NGO: Grassroots sport ‘primary’ in active citizenship


Grassroots sports movements can play a key role in engaging citizens in societal challenges by promoting the instrumental value of sport as a means of delivering better health, social integration and environmental protection, argues a sports NGO in an interview with

Mogens Kirkeby is president of the International Sport and Culture Association (

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

How can sport organisations address major societal challenges through sport? 

Most of the societal challenges end up at citizen level and the Sport For All (SFA) organisations can help engage citizens in these issues. If you take the health question, intercultural dialogue or social integration, for example, national programmes and resources are good support, but the real action and change takes place by meeting individual citizens in different settings. 

SFA’s grassroots sector is a civil society sector with different settings and places to meet citizens. Overall political challenges and solutions can therefore reach civil society and citizens through theses organisations. 

ISCA’s role in this is to help national organisations to be ready to and help transform international knowledge into national-level action. 

In practice, how can sport empower citizens, for example regarding climate change? 

A civil society organisation like ISCA can keep its members alert to societal challenges and help them clarify their positions and react to them. If you are a civil society organisation, like SFA organisations are, any societal challenge will become part of your agenda. So you have to clarify your role with regard to the challenge, consider how much it will affect you and how you should react to it.

Climate change may not be the biggest issue for SFA organisations in the near future, but as soon as it is a societal challenge, there will be demand from both governmental and customer/citizen level for SFA organisations to promote more environmentally-friendly actions. You can’t hide from societal challenges if you are part of civil society. You might not be the one solving all the challenges but you need to choose which ones you want to go into and define your role. 

It is also about communicating your stance to your future partners to give a clear message on potential partnerships. 

The recent Sport For All congress gathered many different stakeholders – the corporate sector, public municipalities, interest groups, school systems, SFA organisations – together and seeing how they all come up with solutions on, for example health, from their starting point. It became very clear that there are overlaps in action and cooperation is needed to use each other’s strengths to reach common goals. 

What do you expect from the upcoming EU sport programme and its priorities? 

The EU White Paper on Sport gave hope for change and we hope it changes the direction for more balanced attention between grassroots sport and elite sport. 

Political and financial attention received by these two levels of sport has not been balanced so far and very often elite sport organisations have been representing and being the voice of grassroots sport. It should not be this way. At national level, there is big competition for political and financial attention between the two sectors. 

With the current economic stagnation, we know there will not be any increase in funding from ministries or gaming money for sport. And this means even tougher competition for the money. For this reason, we hope there will be more balanced attention between grassroots and elite sport. 

What do you mean by saying elite sports organisations are often the voice of grassroots sport? 

It is clear that some organisations like the Olympic committees tend to think that they represent everything. From our position they of course represent quite a big scope of sports sectors but as we see it, they mostly represent elite sport and this is also how they profile themselves. We accept that and think that they are a very valuable structure in general for sport but our organisations are 100% focused on grassroots sport and we have a chance to have a clear message for that sector. 

We are currently less represented but now we have a good chance with the White Paper and the Council of Europe initiative to change that. So, we are starting to be heard. In addition, the intention of the White Paper is to have a broader view on sport. 

My fear is that the commercial sports sector, with all its obvious challenges and problems, financially and with regard to doping, will be able to sit on the top of the agenda and give no attention to what we call human capital. It is about the attitude that grassroots sport is not secondary. On the contrary, it is primary when it comes to reaching citizens and passing societal challenge messages. We need to start recognising this value. 

EU-level interest for sport currently seems to be instrumental as we are always talking about sport and health, sport and social integration etc., but never really about sport as such. What do you think about this approach?

That is a very good question. It is rarely asked though. This is exactly what the practical execution of Sport For All is. I appreciate very much the focus on the instrumental values and ways of using sport, because this is in reality what takes place. Of course, sport and SFA itself has a place in clubs and at local level to some extent but in most cases it is also connected to something beyond the simple activity. 

Organising a civil society club or association for example is everything other than sporting activity. It is about giving playgrounds and about democracy on a practical basis. When you take the responsibility for contributing to the solution of individual or public health and integration, you do with the tools you have, the setting you have (a club) with the activity (football or whatever) you have. 

For example, what Germany’s 90,000 local sports clubs are doing has nothing to do with the activities of a few first division football clubs. In addition to sporting activities, they organise meetings, mobilise volunteers, contribute to local facility development and create jobs. They also promote active citizenship as they create direct involvement to local communities and civil society organisations like sport organisations.

It would also be very natural for sport organisations to cooperate with civil society organisations on other sectors. For example, it will be very easy for sports clubs focusing on activities for senior citizens to cooperate with associations of senior citizens. It can also be very useful to work together with health networks if you work on health issues.

This is because civil society organisations have a common starting point and they speak the same language. 

As for the private sector and businesses, insurance organisations are already increasingly involved in working with sport organisations on health issues. As for the sporting goods industry, we observe a change from the promotion of idols to promotion of local civil society heroes, associations and volunteers. 

If you could introduce change something overnight in European sport, what would it be? 

I would introduce more cooperation between the actors in the field of Sport For All – namely the European confederation ‘Sport-Santé’, the European Confederation of Health and Sport (CESS), the European Federation of Company Sport (EFCS), the Confederation Sportive International du Travail (CSIT), Trim and Fitness International Sport for All Association (TAFISA) and the European Non-governmental Sports Organisation (ENGSO). 

Perhaps the future EU sports programme could financially help support such cooperation. However, I feel that our chances are bigger if we establish among ourselves platforms for instrumental actions, like one on physical activity and health, or on intercultural dialogue and integration. 

It would also be nice to look into the future and future challenges in the sport sector and remind everybody about the history. Because the future for the civil society sport sector looks very different from the history. The sooner everybody looks into the future, the quicker we can release the human capital potential of the sector and see human values in action. The building of a pyramid starts from the top. 


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LIFE TACKLE is co-funded by the LIFE Environmental Governance and Information Programme of the European Union - Project Number LIFE17 GIE/IT/000611

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