Is running too white?

It's often said that running is one of the most accessible sports and, to an extent, this is true: a pair of trainers and the inclination are all you need. Government body Sport England says it’s the country’s most popular participation sport, with 15% of us lacing up our trainers at least twice a month. Digging into this a little, the male-female balance is one area where great strides have been made, with England Athletics reporting in March that 49% of those who run a minimum of twice a month are women, and that the 81,017 women registered with the body represents a huge 92% increase since 2009.

It’s when you start to break down the running population along socioeconomic and ethnic lines (the two groups often being closely linked by government and sports governing-body research) that the problems start to arise, and it begins to look as if there are areas where running is not capitalising on its accessibility – and failing chunks of modern British society in the process.

So what is being done about this? Are the measures that seek to change the image of running as a predominantly white, middle-class sport going far enough? And what are the challenges facing those seeking to drive change?

Economic reality 

Sport England’s most recent Active Lives Survey, released in March, found significant disparities between socioeconomic groups in terms of activity. The long-term unemployed and those who have never worked emerged as the least likely to be active (49%), compared with 71% of those in managerial or professional occupations. These figures are mirrored in Scotland, with 74% of adults in the most prosperous areas meeting the guidelines for moderate or vigorous physical activity in 2016, compared with 54% in the most deprived areas. Likewise in Wales, those with jobs were more likely to have participated in a sporting activity in the previous four weeks (72%), than those who were unemployed (52%) or economically inactive (43%).

This divide appears to be growing. Sport England’s Active People survey found that participation in regular sport (at least once a week) rose from 38% to 40% among the top four economic tiers in the decade to 2015/16. In the four lowest socioeconomic groups, it fell from 27% to 26%.

Niche appeal

The explosion in running’s popularity in recent years has done little to increase recreational runners from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities: 10.5% two years ago; 11% this year, according to the most recent England Athletics statistics.

Presentation may lie at the heart of this, according to DJ-turned-running evangelist Charlie Dark. He set up the London-based, multi-ethnic Run Dem Crew 11 years ago. Today, the crew’s Tuesday evening run-outs attract up to 150 participants of all ‘shades, shapes, sizes and speeds’. Dark feels the media’s portrayal of running and runners is sharply at odds with this.

Run Dem Crew

‘Running is quite democratic but there are barriers,’ says Dark. ‘The way the media and advertisers talk about running isn’t very welcoming. It’s all speed, time and distance rather than just running for running’s sake. And when people talk about running, there’s a certain type of person they think of. People from different ethnic communities don’t see themselves on the magazine covers, in the stories, in the adverts for running products. Who are their heroes? Where is their inspiration?’

It’s tempting to look at those populating the highest tiers of most disciplines of distance running – the Mo Farahs, the Eliud Kipchoges, the Vivian Cheruiyots – and assume that ethnic minorities are blessed with inspirational figures they can relate to. Wrong. For one, the relatability for a person contemplating a run for the first time to someone achieving a double-double of Olympic titles is very limited.

And, in ethnic terms, the leading runners come from a fairly small pool: few podium spots in distance running are filled by those from, say, the Indian sub-continent, or China, or the Middle East – and even if they were, who’s to say a second-generation Brit of, for example, Chinese origin would feel anything more than a faint affinity with an athlete from that country? But it’s not all bad news. Comparing the proportion of runners within each community, rather than just the proportion of the nation as a whole, throws up surprising and positive results. In Sport England figures for the year to November 2017, the percentage of runners in the black (16.3%), Chinese (20.5%) and mixed ethnicity (20.5%) groups were all above the national average, and above the White British group (15.1%). Something to build on.

Minority report

The Sikh community, however, is one of the forgotten groups. It placed bottom in the religion category of the Active Lives survey for the proportion running at least twice in the previous month: 9.9%, half that of the ‘no religion’ demographic. Harmander Singh is one of those striving to help Sikhs get a foothold in the sport. With a 10,000m PB of 30:14, Harmander was on the cusp of selection for the Moscow Olympics back in 1980. He turned his attention to recreational running soon after – he is the only person to have run every one of the first 34 Great North Runs and London Marathons.

