Opening speech, Conference on Equality and Diversity in Sports 1.7.2016

Madam vice-president,
Dear conference guests and EuroGames participants,

Welcome to Finland and welcome to Helsinki! It is my great pleasure to open this Conference on Equality and Diversity in Sports.

“All the reasons not to do sports are just excuses”, said a former president of Finland, an eager sportsman.  It is true, of course, that exercise is good for you, and sports activities are a very important part of most people’s lives in Finland. 75 per cent of adults and more than 90 per cent of children exercise at least once a week. Our government wants to provide more opportunities for physical exercise for children in a program that we call “Schools on the Move”. The idea is that every child gets at least one hour of physical exercise every day as a part of their school day. This is a key project of the government that I am very proud of.

Sports can have an important educational role. We can learn many useful values and practices in sports activities.  The importance of making your best effort, playing as a part of a team, setting a goal and working hard to reach it – you can learn all this from sports. Peace, friendship, solidarity and fair play are some of the fundamental principles of the Olympic movement, I would like to add, as this is an Olympic year.  At its best, sports creates a stronger sense of inclusion, prevents segregation and risk behaviour, and helps promote equality in society.

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“All the reasons not to do sports are just excuses.” Unfortunately, this is not always true for everybody. Studies show that discrimination still exists in the sports world. In a study made by the Finnish Ministry of Justice on hate speech and racism one person summed up the feeling that too many people have: “I often find myself thinking what should I be like or where shouldn’t I go.” In sports, athletes belonging to minorities, especially sexual or gender minorities, may encounter different types of discriminating behaviour, such as name-calling, inappropriate remarks, nasty joking, questioning their private lives, avoidance, exclusion and scornful looks.

If you feel that you have to pretend to be someone who you are not, to lie to your own team-mates, to live in fear for your professional career, it may be easier to just exit. These would be, actually, valid reasons not to do sports, not just excuses.

This is something we cannot accept. Trust and mutual respect among citizens – together with democracy, rule of law and human rights secured by the public authorities – are what weld the society together and are the bedrock for everybody’s wellbeing. I take it very seriously that hate speech has been on the rise in our European societies. Especially sexual and gender minorities are often targeted by hate speech.

Offensive name-calling is not about freedom of speech. Discrimination is not a matter of opinion. Prejudice is not a question of personal convictions. Misogyny is not funny. We must stand against attempts to disguise fear and hatred of the other, or the different, as a question that is open to debate. As a society, as citizens, as academics and teachers, as politicians or parties, or as members of the media we must oppose attempts to dominate public debate and public attitudes by expressions of intolerance.

At the Ministry of Education and Culture we started an action plan to combat the spread of racism and hate speech in the society. We are wielding educational and cultural policy, youth work and sports policy as tools to promote inclusion in the society. In sports policy, there is a special focus on principles of equality, non-discrimination, social inclusion, multiculturalism, healthy lifestyles, respect for the environment and sustainable development. Starting this year, in order to receive state funding, a sports federation must come up with a plan to promote equality and non-discrimination in their field. We are going to show racism and discrimination the red card.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

By organising this event, EuroGames, the international LGBTIQ community of athletes has done what the community has been successfully doing for decades: getting organised, working together, refusing to hide – standing up to discrimination and making themselves seen and heard. This event will serve to reinforce an equal, non-discriminating culture in sports both nationally and internationally – a  culture where anyone may participate in any sport just the way they are.

It is clear that sports, as a physical, bodily activity has a complicated relation with questions of sexual and gender identity. However, it is clear to me that even though sex, gender and sexual orientation are fundamental elements of our personal identity – who we feel we are –, they must never limit what we may become. We all have a sexual orientation and gender identity. There is no reason to think that one is better than other. This is, in my view, a crucial element of modern human rights thinking.

In the field of sports policy, there is generally no shortage of guidebooks, instructions and declarations on combatting discrimination. Even so, the reach the aim of inclusion, it is absolutely necessary to hear the most important voices: those that come from the minorities themselves. We need to work together to build models that allow everyone to feel welcome and safe in sports. This is especially important among children and young people. Inclusion must be built-in. It must be a natural, integrated part of sports activities on all levels.

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An important aspect that must not be forgotten is the physical accessibility of sports. Physically disabled people must also have equal access to sports. The Ministry of Education and Culture pays special attention to the accessibility of sports and sports venues. Also, I’d like to mention that we will celebrate the European championships of people with organ transplants in the Helsinki region this summer. Other great sports events are, of course, the ongoing European Championships in Football as well as the Rio Olympic and Paralympic games. I wish that the positive, inclusive and joyful spirit of the Eurogames 2016 is present in those events as well!

With these words, I wish you all a very successful conference today, great sports moments in the Eurogames 2016, and a very happy Pride weekend in Helsinki! Thank you.