Sport England’s timely £50m boost for grassroots sport

Good news from Sport England this week, who announced an extra £50m will be pumped into grassroots sport after the huge impact that coronavirus has made on activity levels in the UK over the past 12 months.

The funding agency, which has already invested £220m since the start of the pandemic, – announced the extra cash as part of a new 10-year strategy which was eagerly reported by the national media last week.

“This strategy comes at a critical time” Tim Hollingsworth, the chief executive of Sport England told the BBC.

“We have made significant funding available, but many organisations are struggling, and activity levels have taken a significant hit.

“At the heart of all this is a ruthless focus on providing opportunities to people and communities that have traditionally been left behind.”

Andy Reed, Chair of the Sport for Development Coalition, added: “The impact of the pandemic, growing social challenges and subsequent widening inequalities mean we urgently need a new social contract with sport and physical activity, focused on the wider social outcomes that sport can deliver.”

“We must expand understanding, recognition and investment in the contribution that sport can make beyond health and wellbeing, to addressing loneliness and social isolation, improving educational attainment and employability, to community cohesion, and reducing anti-social behaviour and entry into the justice system.”

Over 50 sports bodies have come together to form the  Save Our Sports campaign, calling for emergency funding. They warned that the activity sector – which employs nearly 600,000 people in the UK and contributes £16bn to the economy each year – faces an unprecedented crisis.

Sport England’s welcome news came amid reports that thousands of clubs, swimming pools, leisure centres and gyms have had to close in recent months while a third of children in the UK as been bracketed as ‘inactive’ as a result of the first lockdown – that is getting less than 30 minutes exercise a day.

Scott Lloyd, LTA chief executive, spoke for tennis and all grassroots sport in the UK when he said: “We firmly believe that sport can play a vital role at the heart of the nation’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in support of those groups who have been most impacted by it, and the strategy Sport England have developed provides a clarity of purpose and platform for that to happen. 

“It is pleasing to see there is a clear 10 year vision, and a key focus on tackling inequalities.  Sport England’s ambition aligns with the LTA’s own vision to open tennis up, making it a sport that can be played by anyone, no matter their age, background or ability. 

“Doing so will mean more people can enjoy the significant physical health and mental wellbeing benefits sport provides, and it can play an even greater role in bringing communities together, developing important life skills and resilience, and tackling challenging and key societal issues.”

More sobering was the news that, with less than six months to go until the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics, it remains unclear whether they really can go ahead with many leading figures now briefing that they fear a cancellation is inevitable.

Firstly this will be awful news for all athletes who have been working so hard and for long to take their place on the greatest sporting stage of all.

These athletes, unlike many professional sports people, often have one shot at glory and recognition in their careers and the Olympics is it. To miss out on a Games can mean missing out on lucrative, once-in-a-lifetime commercial opportunities too.

As Tim Crow told The Telegraph, “This can make or break people’s lives,” he said. “At every Games there are people whose lives change for good, but there are also, frankly, people for whom it’s the difference between breadline or not for them.” 

The Telegraph also reported the impact all this uncertainty can have on athletes’ mental health, running an interview with Paralympian Stef Reid.

“As an athlete, you end up in this position where you just don’t know which is true,” said Reid. “And that’s frustrating. And you almost want someone to come out and just call it as it is and say, ‘We are hoping for the best case scenario, but we don’t know if that’s going to happen’.”

Fellow Paralympian Hannah Cockroft added: “This is our livelihoods being played with. We’re all aware there’s a chance the Games might not go ahead, but until an official decision is announced, please leave us to work and dream!” 

And sailor Hannah Mills told The Telegraph:  “It’s definitely mentally quite challenging,” Mills said. “Every now and then it creeps into your head ‘is the Games even going to happen?’ but you just can’t entertain that thought. You can’t let your brain go down that path.” 

While athletes’ mental health must be the priority, there are also huge financial concerns for national governing bodies and the long-term future of many Olympic sports that simply don’t get the same amount of support and sponsorship as many other sports played in the UK, like hockey.

“The Olympics is, for the most part, a collection of quite small sports,” Crow said. “They may be big brands – athletics, for instance – but it’s a very small sport if you look at the numbers. These sports and federations are heavily reliant on the Olympics. If that money and that exposure is lost the effect is catastrophic.” 

It is going to be a pivotal month or two for Olympic sports and their athletes. Sport England’s £50 million boost is wonderful news for grassroots sport but many more bailouts are likely to be needed if the sporting year suffers more big event cancellations – and there is none bigger than the Olympic Games. 

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