Research by Tony Blomqvist demonstrates the role of sports clubs in Sweden as important arenas for refugee integration and wellbeing

Nordic Sports Associations and refugee integration


There are many factors involved in the reception of Ukrainian refugees, and the response from governments and civil society has been, mildly put, remarkable. The role of sports clubs in the reception of refugees is gaining increasing recognition.


Research by Tony Mickelsson Blomqvist, a PhD student at the School of Social Sciences at Södertörn University in Sweden, demonstrates the role of these clubs in Sweden as an important arenas for integration and improving refugee wellbeing.


Read some of their latest work here:

Image source: TMA Harding /



Hello, and welcome to ResearchPod. Thanks for listening, and joining us today.


Today, we’re looking at the research of Tony Mickelsson Blomqvist, a PhD student at the School of Social Sciences at Södertörn University in Sweden, where he carries out multidisciplinary research into sport and migration.


His area of research is particularly relevant at the moment, as the Russian invasion has forced over seven million Ukrainian refugees into neighboring European countries.


Blomqvist’s research into voluntary sports associations in Sweden, as well as other research upon which his work is built, shows us some important aspects to bear in mind: These associations promise to aid the integration and wellbeing of participants through the universal language of sport. However, different cultural approaches to exercise and competition, and previous experience with sport, can mean that integration in this arena is not quite as simple as it first appears.


There are many factors involved in the reception of Ukrainian refugees, and the response from governments and civil society has been, mildly put, remarkable. Sports clubs have gained increasing recognition in the reception of refugees, and are important arenas for various reasons.


Firstly, sports clubs offer meaningful leisure time, and have implications for physical and mental health. Secondly, sports clubs are also social arenas where friendships and important connections can be made to further facilitate refugees’ integration. A range of authorities are now expecting sport clubs to be sensitive to refugees’ needs and provide them with at least some of the support they need. And this is perhaps nowhere more so than in Sweden. The importance – and potential – of Swedish sport clubs in these matters should not be underestimated.

In a population of 10 million people, over 3 million are members of one or more of 18,000 sport clubs. Given sport’s solid role in Swedish society, it is no surprise that the government has increasingly relied on the sports movement to carry out elements of welfare provision.


However, this is not as straightforward as you may expect. In conjunction with the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, research within the social sciences has shown that there were several issues which prevented sports clubs from fulfilling this supportive role. Research from Germany shows that most sports clubs did not make any significant changes to how they were organised in order to facilitate the inclusion of refugees; other research shows that refugees were often expected to assimilate, and that very little thought was given to how the refugees themselves actually preferred carrying out sport. Issues such as language and inexperience with European organised sports and little understanding shown on the side of the European sports clubs have actually been shown to be central barriers to refugees’ inclusion. So, instead of simply subsuming refugees into existing practices, clubs may need to meet their new members halfway by adapting some of their age-old traditions.


Additionally, the current situation with Ukrainian refugees is also different from previous mass movements. Apart from the events in the Balkans in the 90s, forced migration from the post-socialist regions has been uncommon, and as the crisis in Ukraine unravels, a range of questions have surfaced. Both researchers, stakeholders and popular media have noticed that Ukrainian refugees’ characteristics may impact their reception differently compared to other refugee populations.


Refugee groups in the past have predominantly been men, mainly from countries outside Europe and often with a different ethnic make-up than the societies to which they flee. In comparison, the current wave of refugees from Ukraine has been dubbed “non-visible” as they are predominantly white. With regards to the sports movement, it should also be mentioned that there are some key differences between sports traditions and movements in Ukraine and Western Europe.


All these different factors led Blomqvist to study the reception of Ukrainian refugees at Swedish sports clubs to try to understand how their needs have been met, and what the experiences have been thus far. Also, in light of the immense critique given to Europe’s double-standard where it has been argued that certain groups of refugees are treated differently, he was also interested in what ‘new’ barriers and opportunities sport representatives perceived when engaging with Ukrainian refugees.


After identifying some of the sporting initiatives that first emerged in Sweden following the invasion of Ukraine, Blomqvist undertook digital interviews in May 2022 with 17 sports club representatives where they discussed their initiatives and their experiences with receiving Ukrainian refugees.



The results were, in general, quite similar to what sport researchers have discovered before when voluntary sport clubs engage with refugees. Many cited language problems as a key barrier, making it difficult to engage properly, but it was also argued that sport could still be a proper venue for meaningful communication given that practitioners can ‘speak through the body’ and interact in many contexts without the need for verbal communication.


