Olympics: a true legacy would be sport for all | Observer editorial
In the aftermath of the Olympics, it’s important to look into funding and to understand how to encourage more participation
Last week, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen tweeted that the Olympic Games had transformed Britain from “gloom to a grin” in the flicker of an eye.
One source of pride has been the (almost) faultless execution of the Olympic competitions. The capital has not ground to a halt. Instead, the Games have made it seem a friendlier and more welcoming city, illuminated anew – even for those who live there – under the gaze of the many visitors, both competitors and fans.
A second cause for celebration has been the enormous and multifaceted success of Team GB, which has thrown up multiple and competing inspirational stories.
There has been the thorough and incremental approach of cycling’s Dave Brailsford and the seemingly unstoppable rise of our elite sportswomen; stories of dedication big and small, adversity overcome and defeat accepted with sportsmanship and charm. The Games have told us something about who we are as a nation – with the triumph of athletes such as Mo Farah, who came to the UK as a child from Somalia, a rebuke to those who would have sought narrowly to define ideas of what Britishness should be.
But a bitter flavour has been introduced in recent days by the jostling politicians who have sought to make political capital out of the Games, wrapping themselves in both its success and the prospect of future achievement.
The question of how British sport should build on the Olympics last week triggered an unseemly competition between David Cameron – who even donned a Team GB tracksuit top at one point – and London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, over how much compulsory physical education children should be obliged to do, a debate packed full of canards and fraudulent facts.
By yesterday, Cameron’s “policy” had settled on a vague, un-costed notion that all primary school children should be compelled to take part in competitive team sports, an idea that comes out of the same box as his desire for all 16-year-olds to do national service.
The reality is that Cameron and Johnson’s stated desire to provide a legacy of continued sporting excellence through a “cultural change towards more competition” in schools is at odds with their party’s policies on sport in school, not least the scrapping of targets for the amount of sport children do in schools.
As highlighted recently, the worst decline in school sports participation was under the last Conservative prime minister, John Major, the same man who has been lauded for the national lottery that has funnelled funds to the elite athletic endeavour that flowered at London 2012.
It is worth noting that when the coalition came to power, 90% of children were doing two hours of sport a week, a minimum this paper has campaigned for. Under the present government, however, funding for organising school sports under the School Sport Partnerships is in the process of being cut from £162m to just £9m next year.
If some of the figures that have been bandied round in the last few days have been bogus, then the terms of the debate – at least among our political classes – have not been much more edifying. For while British success in the medals table is to be applauded for those who have put in so much effort, it ignores the fact that, while their achievements are inspirational, they often have little connection with why the vast majority participate in sport or active pastimes.
Indeed for many, especially girls and young women, there is strong evidence that far from encouraging a lifetime participation in sport, compulsory, competitive school sport can often be deeply alienating. All of which leads to a more profound question – how do we see the wider contribution of sport in our society in a country where one in four adults is classified as obese and where almost a fifth of people report negligible physical activity?
And while almost 7 million Britons participate in sports three times a week, according to the latest figures collected by Sport England – an increase of more than 600,000 over 2005/6 – the organisation also noted a worrying decline in participation by 16- to 19-year-olds, many saying they could not afford to take part in the current economic climate.
Research conducted three years ago by Louise Cox, Lester Coleman and Debi Roker into why some adolescent girls are more active than others suggests far more complex factors at work than compulsion or a competitive culture at school. Instead, those girls playing the most sport were identified as coming from homes and social circles where sport was viewed most positively and where there were close role models. By contrast, those who never participated – while often still reporting a positive image of sport – had few friends or family actively involved.
Why increasing participation matters is not simply because of medals and glory. Although increasing the number of young people drawn into sport widens the pool of those with the potential to be elite athletes, wider benefits can be felt. Labour, whose record on school sport has been more intelligent, recognises this, insisting that it is exercise, not competition, that is the key.
What is required, in the aftermath of the Olympics, is a proper debate about how we fund and encourage sport. It should not simply focus on what we already do well, which is effectively directing money at sports in which there is the promise of medals. We need to identify where strategies are failing. That will require the far more inventive approach Cox and her colleagues suggested that encourages families with low levels of participation to be more active.
There needs to be a more complex understanding too about why some people are put off sport in school, often by precisely the prescriptions that Cameron and Johnson are suggesting, and better funding found for alternative activities that might attract those people, particularly young women.
That will require more investment, more facilities and not more cuts to be filled by vague notions of volunteering. The Olympic Games have provided a golden opportunity, raising awareness about a host of sports and drawing huge audiences. A fitting legacy to all of those who have been involved in this extraordinary event – athletes, their families and coaching staff, sports administrators and volunteers – would be one that declaims a message of sport for all and not just for the excellent few, a policy that would enrich all our lives.