Physical activity is good for us. So why are other countries so far ahead?
Keeping fit is a simple goal, and the whole of Britain must get behind it
It has exceeded all expectations, but now comes the hardest part. Can we lift sport’s place in our national life and make Britain in the 21st century a more active nation than it might otherwise have been?
Yes, but the scale of the task must not be underestimated: absorbing the lessons of 2012 means changing established norms at the top of the British establishment – in politics, government and media. For politicians, the lesson is clear: with a clear goal and a cross-party approach, sport can be taken forward further and faster.
This, of course, challenges our natural instinct. Given some of the PM’s recent statements on school sport, the tribal politician in me is itching for some political taekwondo on the Today programme. But kicking lumps off each other would be to misread the moment. Sport needs a positive, unifying vision and constructive proposals for change.
Ed Miliband is right to suggest a cross-party plan. It needs a single, simple goal for the whole country to get behind. So let’s set a national ambition: to get at least half of our population physically active and sit down with the other parties to agree a timescale.
This morning, we sit proudly in bronze position in the medals table. But in a more important table – the world ranking of most active nations – Britain is at the wrong end. For a nation that loves sport as much as us, it’s hard to understand why only 37% of people are active compared with over 50% in Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. I know we can lift this number. But if we don’t, questions emerge about the sustainability of our health service in this century of the ageing society.
Physical activity is not a luxury but an economic necessity – the cheapest route to relieving pressure on public services. After all, it costs nothing to go for a run or a walk. But, once people do, they feel better about themselves and make better choices.
Unfortunately, Whitehall doesn’t see this. Here’s a revealing fact. I asked the Commons Library if they could tell me which government department has lead responsibility on physical activity. They couldn’t.
It remains an orphan policy in Whitehall: seen as someone else’s responsibility or a distraction from core business. This anti-sport tendency can be seen in the decision to drop the two-hour requirement in schools – a worrying echo of the past.
Twelve years ago, I struggled to get sport on the Labour government’s early agenda and found institutional resistance to the two-hour policy. For us, Sydney changed everything. London must prompt a similar awakening for the coalition.
The British media has its own hard lessons to learn. The BBC’s coverage has been magnificent. But the most remarkable thing about it is how different it is from normal service. Outside of the Olympics, the profile given to women’s sport by broadcasters and newspapers is at best sporadic and at worst negligible. This failure to serve half the population simply can’t go on.
The traditional excuse – no one is interested – has been smashed to bits by Jade Jones and Nicola Adams. They have exposed the lie of last year’s shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year that the only personalities in sport are male. Interesting more girls to take up sport depends upon our broadcasters signing up to provide regular coverage of women’s sport and building role models. The BBC must take the lead.
Capturing the spirit of London 2012 means everyone – individuals and organisations – opening their minds to doing things differently. If they do, it will be by far the best £9.3bn this country has ever spent.
Andy Burnham is the shadow secretary of state for health