Edition number 4; dateline 28 November 2007

Sports participation: cause for a heated debate if ever there was one

It seems that where Scotland leads England is destined to follow. The future of SportScotland had already been placed firmly in doubt by the spending proposals unveiled by the new SNP-flavoured Scottish Assembly government and no sooner had our correspondent filed his copy (immaculate as usual) than the DCMS had followed suit. As we were going to press (or ‘press send’ as we digitalistas say), the story of Derek Mapp’s exit as chair of Sport England moved from the rumours in the World of Leisure section straight onto the news page.

It seems that voices were raised, issues taken and lines drawn. The secretary of state for culture was looking for a new, performance-focused approach for the agency it funds and was left in no doubt that such a direction would, in the opinion of the chairman, be a direction detrimental to the pursuit of previously agreed participation targets. Mr Purnell tells a sporty audience of his plans for the traditional Sport England review in terms that sound to the untutored ear to be exactly what Sport England had been doing for years. Mr Mapp tells some select ears that participation is being abandoned and handed to health, cutting the development of sport adrift. His resignation was requested and reluctantly he complied. Exit chairman.

After all these years, could this finally be the review that does for the government’s own sports development agency? My first reaction was dismay at the prospect of yet another reassessment of the agency’s role and sympathy for those still on board after Roger Draper’s practise session in preparation for his attack on the staff list of the LTA. Having dealt with many people in Sport England over the years, I have always found them to be nothing less than committed and enthusiastic about the promotion of sport (I noticed during my last visit that even the recent focus on physical activity had been embraced with imagination and zeal. If one climbs the stairs to the third floor, as one is encouraged to do by the Everyday Sport initiative, one finds that access to the Sport England office is not possible without a pass. This means one has to then walk back down the stairs to use the lift, doubling the health impact. Brilliant!). However, the question remains: would Sport England be missed?

This may be a question too far – no one is saying it’s curtains yet – but it prompted a spirited debate in the TLR office. On the one hand, went the argument, no one would miss it. Its latest big idea, county sports partnerships, aren’t working, apart from their role as a “job creation scheme for sports development officers”. National governing bodies have to deal with every CSP instead of taking a regional approach, volunteers can spell ‘CSP’ but don’t know why they would need to and everyone could do with another round of initiatives that tick boxes for a central government agency like a second arse. Leave developing sport to the national governing bodies, says this hand, and send Sport England into the sunset.

The other hand splutters to the defence, pointing out that participation is what 2012 and the whole ethos of sport is all about – and if you don’t believe this, read the Nick Reeves article in this edition. As a sports development agency, Sport England is ideally placed to save us from the mania of elite performance and the drug-fuelled miasma of money for which elite sport now stands. Health will not embrace sport as sport, even if they do understand and embrace the need for participation in sport as part of the need to improve rates of physical activity. Which they won’t. Give some of the health role to sport: don’t give sport to health because it will disappear into the health service never to be seen again. The national governing bodies have a long track record, established over centuries in some cases, of self-interest, incompetence and pomposity; they are the cause, not the solution, to the participation problem.

Ah, says the first hand, what about the RFU? They sorted out participation very nicely after the rugby world cup. Oh pur-lease, says the by now ever so slightly camp Hand Two, clearly warming to the task. What about the LTA? Millions and millions every year spent on white people in white clothing and you could still buy a round for all the living British champions with a twenty pound note. And, to put an end to the matter, I give you the Football Association, a governing body that must rank as one of the worst-run organisations in the history of the world. Their achievements are summed up by the single gold star above the three lions on the England shirt, a symbol that manages to be both pathetic and arrogant at the same time.

And then we paused for a minute to get our breath back.

Let us hope that Mr Purnell, whose mind seems to be dangerously close to made up already, pauses to think about what, if anything, is at stake. Let’s have the debate about what a government sports agency, whether north or south of the border, should do, about what it can be expected to achieve and for whom. The whole 2012 case was made on expanding participation in sports of all kinds for people of all ages in nations across the world. If this is not to make the usual political journey from the column marked ‘commitment’ to that ‘marked’ aspiration (ie from ‘promise’ to ‘bullshit’ in the time it takes to win the vote) let’s have a serious consultation about what sport means to us and how it can best be promoted, developed and delivered. Otherwise the 2012 logo might as well put a single gold star over the top right now.


Jonathan Ives

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