Is getting more people to play sport the way to get the nation more active, or is it the other way around – do people need to get more active in order for sports to grow?
The question occurred on the back of an appearance by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson made at the ukactive conference this week, where she said that incredible achievements by Britons at the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games in recent years had not inspired people to become more active.
Grey-Thompson, who is head of ukactive, wants the legacy of next year’s Commonwealth Games to be mass sports participation but warned of the “false hope” that the glory of London 2012 would transform Britain’s fitness levels.
And she is urging the government to make the central point of the Birmingham-based 2022 Games to be a ‘shared vision’ to get 5 million people exercising more regularly by 2030.
“I want to see us create a partnership that sees the government use all the levers at its disposal to support the sector’s development and enable more people to be active,” Grey-Thompson told the ukactive conference on Wednesday.
“It could lead to a global event such as the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 having a greater legacy for activity than London 2012 ever had. This is something our government has in its grasp. Let us not squander this opportunity which would be transformative for our nation.”
The Guardian reported this week that last year the Sport England Active Lives survey found that nearly 14 million adults did less than 30 minutes of exercise a week – with the poor, elderly and ethnic groups particularly affected.
“Far too often the debate on elite sport, inspiration and population in activity have been conflated,” she told delegates, including the new culture secretary, Nadine Dorries.
“This conflation is to the detriment of everyone and means our sector has fallen short of playing its fullest role in society. Because it has created false hopes on matters such as ‘legacy’ from major sporting moments.
“It has also deflected important focus away from the parts of our sector that are the lead drivers of activity on a mass scale with fitness and leisure being one of them, alongside walking, cycling, and running. And that’s where sharing our ambition for growth with the government is what we must seek and achieve. It would have a transformative impact on the major issue of inactivity we face as a nation.”
But is the public going to be inspired to get active simply by seeing star athletes perform on the big stage at Birmingham next year?
The issue for many is that they feel put off physical activity because they feel intimidated by seeing athletes perform at elite level and feel there is too much of a gap between sport that is played out on our televisions, and the reality of the sport they are then experiencing in the park.
Britain has definitely seen a shift in who is seen as the best organisations to get people active – from the traditional sports organisations and NGBs to new private companies who specialise it making their offering universal.
It is also why it was interesting to see earlier in the week the Commonwealth Games announce it was to cut the number of compulsory sports played at the Games from 16 to two. Under the proposals, only athletics and swimming would be compulsory at future Commonwealth Games. It is an attempt to persuade other cities to bid for the event and give them greater freedom to select sports that might feel more relevant to today’s society and younger audiences.It should also allow urban and e-sports to stake their claim for a place at the Games. Sports that are especially popular in a host country – such as lacrosse in Canada or kabaddi in India – would also be encouraged.
“Our Games need to adapt, evolve and modernise to ensure we continue to maintain our relevance and prestige,” said Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) president Dame Louise Martin.
She said the roadmap, approved at a meeting of the CGF General Assembly, “marks the start of an exciting new era for the Games”.
Nineteen sports will feature at Birmingham 2022, but the new proposals recommend that that number is reduced to around 15 for the 2026 event.
The CGF said that athletics and swimming are being protected “due to their historical place on the programme since 1930, and based on universality, participation, broadcasting, spectator interest, Para-inclusion and gender balance”.
While this development could be great news for generating interest in new sports, it is understandable that some non-Olympic sports like squash, netball and bowls – for whom the Commonwealth Games is the pinnacle – might have cause for concern.
“Let [hosts] choose what they want to have, what they can do, and who they can share with to host the event,” Dame Louise told BBC Sport.
“I think that would be a win-win situation for everybody because then it opens up the Commonwealth Games to other smaller countries and, to me, that is the way forward.
“What we have to do is find the sports that the youth of today work with. So nothing is off the table.”
“I am quietly confident that we will be announcing [the 2026 host] in the first quarter of next year, prior to Birmingham,” said Dame Louise. “We are working with cities and countries.
“Hopefully next year we will be able to showcase that you can bring in other countries to host together. We’ve been trying hard to get the smaller countries to host a Games, but they are too small to do it the way it’s gone.
“So that is why we are looking at the roadmap, to see what is necessary, what do we really need to do. If somebody has a fantastic athletics stadium but the country next to them has got a fantastic shooting range, link up together and see what we can do.”
The new plans also outlined that an integrated Para-sport programme must remain a key part of the Games and mass-participation events would also be encouraged.
The plans should, on the face of it, encourage more participation, but the public seem more likely to get active if there is opportunity and affordable availability on their doorstep, and that is well communicated to them. And once people are getting active, then when they see the elite athletes performing at the Commonwealth Games and world championships, they may be more likely to start taking up those sports themselves.