Singh has now coached an estimated 300 people, the vast majority from ethnic minorities. He sees a very different picture between grassroots and boardroom levels in terms of ethnic inclusivity. ‘When you’re starting out in running, it’s the most non-racially discriminating sport you could imagine,’ he says. ‘But as soon as you go into any sort of supervisory role, it’s like the mentality of the old working men’s club kicks in. You’re not made to feel welcome and people make presumptions about where you’re from.’

It’s telling that while the new Sport Governance Code requires leading sports bodies to hit to boardroom gender targets, it makes no similar requirement for ethnicity. Sports are free to set their own targets, while adhering to the non-discrimination points enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. A 2016 study by UK charity Sporting Equals found that across 68 sports boards, including national governing bodies, there was just one BAME chairman, one CEO and 26 board members (four per cent of the total). Only three per cent of coaches were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Sikhs in the City

The remarkable Fauja Singh (centre), with members of Sikhs in the City.

Among Singh’s students has been 107-year-old Fauja Singh, the first centenarian to complete a marathon. Fauja is an icon among the Sikh community, his age-defying exploits helping to inspire many of his faith to pull on trainers and the London running club he helped establish – Sikhs in the City – giving them a support structure.

Singh says: ‘We’re seeing more Asian runners and much of that is down to Fauja Singh. We run in our Sikhs in the City T-shirts in some of the most racist parts of Britain and people say, “Go on you Sikhs” and cheer us on.’ But it has not always been easy. ‘In the past we’ve had loads of grief: getting called terrorists and everything.’

What’s helping to change people’s perceptions, Singh believes, is seeing more ethnic minorities out running. ‘When there are more of you, then people accept you,’ he says simply.

Setting examples 

One group doing valuable work in overcoming obstacles to BAME communities hitting the pavements is Sporting Equals, which is affiliated to Sport England and advises the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The correlation between deprivation and ethnicity is central to this issue. On its website, the charity quotes the 2014 Turning the Tide of Inactivity report by UK Active. This found that the local authorities with the greatest levels of inactivity – Manchester (40%), Bradford (38%), Coventry (37%) and Luton (36%) – all have significantly higher proportions of ethnic minorities.

‘The majority of the BAME communities have socioeconomic issues,’ says Sporting Equals chief executive Arun Kang. ‘This makes them suited to running. It’s cheap and easy to do, you don’t need a particular talent, you can go at your own pace. People need a pathway into sport and running is often the easiest pathway to take.

‘But we need to understand the complexities and challenges some communities face. For instance, BAME women who might not feel safe, or not feel it’s culturally acceptable, to run the streets of a city in England. Or they may require female-only sessions in the gym or to train or run somewhere they’re not seen.’

A good, but outlying, example of what can be achieved is Rahaf Khatib, an American Muslim of Syrian origin who has become a breakthrough amateur running star in the US – featuring in campaigns for Nike and Reebok in which her hijab, her gender and her faith are front and centre. Through publicising her exploits, which include running several of the World Marathon Majors, Khatib acknowledges she is a pioneer and a flag-bearer for the hundreds of thousands of Asian and Middle Eastern women who are yet to – or just starting to – discover the sense of empowerment that running can give.

Rahaf Khatib

Action plan

Donna Fraser knows a thing or two about the power of individuals to inspire their ethnic peers. She had a cameo in one of the greatest races in Olympic history, coming fourth in the 400m in the Sydney 2000 Games as local hero Cathy Freeman bore the hopes of her country, and her aboriginal community, to win gold. Fraser, Freeman’s training partner in the lead-up to the Games, was the first to embrace the crumpled, emotionally drained Australian on the finish line.

Fraser is now UK Athletics’ Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (she’s the first to hold the position). The national body has pledged to put these three things at the heart of everything it does and has developed its own diversity plan for the period 2017-21. ‘This is a real focus rather than just an add-on topic to be talking about, as illustrated by my role being created,’ says Fraser. She views athletics as the most diverse sport globally, but is far from complacent. ‘This is a huge conversation and while progress has been made, a lot of work still needs to be done. Black communities have plenty of role models in running but Asians have to be the next focus.

