On December 1st, 2023, the inaugural pioneering Wales Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards were held in Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, celebrating athletes, coaches, and community leaders for their significant contributions to promoting diversity and inclusion within the Welsh sports industry.
Twelve categories acknowledged outstanding achievement, with the winners selected from a pool of three finalists. The awards were founded by Rajma Begum, the National Sports Diversity Manager at Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), a board member of Sport Wales since 2019, and the Chair and trustee of Women Connect First.
The trophies which were awarded to the winners / Photo credit: Umer Siddidy
As Rajma says, “I’ve been involved in sport equality, particularly race equality in sport for about 20 years. I started as a sports development officer back in 2004 and I’ve worked my way through.
“My role has always been to try and make sport and physical activities accessible to the needs of different communities.
“But also, to make sports providers understand what some of the challenges and barriers are, and what they could be doing to make sport more inclusive, accessible, and welcoming for those communities.”
Wherever we go, we must take our authentic selves
Rajma’s commitment and passion for fighting for sports equality can be traced back to her personal experiences. Moving to Cardiff from Bangladesh at the age of 10, she was a very talented swimmer.
However, she soon found out first-hand about the barriers people from ethnic minority backgrounds faced when taking up sport.
She says, “I used to love swimming, I swam in my hometown and I wanted to swim in Cardiff, but my dad wouldn’t allow me to wear a swimsuit because of our cultural restrictions.
“We put in a request to wear a t-shirt and leggings made of swim material, but I wasn’t allowed. Not only that, I had to copy lines during every swim lesson because I wasn’t taking part, as almost a form of punishment.
“That’s been quite traumatic for me even to this day, that because of a lack of cultural competency from my teachers, I was punished for practicing my religion.”
Rajma posing with a bouquet she was given at the conclusion of the awards
“That’s probably what made me want to get into sport 20 years ago, because I didn’t want other people to have to face similar barriers.
“It’s really important that wherever we go we take our authentic selves, and we’re not forced to fit in or compromise on our religion or culture.”
Even for the few who overcame these challenges and broke these barriers, their achievements were never championed, as Wales lacked a nationwide diversity awards event that celebrated their achievements.
England launched the British Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards (BEDSA), now known as the Sporting Equals Awards in 2016. The Scottish Ethnic Minority Sports (SEMSA) Awards were established in 1990. So why were there no similar awards in Wales?
Axel Blake hosted the Sporting Equals Awards 2023
This is where Rajma’s vision was born. She says, “Over the last two decades, I have been seeing the amazing contributions people from ethnic minority backgrounds have been making in sports around their communities.
“But during that time, I have also been seeing the lack of representation and recognition these people have been receiving for their work. When I attend local and national awards, I do not see many people like me, they are very much exclusive awards.
“More recently one or two people [from ethnic minority backgrounds] may get nominated or even awarded. But it very much feels tokenistic, and I think the person receiving it feels that too because they sometimes get comments that only they got the award because of their colour.
“So, six years ago, I decided I wanted to organise an event focused on the contributions of ethnic minority communities in sport across Wales.”
Making the vision a reality
Seeing the WEDSA vision come to fruition was a six-year process, as event partners, sponsors, volunteers, and support from stakeholders and decision-makers within the Welsh sports ecosystem were needed.
The volunteers, who helped organise the event pose with Rajma and Ruth Marks, the CEO of Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA)
Rajma says, “My initial proposals were either unsuccessful or rejected.
“I was told that we had the national awards which we could try to diversify, but only one person would get that if they were lucky, and I knew of many people who deserved it.
“My other argument was that in England, they had the Sporting Equals Awards, and in Scotland, they had the SEMSA Awards. So, we needed one in Wales and for six years I was campaigning for one.
“Then around March  I had the go-ahead from Sport Wales and it was the most exciting day for me, I was just ecstatic.”
DaHuzyBru, via Wikimedia Commons / Sport Wales launched their strategic equality plan in 2020
“I could now have this day where I got to see a roomful of people who had been contributing in various disciplines and leadership roles in sport across Wales, and could demonstrate to the mainstream sport stakeholders that these people existed.”
The embodiment of Rajma’s vision
The primary aim of WEDSA was to recognise and celebrate the contributions people from ethnic minority backgrounds were making in sports across Wales, in an authentic and comfortable space.
The first of hopefully many more WEDSA’s to come
However, another key aim of the event was to profile all the finalists and winners as role models within their communities and enable them to inspire the next generation to take up sport, because as Rajma says, “role models are vital, you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Those who will go on to inspire the next generation
Mainstream sports providers were also in attendance, which offered the finalists and winners a unique networking opportunity, and made them visible to the stakeholders and decision-makers in the Welsh sports ecosystem.
A notable attendee was Dawn Bowden, Deputy Minister of the Welsh Government for Arts, Sport, and Tourism.
Dawn Bowden making her remarks at WEDSA
On the Awards, Deputy Minister Bowden said, “It is a key priority for Welsh Government to promote equal access to sports, and to support our talented athletes and grassroots clubs.
“The Wales Ethnic Diversity Sports Awards is a celebration of our ethnic minority athletes, coaches, volunteers, and leaders. All the nominees are making such a positive impact on sport in Wales and the winners in each category rightly deserve their moment in the spotlight.
“I hope these awards become an annual event in the sporting calendar, so we continue to recognise the people who motivate and inspire others in their community and across Wales to enjoy the benefits of sport and to express their talent.”
When will the next WEDSA be held?
The plans are for the next WEDSA to be held in 2025 and for the awards to run on a biannual basis.
Sport Wales, Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Women Connect First, and Cardiff Third Sector Council were the event partners of the awards
Rajma says, “We want to be able to do the awards every two years, we don’t want to do it yearly because we would very quickly saturate our audience. I think we also just need some time to reflect and see what learning we can take for the future.
“But now we’ve got the template, we’ve got our contacts, we’ve got an idea of how much it’s going to cost and we’ve got all our texts and write-ups for the nominations.
“We’ve set the scene and it shouldn’t be as hard going forward, meaning we can start planning the 2025 awards much earlier.”