Failure of Olympic promises forces the government to revise sports strategy

Photo: Paul Nuttall/Flickr

Photo: Paul Nuttall/Flickr

28.09.2015

By Steve Menary
The London Olympics in 2012 were supposed to inspire a whole generation to take up sport. It did not happen and the UK government is now giving its entire sports strategy an overhaul in a nationwide consultation process.

The failure of the 2012 Olympic Games in London to boost participation in British sport has prompted new government consultation that will look at defining legacy going forward.

The importance of legacy has been a central element of sporting mega-events for more than two decades and the consultation is an acknowledgement by the government of a major sporting host that mega events do not have a major impact on participation as claimed when London went for the Olympics that was supposed to ‘Inspire a generation’.

“The [UK] government is selective about what it sees as a positive legacy from the Olympic Games and there is less and less about participation,” says Professor Barrie Houlihan, associate dean research at Loughborough University’s Sport Policy and Management Group.

“There is an acknowledgement that there is less impact on participation. London 2012 had limited impact on participation and the longer-term strategy is not working either.”

The consultation on UK government sports policy is the first since London won the 2012 Olympics. In the consultation preface, British minister for sport, tourism and heritage Tracey Crouch boasts that relative to its size Britain’s recent medal tally makes the country “the best in the world” but admits that “turning this inspiration into participation has been a challenge”.

No evidence beyond anecdotes
Since the turn of the Millennium, Britain has hosted two Commonwealth Games – 2002 in Manchester and 2014 in Glasgow – plus the last Olympics. London will also host the 2017 athletics World Championship but numbers of people taking part in sport continue to fall, which suggests there is no link between major events and participation.

“I don’t think there is a shred of evidence to suggest that beyond anecdotes from athletes,” says Doctor David Goldblatt, the writer and academic, who is currently writing a sociological history of the Olympic Games. “If you look at mega-events as the start of the whole process, forget it.

“If you are really serious about using it to make a behavioural change, then seven years [between award and staging an Olympics] is no good. You need to spend the money over a longer time bedding it in.

“It’s good to have a minister of sport who is genuinely focused on the issue but I have read the document and there is nothing here that is new. It’s all aspirational jargon. I’m not very optimistic.”

The consultation will look to address participation, along with physical activity; children and young people; financial sustainability; coaching, workforce and good governance; elite and professional sport; infrastructure; fairness and equality; safety and equality; and finally international influence and major sporting events.

Dreadful numbers on sports participation
The last UK government strategy on sport, Game Plan, was published in 2002. Out of that strategy came the Active People Survey, which is used to measure participation by Sport England.

The first data capture in 2005/6 showed that 14.1 million people aged 16 or more played sport for at least 30 minutes once a week. Around London 2012, the figure had grown to a peak of 15.9 million but since then the number of people actively participating in sport has fallen consistently despite the British population has grown with more than 4 million over the last 10 years.

Swimming, in particular, has suffered. In the year to October 2014, 245,000 fewer people swam weekly in the period between October 2013 and October 2014. That is a drop of over 9%.

The Active People Survey is published twice yearly and the last set of results for the year to March 2015 showed 15.5 million playing sport once a week. That is 220,000 less than in the preceding survey results for October 2014. There were 144,200 fewer people swimming in the last six months and 390,700 in the last year. Overall, there was a decline across all genders and socio-economic groups.

“It all looks very negative,” says Doctor Russell Holden from the In the Zone sports consultancy. “The London legacy seems to have been forgotten about. The Active Sports statistics are absolutely dreadful. It’s just not happening.”

Professor Houlihan contends that national governing bodies (NGBs) and clubs are not the right route to increase wider participation. He adds: “NGBs and sports clubs are not the right partners to encourage people to get more involved in sport. Football is the biggest sport but the biggest sport in the Olympics is track and field. There are hundreds of football clubs in most cities but there are usually only one or two athletics clubs.

”NGBs and clubs are great at dealing with 10% of children and adults who like sport, but where do children or adults with two left feet go?”

Innovative schemes on grass root and school level
Some associations are introducing innovative schemes such as Cambridgeshire Football Association’s flexi-football, were players can come along alone and form ad hoc teams to play 11-a-side matches for as little as £2 each.