‘Things are changing very slowly and, for me, it’s all about those role models at whatever level. It’s about understanding that you don’t have to be at an elite level to go running.

First things first 

Inspiration aside, it’s also a question of priorities. The White British community – perhaps aided by the sort of targeted marketing that Charlie Dark alludes to – has come to value health, fitness and, with it, running in recent years like never before. But that’s understandably lacking among more deprived BAME communities.

‘For some communities, sport is right down their list,’ says Kang. ‘You’ve got education,  you’ve got religion, you’ve got work and family. The running clubs could do a lot more in terms of empathising and understanding this. It’s not just about promoting runs, it’s about creating an environment where people feel welcome.’

This point resonates with Harmander Singh, who’s third-generation British. He says the Asian community coming into Britain for a better economic livelihood ‘have worked their butts off’ to get established and don’t value leisure as much as the white indigenous community. ‘Leisure is a luxury for those who can afford it,’ he says.

Running for government 

Fostering diversity in running is about more than just political correctness, of course. The links between inactivity and poor health are well documented. And since a major cause of inactivity is deprivation, which, in turn, is correlated to ethnicity, the potential societal gains from greater running diversity are huge.

Fraser thinks so. ‘This goes way beyond an ED&I [ethnicity, diversity and inclusion] issue. I believe the government is missing a trick by not linking sport more closely to the health service in this country. If I was in government, that’s what I would do. Connect and collaborate to reduce those illnesses through sport.’

There’s also a growing body of evidence suggesting that running offers emotional and mental health benefits – potentially helping people to break the cycle of social isolation, joblessness and depression. As Sadiq Khan, a Muslim of Pakistani heritage, said in an interview before he became London’s mayor: ‘There’s a calmness and focus running brings and it’s not just beneficial for physical health but mental health, too. Stick with it and it can change your life.’

There’s a self-interest argument here on the part of the running industry, too. People are the lifeblood of any sport. Week to week, running will never attract the crowds of, say, football, though the spectators at a race like the London Marathon or the Great North Run would fill Wembley many times over. So it’s about participants and, to use business terms, recruitment and retention. With Britain’s proportion of ethnic minorities at 13% and rising, running must fight for its share of these new constituents.

A race issue 

Race organisations, are beginning to cotton on to this. The London Marathon is campaigning to develop the diversity of mass-participation events and has begun to capture ethnicity data from applicants through its entry system.

Related: The Vitality Big Half is back in 2019 and here's how to enter 

In March, the organisation behind the totemic race, London Marathon Events, staged the inaugural Vitality Big Half, with an elite contingent headed by Sir Mo Farah and a campaign aimed at recruiting a field that reflected the cultural diversity of London. Outreach teams worked with community groups, sports clubs and faith institutions in the four host boroughs of Tower Hamlets – where 69% of residents are from ethnic minorities – Southwark, Lewisham and Greenwich, and discounted entry of £10 was offered to 7,500 runners.

The results were positive; the field was 18% BAME, a massive increase on the eight per cent figure London Marathon Events says it normally registers at its races, according to the event’s director, Hugh Brasher. ‘We are passionate about making sport something that should be accessible to all. This is just the start,’ he says.

The evidence strongly suggests that Brasher, Kang, Fraser and the like may be pushing against an open door. Perhaps the most encouraging statistics are the ones that relate to a developing non-active interest in running – what’s termed ‘latent demand’. England Athletics’ most recent monthly tracker found that in all three of the groups we’re focusing on (women, the lowest socioeconomic groups and BAME communities) the percentage of those wanting to get into running matched or far exceeded the proportion already doing so.

If ever there was an invitation to double-down on efforts to create the world’s first fully diverse sport – as inclusive as it is accessible – then this is surely it. Dan Isherwood, Head of Insight and Performance Management at England Athletics, is excited by the possibilities. ‘The sport has moved on considerably in the last 10 years and these figures suggest that there’s real potential here to grow this diversity,’ he says. ‘This is not going to slow down.