Paula Dunn interview: 'We need to tackle the white, suburban nature of our Paralympic athletics team'

A lack of diversity in boardrooms and positions of senior coaching remains a glaring, but increasingly well-documented issue facing elite British sport. Yet what really struck Paula Dunn when she became both the first female and black head coach for UK Athletics was the disparity in representation out on the track.

Dunn, who is a former Olympic sprinter and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, was part of diverse athletics teams throughout her career and, on the elite Olympic side of athletics, says “you are generally looking at 50 per cent of the team from a BAME background”. Move across to Paralympic sport, as she did as performance manager from 2009 and then head coach since 2012, and the demographic changes starkly.

“The thing I noticed straight away was that there was only one black person in the team of athletes,” she says. That has since increased fivefold but, when Dunn says that “it is something that we definitely need to address” and describes the wider programme as “very much white and suburban”, she is backed up by the statistics.

According to a report earlier this year by the Summus Sports Group, 93 per cent of the 260 British Paralympic team at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro was white. The largest number – five – was from within Dunn’s athletics squad, with eight out of the 19 British Paralympic teams having no BAME representation at all.

Dunn says that there are “multiple reasons” – from the financial impact of having a disabled child to issues of transport – but that it must now be for Paralympic sports to create pathways that access all parts of society.

“We don’t really tackle a lot of the disadvantaged, we don’t really get into those areas where there is going to be a high percentage of BAME young people, but we have got a couple of projects now,” she says.

One initiative is Street 2 Stadium, which has been targeting inner city areas of London, Birmingham and Manchester and arranging ‘trial days’ for potential athletes.

“A lot of the young people we are looking for go to mainstream schools – it is making sure they know what is available,” she says. “If schools are really aware of what is happening in their local area then they can point them in the right direction. Some people might not be aware that you can come to your local athletics club. If you never see anybody who looks like you – whether that’s on TV or in a club – you are less likely to do it. It is creating exposure. It has definitely changed. It is growing. Hopefully it will spiral.”

Kadeena Cox, a black Paralympic gold medallist in athletics, particularly highlights how sports like wheelchair basketball and rugby have accessed athletes by having taster sessions within rehabilitation centres.

“So it doesn’t matter about your socioeconomic background … it’s just you had a spinal cord injury and that’s the only determining factor,” she says.

Sport England board member Chris Grant, one of the most senior black administrators in British sport, also highlighted “gateways” and how clubs and facilities are disproportionately located in “leafy suburbs”.

According to UK Coaching, around 20 per cent of the United Kingdom’s three million sports coaches are from a BAME background. This is higher than the national population proportion, but the figures then drop when it comes to elite sport.

As well as Dunn leading the UK Athletics Paralympic programme, Christian Malcolm has just been appointed head coach of the Olympic team. Dunn says that there has been a big push inside UK Athletics “to speak to athletes, coaches and officials, to understand the culture” and ask honest questions.

“Is their racism? Is it overt? Is it covert? We are looking at ourselves and looking at practices,” she says.

Dunn discovered her passion for coaching after illness cost her a place at the Atlanta Olympics. Having also coached netball, she was persuaded to lead a girls group of athletes at the Trafford Athletics Club in Stretford.

It was all voluntary and a passion was ignited. She spent 12 years coaching them, during which she extended her help to other groups and working with UK Athletics, before joining the Paralympic programme in 2008. It has been a period of enormous medal success and, while fascinated by the data and sports science, her mantra is first and foremost to develop “the person first and the athlete second”.

Dunn says that her own experience is of being “treated fairly” and given promotion opportunities, but is well aware of British sport’s wider lack of diversity in senior coaching and administrative positions.

Mark Gannon, the chief executive of UK Coaching, said that there was an ongoing review into the barriers that exist. “Paula is a brilliant role model,” he said. Dunn says it is employment opportunities within governing bodies which “is probably the area that needs addressing” and that the vast majority of coaching roles are unpaid.

“It can be very unconscious – you drift towards people who maybe look like you, same background as you, same gender as you. It’s making everybody aware and not making assumptions. It’s been really good to put a spotlight on it.

“If there is a high proportion of BAME people in grassroots coaching, it is important to have really good talent identification of quality coaches. You need role models. I don’t want to be treated special. I just wanted to be treated equally. That’s genuinely what every black person wants.”

For more information on how UK Coaching can support your local coach and to access coaching tools and resources visit

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    Tuesday, October 27, 2020