Broadly, social inclusion can be defined as not excluding groups, such as people with physical disabilities, from social activities. In terms of sport, this can range from active discrimination against a given group or to the lesser evil of failing to address a given group's needs.
The European Commission believes that sport has "a major potential as a tool for promoting social inclusion and social cohesion in European societies" as it provides citizens with opportunities to interact and join social networks, helps immigrants to develop relations with other members of the society and constitutes a tool for reaching out to the underprivileged or groups at risk of or facing discrimination.
The EU executive also notes that through its contribution to economic growth and job creation, sport can also help "to revitalise disadvantaged areas".
A recent Eurobarometer survey on sport concludes that "sport is considered by a majority of respondents as a potential tool to fight against all types of discrimination but also as a medium of integration for immigrant communities".
In September 2005, EU member states declared that they were in favour of promoting equal opportunities and diversity in and through sport by:
presenting and disseminating examples of good practice in sports participation at forthcoming conferences to be held within the European sports movement;
considering how the Commission could facilitate the exchange and dissemination of information on the nature and effectiveness of policies among member states in relation to equality of access to sporting services;
considering ways to encourage vocational education and training providers in the field of sport and in those fields such as community, youth and social work, in which sport may be used as a policy tool, to ensure that education and training curricula deal with content relating to sport and inter-cultural dialogue.
Equality of access to sporting services is understood to refer to both public and private services used by groups such as the disabled, ethnic minorities and women.
The role of volunteering is emphasised in this context as most sport in the EU member states is run by volunteers. If volunteering declined, social inclusion would suffer with far fewer people able to participate in sport.
The EU White Paper on Sport, adopted in July 2007, proposes a number of actions to be implemented and supported by the Commission regarding the societal role of sport. These include, for example, volunteer activities, social inclusion, and fighting racism.
The new Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in December 2009, gave the EU a competence to carry out actions to support and promote European sporting issues and to coordinate or supplement the actions of the member states on the field "while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function".
Sport is a social activity of crucial importance. It evokes competition and often also emotion and passion, but it should be disconnected from all violence, because one of its greatest benefits is to bring people together, not divide them," said Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, deputy secretary-general of the Council of Europe.
Three core points to emerge from a Commission consultation with the sports movement were:
sport participation in Europe should be mapped with a focus on disadvantaged groups;
hidden barriers to access to sport for groups that are sometimes excluded (e.g. immigrants, ethnic minorities, disabled people, elderly people and women) should be fought at European level;
sports leaders (e.g. social workers working with disadvantaged people) should be given support in terms of training.
Volunteering helps to counteract the trend towards growing individualism and consumerism and helps to build up social cohesion and social networks, argues the European Youth Forum in its vision for volunteering in a policy paper in November 2004. It says that volunteering should be open to all regardless of their academic or socio-economic background and can play an important role in the process of social inclusion.
The United Nations designated 2004 as the Year of Physical Education through Sport, pointing out that 'access to and participation in sport and physical education provide an opportunity to enjoy social and moral inclusion for populations otherwise marginalised by social, cultural or religious barriers due to gender, disability or other distinctions'.
The European Youth and Sport Forum 2005 'Building a culture of volunteering and citizenship through sport' recommended the EU to issue a directive making it law for sports facilities to be accessible for all participants and urged the need for more networking between European NGOs and the EU institutions.
Sports researcher Karen Petry, from Köln university recommends that member states make a commitment to eliminate discrimination and inequality on the grounds of social class, gender, race or disability.
"Through sport, people from different backgrounds easily get in contact with each other without necessarily speaking the same language. So sports clubs offer a good opportunity to integrate people with fewer opportunities such as migrants or people with disabilities in society. But sport and its structures need the recognition by as well as support from political institutions," said Jan Holze from the European Non-Governmental Sports Organisation Youth (ENGSO).