TED conference excludes sport. Why?

The latest TED Global conference has been taking place in Edinburgh this week. As usual, the talks offer fascinating and insightful opinions on some of the big issues facing our world but sport hardly ever features. I think this is a shame.

TED is dedicated to “ideas worth spreading”. The original concept for the conference series involved bringing together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. In recent years the format of short, inspiring presentations has proved ideally suited to YouTube and many of the talks are viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

On the face of it, sport would seem an ideal subject to address: sport is an extraordinary cultural phenomenon which permeates almost every society and has a major role to play in health, community life, the entertainment industry, the news industry, international relations, medical research and more.

In elite sport we watch men and women pushing back the boundaries of human performance; we see global competition in accordance with standardised, objective rules which push standards ever higher.

So why doesn’t sport feature more than very occasionally at TED?

I believe the answer is that sport still lacks intellectual credibility because of attitudes among a particular type of opinion leader. Arts, culture more generally, social sciences, these are acceptable subjects for intellectual debate whereas sport is not.

It’s tempting to generalise that the type of person who writes the agenda or speaks at a conference like TED is the type of person who was engrossed in a book or a computer while their class-mates at school were enjoying sport but that can’t be true in every case.

The sports world has taken a lead in many important battles: challenging prejudices regarding race, gender, disability; bringing people together in the same arena when politics cannot; inspiring disadvantaged young people.

Sport and the issues that surround it have become a field of serious academic study but if sport is to fulfil more of its potential it has to take on the battle for intellectual credibility.

It is perhaps unfair to single out TED for excluding sport as a topic because the absence of sport from intellectual debate is a wider issue.

For those of us who believe in the value of sport, the challenge is to take it out of its allotted place at the back of the newspaper, at the end of the news broadcast, on the dedicated sports shows and at sport specialist conferences. Sport needs to feature more in the comment and lifestyle sections of serious media, in the scientific and economic journals, in political debate.

We will know we have been successful when the first TED Sport conference takes place.

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