A two-part investigation last year into the state of grass roots football at junior and adult level, which is heavily reliant on volunteers, by The Independent revealed a game in crisis.

And to try and boost widespread participation, School Sports Partnerships (SSPs) were introduced by the previous Labour Party government and funding of £162 million per year helped support a sports network of schools and physical education teachers.

In 2010, a new coalition government was elected led by the right wing Conservative Party and in partnership with the centrist Liberal Democrats. Some stakeholders such as the Association for Physical Education (afPE) were critical of the SSPs. Two years after the coalition took power SSPs were scrapped, along with the School Sports Survey, which collected data on participation.

Although the Youth Sports Trust does carry out an annual PE & Schools Sport survey, the cancellation of the SSPs was subsequently met with widespread criticism from across the UK political spectrum. This produced a partial about-turn and in 2012 the government agreed to provide £65 million for school sport until 2013 and £7 million a year towards its annual School Games, which is structured across four tiers to encourage greater participation.

Lack of local investments and joined up thinking
The programme of austerity introduced by the coalition in 2010 has cut £18 billion from local council budgets in real terms since 2010 with at least another £9.5 billion expected by the end of the decade according to research published this June by The Financial Times.

This has had an impact on local authorities’ ability to maintain and invest in local sport’s facilities and also in sports development.

Professor Houlihan adds: “In Britain, there are two organisations that are responsible for all the members. One is schools and the other are local authorities. If we want to reach the 40% of people who are turned off by sport, then we have to work with these organisations.”

The Conservatives were elected this year on a platform aimed at creating a ‘big society’ of even more volunteers, and stakeholders responding to the consultation insist any new strategy needs proper funding.

“The scale of ambition is great but there is not a lot of money in the system; There needs to be a credible investment plan,” says James Allen, head of policy at the Sport and Recreation Alliance (SRA).

“One of the key drivers behind the consultation is to make government more joined up. That’s very positive but difficult to do in sport as it suffers from fragmentation more than any other sector. It falls between too many stools.

“It’s not entirely clear from the consultation what they are trying to do, but generally speaking we would expect more people playing and staying in sport to be part of any successful strategy. We will make a few suggestions. For participation, we would want a more measured approach. The lack of joined up thinking is the way government works. There are planning issues around green space then decisions on schools are taken elsewhere, so there is very little joined up thinking when it comes to participation.”

More involvement from the commercial sector
The Association for Physical Education (afPE) welcomes the consultation and agreed its response at a board meeting on September 18. Like many other stakeholders though, the afPE argues that how the data on sports’ participation is measured is flawed.

The Active People Survey does not take into account any unstructured sport, such as going to the gym or running in the park, and is mainly focused on people aged 14 or over. Ms Wilkinson says: “We think that we are more active as a nation than the Active People Survey shows. We are absolutely committed to keeping physical education in schools and would like better use of campaigns like This Girl Can aimed at getting more girls involved in sport. We have never seen a response to a campaign like that one [from Sport England].”

The association is positive about the School Games but is also calling for proper funding and more involvement from the commercial sector. Amongst the other suggestions from the afPE is accreditation for grassroots volunteers and video games companies such as Sony to offer credits in online games for young players that have taken part in physical activity.

Like many other groups consulted, the SRA is critical of the Active People Survey and is advocating new legislation to tie hosting of any future major sports events into further commitments in areas such as participation rather than simple aspiration. “There is no sign of that coming,” sighs Mr Allen.

Top down approach must change
Dr. Holden is critical of what he describes as a “total disconnect” between different aspects of sports policy from media rights to the grass roots. He adds:

“What strikes me is how much it’s top down, when it needs to be bottom up. It’s harder to do that when you don’t get the media involved as nothing exciting happens. Grass roots sport has been affected by government cuts. How can people give up time when more and more people are on zero hours contracts?”

The Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) consultation paper, A New Strategy for Sport, will be used to shape future sports policy in the UK and the deadline for responses to the DCMS is October 2. Whether that leads to any major policy shift remains to be seen but further legislation from a right-wing government on the private sector seems unlikely.

Editor's note:
On 17 December 2015, the UK government published a new sport strategy,  ‘Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation.

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