Edition number 78; dateline 12 February 2015

Four simple truths

With a happy coincidence that we could almost pass off as foresight, this issue of the Leisure Review takes a detailed look at sport, including how we develop policy to deliver and support it, how we choose fund it and whether all that effort is really worth it. We are usually careful to avoid a heavy focus on spo, not least because it is so dominant elsewhere, but, in light of Active People survey results, which show a decline in physical activity, and the bizarre economics of the Premier League, now is as good a time as any to grab hold of this particular can of worms and reach for the tin-opener.

It is, of course, territory we have visited before and will visit again. The issues of investment in sport and what we might reasonably – or even idealistically – expect the outcomes of this investment to be have been a constant source of debate in the sport, leisure and culture sector for as long as I can remember. Most recently sport has been spoken of in the context of the promotion and delivery of physical activity, performing the role of a positive force to engage, motivate and enthuse people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. With this in mind money was poured into the London Olympics and more funding was directed at national governing bodies on the basis that they are best placed to know how people are persuaded to get actively involved in their particular sports.

Enter the Active People survey to pour cold water on all our enthusiasm. Despite the best efforts of the Sport England media team to pick the diamonds out of the ordure, it made for grim reading. Team sports were up a bit, the This Girl Can campaign has been positively received in its early days but when the headline of the press release includes the phrase “sharp decline” in reference to something that should be steeply ascending you know that even the professional Pollyannas have put their whiteboards away and conceded defeat.

But while the disappointment is understandable, it is hard to be particularly surprised. As the press release notes, swimming is the nation’s most popular sporting activity and it accounts for much of the decline. The Sport  England chief executive may well politely castigate swimming’s governing body for not matching the growth in running or gym membership but anyone who has ever owned a swimming costume can see that this is a case of apples and oranges. Running is essentially a costless activity. Gyms are populated by people who can afford the fees. Swimming is a non-competitive activity that appeals to a wide proportion of the population, including children, the non-sporty, the less-than-confident and the non-wealthy. Free swimming schemes were introduced to promote physical activity and the number of people swimming went up. The imposition of austerity required the ending of free swimming schemes and the number of people swimming went down. Stand easy, Professor Brian Cox, I think we can work this one out for ourselves.

These are fairly simple issues of national policy and public health. Sport has a role (a small role perhaps but a role nonetheless) in the promotion of physical activity and physical activity has a very significant role in securing a positive future for the health of the nation, including individuals and the NHS. If government is serious about public health (and there has been much in the policy activity of the current parliament to suggest that it is not) ministers, policy-makers and our elected representatives need to be persuaded to recognise a few simple truths.

First, changing habits costs money. That is why organisations such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Philip Morris spend so much on marketing. It is why national government has to enable the money to flow into physical activity promotion.

Second, this is a long-term project. This is not about tomorrow’s headlines, the next election or even political careers. It is about people’s lives, the sort of nation we could be and the sort of nation we should be.

Third, the scale of investment when balanced against the timescales and the return on investment is minimal; it may even be statistically insignificant if the calculation were to be done properly by a firm of accountants momentarily diverted from their job of helping corporations avoid taxes.

Fourth, it can work. The weight of clinical evidence for the benefit of physical activity is irrefutable and there are numerous examples of the efficacy of large-scale, long-term interventions in public health and community behaviours.

If only it were not so simple the failure to deliver would not be so disheartening. Let no one tell us it is too complex an issue: the economics of the better-off making better choices is long established. Let no one tell us that there is not the money to do it: we can see it in the Swiss banking system, the Premier League broadcasting rights and the pages of funding-raising brochures at political dinners. Let no one tell us there is no demand for action: the mood for change is evident to anyone without a parliamentary pass round their neck.

But as any politician will tell you, it is fear not hope that wins elections. If only more of us were fit enough to tackle the task, there would be barricades in the street.


Jonathan Ives



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