However, a fair share of the results also diverted from what we have previously been acquainted with in the sport-for-integration literature. Many of the sports representatives had engaged with populations from the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ and had a comparative perspective on the subject.


Firstly, many of them claimed that recruiting practices had differed now compared to 2015. For example, in 2015, many of the sport clubs visited refugee reception centers and housing facilities to spread their message. A feature of the forced migration from Ukraine has been that many civilians have opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees. Therefore, it seemed less straightforward to get their message out, and instead, most sport representatives had mainly relied on social media and Facebook groups that appeared within their region specifically aimed at helping Ukrainian refugees.


Secondly, a range of sports clubs had received elite youth athletes, a salient difference compared to 2015. At that time, many sport clubs had struggled to include refugees in their organization because they perceived refugees as lacking in sporting capital, and general awareness of organized sport, as opposed to spontaneous sport. This did not seem to be the case at all this time, as some sports clubs happily announced how their sporting competence had been raised substantially given the influx of Ukrainian refugees. This seemed to be particularly profound in gymnastics clubs. The sport representatives themselves explained that this came as no surprise, as gymnastics is a huge sport in Ukraine, with an ocean of top-level practitioners.


Although a pleasant surprise for the sport clubs, some issues had also surfaced which warranted a deeper knowledge of haow sport in Ukraine is carried out.


For example, a wrestling club had struggled to explain to their young refugee members that there was no money to be made in wrestling in Sweden as a career. Amateur sports, such as wrestling, are carried out on a voluntary basis, and leaders and competitors receive no or extremely little financial compensation. These are cornerstones of Swedish associational life in general, reflecting the longstanding traditions of communitarianism, members-for-members associations and volunteerism. On the contrary, most coaching positions are paid positions in Ukraine, and the idea of volunteerism is weaker. These were contrasting ideas that highly trained young refugees had to negotiate.


Although these differences generated some friction between Swedish sports clubs and Ukrainian refugees, a minority of the clubs had also tampered with a more serious issue, connected to ideas of early specialization in sport.


Early specialization in sport emerged from the post-socialist regions, and it was clear that many of the Ukrainian youths trained harder than their Swedish counterparts. Gymnastics, in particular, has been under scrutiny both globally and in Sweden for pushing youngsters too hard, and it has been the target of many ethical investigations.


Accordingly, adhering to the Convention on the rights of the Child, as understood by Swedish sporting bodies, is perhaps more important for gymnastics clubs, and seemed at times to be at odds with how Ukrainian youths and their parents wished to exercise. This was a difficult dilemma for this gymnastics club representative who, on the one hand, had a strong sense of philanthropic ambition, but on the other hand had to safeguard the existing practices.


These preliminary results reflect a larger trend and should not be viewed merely as sport-specific phenomena. For example, the differing recruiting practices are symptomatic of one of the criticism of Europe’s so-called double standards towards refugees; namely how civilians seem more eager to help Ukrainian refugees by means of private accommodation, for example, than they were in 2015.


Moreover, both the received sporting competence, as well as the issues associated with early specialization, is a feature of Ukraine where sport has traditionally been held in high esteem and considered a viable way to produce disciplined and good citizens. While such features exist within the Swedish sport system too, they are less salient, and more focused on the inclusionary sport-for-all aspect.


It could be argued that these are slightly differing value systems that connect to sport specifically, and which put Swedish sports clubs in a position where they have to negotiate these ideas in order to actually be inclusive.


So, while sports clubs do represent an important and ready-to-be-used arena for political agendas such as refugees’ inclusion and integration, it would be simplistic to believe that mere participation in sport can facilitate such outcomes.


In fact, these preliminary results show that Swedish sports clubs are in a delicate position where they must navigate and balance different conceptions of sport to be inclusive. One must also keep in mind that these representatives are volunteers; they are rarely qualified to work with social issues. This is also indicative of a larger trend in Sweden and elsewhere ; the shifting of responsibility for delivering welfare, where civil society is increasingly taking a more prominent role vis-à-vis the state.


That’s all we have time for in this episode. You can find links to Tony Blomqvists work in the show notes for this episode.


Thanks for listening, and be sure to stay subscribed to Researchpod for more of the latest science. See you again soon.



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