Cambridge Sport: A Mountain to Climb for BME Talent | Kaylyn Chan

[Image Credit: Clint Lalonde]

I’m a Chinese woman, born and raised in Liverpool. Sport is a big thing over on the Mersey – the entire city revolves around football – and as a kid I was no exception. My brother and I were so eager for the all too often kick-about on the street, dreaming we’d be just like the footballers on TV. But the other kids weren’t ready for us. My brother was lucky. The white kids thought it was a bit funny that the little cute Chinese boy was actually fantastic at football (because they’d never seen a Chinese person play football ever before apparently). In the end, he was a lad. Boys are meant to play football. For me, it wasn’t so easy.

I received surprised looks and scowls from the boys in the playground when ‘the little Chinese girl’ approached.  I was told to play house with the other girls, and told to play the nanny.  At footy camp, I’d always be put in goal because they thought I’d be too much of a liability if I were to play out-field.  The boys would laugh and joke about how many goals they’d score when I played keeper, only to walk away with their heads bowed in shame because their shot got saved by ‘the Chinese girl’. It took some time for them to figure out that being a girl didn’t mean I couldn’t play football as well as the boys my age, and having a Chinese background didn’t mean I stayed at home studying all day.

I feel like I stick out, like I have to perform even better and fight for my right to be on the pitch like no one else has to.

So before going to university, I was excited. There were a plethora of sports teams open to anyone, in an environment where there were young people from all over the world. I could do anything, I thought. Imagine the scene. Me — 5’2” with my then unadulterated Scouse accent — walking into my college’s Freshers’ Fair. I spot the rowing society in the corner with the ergs, surrounded by a group of tall, posh white guys wearing their smart stash. The guy at the desk takes one look at me and goes “You’ll make a good cox.” In that moment, I felt like my 6-year-old self again.  I was yet again being told by someone who didn’t know me what I could and could not do.

I’ve tried other sports. With college football, it was easy. Nothing was ever really going to keep me from playing women’s football and to be honest, the lack of racial diversity within the team wasn’t surprising to me. It was no more unbalanced than my experience back home: there are a couple of other BME women on the team, that’s ‘normal’ right? But during matches, taking a look at the other college football teams I realised that most of those teams consisted of all white players, with perhaps the exception of one East Asian player.  Sometimes, I’ve been the only East Asian player on the field out of 22 people.  I’m used to this, but I feel like I stick out, like I have to perform even better and fight for my right to be on the pitch like no one else has to. I know this is irrational, but because I look different from the others, feeling like I always have something to prove when I am on the pitch has been imprinted on me since childhood.

In second year, I tried to get into combat sports. But, again at the Freshers’ Fair, when I went up to the boxing desk, I felt uncomfortable. Firstly, they were all typical hunky male boxers. Secondly, they were all white. The idea of having to walk up to an all-male all-white desk again to ask whether I could join their club and having to face more judgement put me off.  In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been so easily deterred, but the alternative was better. A few desks down I spotted the Kickboxing stall, staffed by a diverse group of people of different ethnicities, genders, and sizes.  The President was a BME like me and became my inspiration. I signed up immediately, trained with a diverse set of people every week, won my first fight for the University, formed a close bond with my teammates, and joined the committee.  Now the Kickboxing committee consists of myself, along with a female President and a mixed-race Social Secretary.

Credit: Dylan Lim

Perhaps there’s a reason kickboxing is the most popular combat sport for absolute beginners at Cambridge. We pride ourselves in our inclusivity regardless of gender, race, sexual-orientation, background, size and previous experience.I’ve realised how important this diversity was for the growth of the club in the past year or so. This type of growth is not only necessary for smaller clubs like kickboxing, but is also needed for a revitalisation of more popular Cambridge sports teams. There are undoubtedly certain sports which are at the forefront of Cambridge tradition, like rowing and rugby. I could be persuaded that the high-level teams in these sports are predominantly occupied by white athletes due to the reality that one needs to be from quite a wealthy background to access these sports before university, and in this country that largely means being white. However, I refuse to believe that these teams remain predominantly white at university because BME students lack the zest to try out new sports and don’t have the same athletic potential as their white peers.

Having done a little research, I found that a lot of cultural societies form their own sports teams and compete against the corresponding societies at other universities.  I respect this massively and think that if you enjoy doing that, then great. But imagine how much more diverse and thus stronger the Cambridge teams would be if those who played for their cultural society were also attracted to try out for a University team. I think back to the times I was dissuaded from trying a Cambridge sport due to the lack of both gender and ethnic representation within their leadership or existing members.  I’m not a wimp, I have guts. When I put my mind to something, I’ll do it.  So I wonder how many other BME athletes have experienced the same.

I am so proud to be representing BME women in sport at both a College and University level.  There needs to be more representation of BME talent in Cambridge sport and I believe that BME athletes need to be the drivers of this change.  So the next time you feel like giving a sport a go, go for it. No matter how ‘whitewashed’ the committee looks, or if there are only men sat at the freshers stall. No matter how much of a ‘middle-class white sport’ it seems, sign up, try-out and train hard.  Yes at first you might have to work harder to prove yourself against the others, but don’t let that stop you. Once you’re there, you never know, you may inspire more BME students to join your sport.  Then perhaps, one day, the face of Cambridge sport will be fully representative of the diversity within our student population.






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