Making swimming diverse

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Outdoor swimming ought to be so inclusive. Its benefits are for everyone and anyone regardless of sex, race and ability. So, why is the face of outdoor swimming so white, and how can we change that?

For as long as I have been involved in outdoor swimming, I have noticed that there is a 'type'. And that made me wonder: as a welcoming, friendly, sociable activity that pretty much anybody can do, why are the faces I'm seeing so alike? It also made me wonder if my perception of outdoor swimming as a welcoming, friendly, sociable activity that pretty much anybody can do would be different if my face didn't fit the type.

So, I started to think about how I could change this. First of all, I looked at fattism. This was easy; I'm no skinny bean so I could speak from experience, and outdoor swimming seemed to attract people who didn't fit the impossible standards set by the beauty industry, so it was easy to encourage people of all shapes and sizes to join in. Next, I looked at disability, writing an article about accessible swimming and engaging with people who considered themselves disabled (there's still much more to do here).

But I didn't tackle race. Why not? Because, like a lot of people, I didn't know how and I was too timid. I didn't want to be accused of 'whitesplaining' racism, and it was an issue beyond my experience. But, while I feel that those reasons were valid, I have now realised that my inaction was not. The Black Lives Matter campaign has helped give me the courage to change that.

Like attracts like

It is well-known that people take part in activities in which they can see themselves. Think about a sport that you've not tried because its image isn't you. I've never tried CrossFit, for example, because I see younger, skinnier women and muscle-bound men and it doesn't appear to be my kind of sport, or, more accurately, I feel that I would stick out like a slightly overweight, middle-aged thumb.

Swimming and outdoor swimming (and outdoor pursuits in general) have an image problem. Websites, organisations, shops, and social media present predominately white faces. And that means that they attract more white people, encouraging them to dip into these activities. Does this lack of representation mean people of colour don't swim, cycle, mountaineer, rock climb, etc? No, of course, it doesn't. But it does mean they are not encouraged, or that they are actively discouraged, to try them out.

This underrepresentation continues right up to the highest level of the sport: Only 668 out of more than 73,000 competitive swimmers who are registered with Swim England are black or mixed-race, and only two have represented Team GB.