Barely a week since the Rio Olympics drew to a close and with the Paralympics still to look forward to, now seems the perfect opportunity to capitalise on the momentum sparked by Britain’s most successful Games to date and get more children participating in sport. The BBC’s comprehensive coverage, as usual, showcased mainstream sports but also provided insight into more unusual ones that only seem to be granted an airing once every four years. The slogan “Get Inspired” was a fixture on our screens but, given that it first made an appearance around the time of London 2012, its impact now is perhaps at best subliminal.
While investment in Britain’s top, heavily funded athletes has clearly been successful, the overall “legacy” effect of London 2012 has frankly been underwhelming. Research shows that, if anything, participation levels in sport among the wider British population have dropped off since 2012, with sports such as swimming, football and badminton showing a marked decline.1 And it’s worth noting at this point that in this research the threshold for participation was set at once a week – way below the level recommended for a healthy lifestyle.
It’s obvious, therefore, that it’s going to take an impetus far more substantial than merely basking in the reflected glory of a few celebrated sporting stars to turn things around. The “I Am Team GB”2 initiative is a convincing and practical starting point, but long-term change is going to require more wholesale transformations in how sports are presented to the population in general and to our schoolchildren in particular.
Some sports – football comes to mind – garner a disproportionate amount of television coverage, the majority of which is of teams operating at the very highest levels. Others, like hockey and badminton, are largely overlooked, despite attracting relatively high levels of participation within the general population and numbering amongst the main sports taught in schools. We see club-level football regularly on our screens but rarely see even hockey internationals.
There are two problems with this if we want to see a hike in participation levels. 1) Coverage of sports should more closely reflect what is being taught in schools – to both sexes – and which sports people actually participate in. 2) While it is a joy to see top-flight players and athletes perform (particularly in those sports where the professional game bears relatively little resemblance to the amateur one), observing talented amateurs performing at club level may, arguably, be far more inspiring to the average person who wants to play purely for fun and to keep fit. While few of us can aspire to reach the pinnacle of our chosen sport, striving to improve enough to overtake the person just ahead of us is achievable for most of us.
With so many television channels now available, it should be possible to broadcast a wider range of sports at different levels, such as club-level matches, national championships and junior internationals. In many sports there is also thriving competition at “masters” or “veterans” level. It’s important for this to be publicised, too, so that people realise that participation in sport can be lifelong.
Meanwhile, driving up levels of children’s practical participation in sports must become a prime focus of education policy so that schools no longer feel they are compromising other, often more academic objectives by focusing on this. The PE and Sport Premium3 for primary schools is definitely a start, especially given the conditions which state that it must be used to enhance rather than simply maintain current levels of provision, while from 2017, 25% of secondary schools will be able to opt for a longer school day in order to incorporate a wider range of activities, including sports, into the curriculum.
It may be difficult for primary schools to devote more curriculum time to physical education, but building relationships with professional sports coaches and local sports clubs who can provide specialist coaching in a range of activities, including not just the usual team sports but also individual ones, would surely be a worthwhile investment.
At both primary and secondary levels, activity and taster days are a good way to introduce children to less well-known sports, while pursuits such as geocaching and orienteering are good ways to engage children in physical activity while developing other cross-curricular skills.
Positive role models also have an important part to play in encouraging children to take up sports. Professional coaches and local “stars” performing at a standard to which children can realistically aspire can fulfil this function. It’s therefore important for schools to forge strong links with the local sporting community, while also looking for opportunities to host visits from top-class sports stars who can give children insight into a particular sport as well as reinforcing more generic messages about the benefits of an active lifestyle.
The “top-down” approach of the “Get Inspired” campaign has been found lacking. However, coupling it with a more “bottom-up” approach that truly celebrates the grass roots of sport, thus making it seem less remote and therefore more immediately achievable, may just start to turn things around.