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One of the most brilliant things about sport is its meritocracy. Simply put, on the vast majority of occasions, the best player or team wins. Granted, there are numerous advantages available for the more financially privileged, but despite this, anyone from anywhere can excel. Unfortunately, life is not always as meritocratic. Circumstances affect a person’s life before they are even born and, with societal inequality at record levels, it becomes harder and harder to escape an underprivileged life. Sport can help in a number of ways.

Sports Programs

Charity initiatives and sports programs can help galvanise young people from underprivileged backgrounds. It is widely understood that these initiatives are helpful; a study by UNICEF shows just how important it is for people from poorer backgrounds to be involved with team participation. UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Petri Gornitzka said, “It’s long been understood that sport promotes children’s health and physical development, but now we have solid evidence to suggest that sport can have a powerful impact on their overall education and life skills development.”

In the United Kingdom, where an astounding 31% of children live in poverty, there are many programs aiming to teach sport to the underprivileged. One such charity is Street Games, which runs 800 weekly projects across the UK mainland. Street Games boast a success rate of 69%; that is, almost 7/10 children that come through their program continue to play regular sport. Former World Champion boxer Amir Khan is an ambassador for the “Doorstep Sport” program run by Street Games, and told The Guardian “it’s all about keeping the kids off the streets and giving them a bit of discipline. If I hadn’t gone towards boxing, I might have been one of those kids getting into trouble. A lot of my friends did.”

Poverty to Professional

Boxing has long been seen as a pathway for working-class and underprivileged people to get out of trouble, be it from poverty, gangs, or the law. A shining example of this is Anthony Joshua. Joshua is the current holder of the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO titles. Having moved to a Watford estate as a young child, he found himself getting into, as he describes it, “fighting and other crazy stuff.” At age 18, he was facing 15 years in prison. After being released on bail, with an electronic tag, he began to box and lift weights. AJ credits this spell as disciplining him and changing his mindset, “I was in a strict routine at a time when I was only 17/18…and I think that’s what helped me with my boxing. When I came off of tag, I was already in a position where I was ready to take off with boxing.” From Watford to world champion.

You only have to take a glance at tennis betting markets to see the brilliance of Novak Djokovic. The world number one and 20-time grand slam winner grew up during conflict in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In an interview that took place in Belgrade, where he spent his childhood, he said, “When you see poverty, and you yourself are part of it, that sort of experience simply makes you want to look at everything in life from different angles.” Djokovic said that he used thoughts and feelings around growing up underprivileged to spur him on at the start of his career. “I used that anger in a way that fuels me to be successful in tennis.” 

Rage at the helplessness of the situation is understandably common for those in poverty, but Djokovic says that “it is not good for anybody to be stuck in emotions of hatred, anger and rage.” Along with his wife Jelena, Djokovic runs a foundation that aims to give back to underprivileged communities, including supplying a million euros worth of ventilators to Serbia during the COVID-19 crisis.

Marcus Rashford

Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford is perhaps the ultimate example of both using sport to escape a life of under-privilege and using his new-found privilege to help those in need. Growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester, Rashford was often hungry at mealtimes. He said, “Maybe it was just part of me growing up. I just knew how hard my mum was working. I would never moan.” Rashford was allowed into the Manchester United youth programme a year early, thanks to his mother’s request. “She worked that hard to push it forward because she knew that was a step I needed to take. I needed to be eating the right food as I was growing.” Thanks to the food and education provided by the programme, his natural talent was nurtured, and he became a regular first-team member in 2016.

Since making his way into the United and England sides, Rashford has dedicated his personal life to giving back. “Now I’m in this position that I’m in, it’s very important for me to help the people who are struggling,” he told the BBC. Rashford has been involved in historically successful campaigns to help feed children living in poverty. He worked with FareShare to provide over 21 million meals, as well as forcing two U-turns from the government with regards to free school meals. This is a direct and emphatic example of sport helping an underprivileged person, who, as a sportsman, has then gone on to directly help millions of underprivileged people.