Op-Ed: Federations must change to take advantage of the post-Covid world

01 Apr 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

As grassroots sport returns, Phil Andrews - the British CEO of USA Weightlifting - lays out some of the changes federations must make to ensure their sports thrive in a post-Covid world.

For the modern governing body, the guiding star directing us towards success has to be the number of people taking up our sport. And, ideally new types of people taking up our sport. 

In a strange kind of way, despite the challenges it has presented to everyone, the pandemic has provided the platform for sports all over the world to embrace new practitioners. Physical exercise became one of the few freedoms left as the virus spread globally. Not only has it been an outlet to keep people mentally and physically fit, it has provided a platform for people to try new pursuits, new sports and new hobbies that they wouldn’t have tried before. 

The cooped-up, virtual life we have become accustomed to this past year has, ironically, provided the momentum society needed to become fitter and healthier.

For federations, the successful stewardship and oversight of a sport is one thing; indeed, it is the minimum requirement. But to see people from different walks of life taking up a new sport - such has been the case with weightlifting over the last year - is a symbol of enormous success for a governing body. 

As we emerge from the gravest global pandemic we have known in our lifetimes, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that opening up our sports for all is our real ‘why’. 

To those that govern sports, the pandemic has forced us to adopt a leaner, meaner, bolder and braver - an altogether more creative - approach to keeping participation levels up, despite the challenges of lockdown. The same is true for everyone who takes part, both at the elite levels right down to those just looking to stay active.

In our case, weightlifters across the world, and across my federation’s jurisdiction of the United States, have been training outdoors, in basements and garages, and in rented storage boxes – but all with the benefit of virtual training and ‘live' competition available across digital platforms. Weightlifting during the pandemic showed our community’s determination to keep the sport alive; it showed that the sport truly stands for something. 

As we emerge from COVID-19, the notion of a slow-wheels-turning NGB is soon going to be an outdated one. Federations - as with all types of organisations - are going to have to be more nimble, proactive and forward-thinking. In an increasingly competitive sporting landscape, they are going to have to take risks, learn to pivot, and adopt measures that offer the greatest opportunities of welcoming a broader church of people into the sport.

That’s why this is such a crucial time to ensure that we exude messages of positivity, openness, equality, and inclusivity so that weightlifting is seen as a sport for all. More importantly, that has to be backed up with genuinely impactful action.

For our part, we have had to be innovative and agile with our inclusivity programmes, delivering a new inner-city programme which seeds funding from donors into deprived communities for weightlifting. We have developed coaching and referee funds to help bring more individuals from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds into our sport. 

We’ve modified hiring practices to ensure they are more inclusive; brought together a forum for all Team USA athletes, coaches and administrators; and we’ve seen a significant surge in female participation in our sport, with our federation now reaching 50% female membership, we’ve also partnered up with universities to provide those from minority backgrounds a pathway into sports management and administration.

The benefits of adopting a welcoming and inclusive programme are there for all to see. 

In a post-pandemic world, with an increasingly competitive and cluttered sporting landscape in 2021, complacency will not cut it. With the new legions of athletes from all walks of life taking up new sports for the first time, governing bodies need to be able to bring them into the fold and have an impact on their communities if they are to thrive. Indeed, maybe even just to survive.