It has been another tough week for recreational sport in the UK – but at Sportside we always prefer to focus on the positives in every situation.
Yes, we are embarking on our second lockdown of the year and no, we are not allowed to play much sport right now. But there are two important plus points from this week.
The first is that campaigns have sprung up across the country, imploring the government to change its minds about grassroots sport – and specifically grassroots sport at youth level.
From The Telegraph’s Keep Kids Active campaign to Robbie Savage appearing on the BBC and golf, tennis and swimming chiefs petitioning authorities, there has been vociferous hectoring of the Government from some very well known sports personalities to make exemptions to the lockdown.
While we remain fully supportive of the current legislation, the reaction to it from across Britain gives us encouragement that we live in a country that needs sport. It needs it for the mental and physical wellbeing of all who live here. And that has to be a positive. Sport will return, and there will be millions of sportsmen and women – of all ages, of all levels of ability – who will champing at the bit to get out there to ‘connect and play’ once again.
The second positive is that the Government made it very clear as it introduced the latest measures, that it was encouraging people to continue to meet with one other person outside to exercise. It has been one of the central tenets of their lockdown messaging.
Running, cycling and walking with family or a friend are all seen as essential elements of life under Lockdown II and – just as it did earlier this year – these messages will prove invaluable to many in the country. Exercise and participation is crucial to the health and wellbeing of the nation.
Interestingly this week also saw the announcement from UK Athletics of a new 12-year strategy that, it proclaimed, would “move away from a focus on winning medals at all costs”. It admitted that it was time to “put the athlete first” again and that “significant improvement and change is required”.
The organisation is prioritising participation as it strives to produce a “world-renowned infrastructure” of clubs, competitions and coaches and having nine million regulars taking part in the sport as well as retaining more than 250,000 registered athletes across the UK.
Joanna Coates, the UKA chief executive, said: “The co-development of a long-term strategy and framework agreement for athletics across the UK, with an ethical decision-making culture and a new communications strategy, will ensure that we address the sport’s long-term issues.”
The new strategy says: “Through listening to feedback from over 5,000 athletes, club leaders, volunteers, coaches and officials across the sport, we know that significant improvement and change is required.”
The Mail followed up this news with a compelling interview with John Wood from the city of Sheffield Athletics Club, who coaches all levels of athletes, from grassroots to Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill. He explained how he first got into middle distance running because he grew up in an era when Dave Bedford, Brendan Foster and then Seb Coe and Steve Ovett were dominating the running world.
“People do what they see,” he said. “You can always tell what is going well on a national level when you go to your local club. I’d run in the Northern League and those races on a weekend became the highlight of my week. We weren’t brilliant but we got the love for it. And when you take the tens of thousands of people around the country who do that, what you have is grassroots sport. They are so important — all pyramids have a base.”
But Wood knows how urgent it is that running remains at the forefront of the conversation during the new lockdown. “The sport has been losing people for years and this pandemic makes it harder again, because if people drop out now, will they come back?” he said. “The big risk is we could lose so many people who this sport needs, whether it is Joe Jogger or the next Jess Ennis-Hill.”
One of the problems around participation in athletics has always been that the media spotlight only shines on it once every four years at The Olympic Games.
Which is why we are Sportside were so delighted to hear the news that one of Team GB’s greatest ever Olympians is going to be appearing on one of the most popular TV shows this November. Mo Farah’s upcoming appearance on ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!’ also got the approval of UKA chief executive Coates.
“As a marketer, to have athletes in mainstream TV shows is just perfection,” she told The Sun. “Shows like that take our athletes to a completely different audience.
“However you would never want to do that to the detriment of performance. If he is there, there will have been lengthy conversations about whether this would affect performance.”
Farah, the current 5,000m and 10,000m champion, is planning to race the 10,000 again at Tokyo 2020 – but only after he has taken on some Bushtucker Trials with Ant and Dec. In a difficult period for sport, Farah can offer some light relief as well as persuading people that running is an excellent way to be spending Lockdown 2.