Do you run a sports group or club for young people? Would you like to address issues related to sexuality with the young people you work with? Would you like to provide a more inclusive convening space for girls and women and those of alternative sexualities and gender identities?

  • Think about the young people you work with. Try to identify where issues of sexuality or gender identity are coming up amongst the youth themselves. How are they coming up? Who is talking about them? How are youth with alternative sexualities and gender identities treated by their peers?
  • How inclusive is your club/organisation/team? Are there ways that you are excluding certain youth, whether intentionally or not?
  • Hold a meeting with other volunteers, team members or trainers. Try to find out if anyone else is interested in talking about inclusion more generally and sexuality and gender identity in particular. 
  • Look at your curriculum material. What are the options for expanding that material to talk about same-sex relationships? Are there other guides on the internet that you could use?
  • Consider the risks. What is the minimum you can do without drawing negative attention to your organisation or club/team?

Further information:

Sport in Development Organisations using integrated curriculums:

Coaching For Hope (South Africa, Burkina Faso):

Grassroots Soccer (South Africa):

Tackle Africa (Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, UK):

Naz Foundation Trust (India):

Youth Empowerment Foundation (Nigeria): 

Sonke Gender Justice (South Africa):

Inclusive sex education curriculums:

(in Catalan)

Suggested Readings about Sport in Development:

Carney, A., & Chawansky, M. 2014. Taking sex off the sidelines: Challenging heteronormativity within 'Sport in Development' research. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. Published online 11 February, 2014

Banda, D. 2011. International development through sports: Zambia. In B. Houlihan and M. Green (eds.). International Handbook for Sport Development. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 323–336.

Eng, H. 2006. Queer athletes and queering in sports. In J. Caudwell (ed.), Sport, Sexualities and Queer/Theory. New York: Routledge, pp. 49–61.

Hayhurst, LMC. 2011. Corporatising sport, gender and development: Postcolonial IR feminisms, transnational private governance and global corporate social engagement. Third World Quarterly 32(3): 531–549.

Saavedra, M. 2012. Dilemmas and Opportunities in Gender and Sport-in-Development. In R. Levermore and A. Beacom (eds), Sport and International Development. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.124-155.

Shehu, J. 2010. Gender, Sports and Development in Africa. Cross- Cultural Perspectives on Patterns of Representations and Marginalization. Dakar: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

Articles and blog posts


INTERVIEW: At UN, tennis legend says human rights and sports ‘a perfect fit’ UN News Centre, April 2015

[1]Levermore, R., and Beacom, A., 2012. ‘Sport and Development: Mapping the Field’ in R. Levermore and A. Beacom (eds), Sport and International Development. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 5-25.