Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Dropping targets for adult participation in sport could prove an expensive folly.

The last day of the Olympic ticket sales lottery yesterday was marked with much media interest in the potential success (or otherwise) of the 2012 games.

But whilst organisationaly, planning for the events seems to be going very well, the Government is back-tracking on plans to use the Olympics to motivate adults to engage in sport.

In an interview with the Guardian last month, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP confirmed that the Government will no longer aspire to meet its target of inspiring participation by one million adults. Very little progress has been made since the target was set, and cynics would say that one reason for dropping the target is that it is unlikely to be achieved.

Talking to the Guardian, Hunt announced a strategy shift for Sport England, saying that from 2013, the organisation would focus its strategy on school-leavers and young adults. Mr Hunt said: “I do think it’s reasonable to ask whether, with resources as constrained as they are, if it’s an appropriate use of taxpayers money to be focusing on adult participation when really what we want is to be getting young people into a habit for life.”

Much of the language and message about the London Olympics has, since the launch of the bid, focused on the benefit of the Olympics for a younger generation. In the 2006 Budget speech, for example Gordon Brown MP said that the “Olympics will inspire young people all across Britain and we must open up to them new opportunities to take part in sports.”

It is absolutely right that we should look to the Olympics to motivate young people. But there should be no reason why the Olympics cannot motivate all ages to participate in sport and physical activity.

The reality is that one of the reasons there has been little progress in terms of adult participation is that there remains far too little support to engage adults/older adults in physical activity. Yet there is vast (and growing) evidence that sport and physical activity can play a huge role in preventing some of the health problems we often experience later in life. These include falls, cancer, cardio-vascular disease and osteoporosis, all of which cost the health services billions of pounds a year.

Of course we shouldn’t expect Government to do it for us. There has to be a role for individuals and perhaps the Big Society could help push up participation.

But for far too long Governments seems to have put the barriers to physical activity into the ‘too difficult’ box. Research has shown for example, that community issues can create a barrier to participation in physical activity. For example, a fear of crime or a lack of toilets can stop people doing some simple activities such as going out for a walk. Localism presents a huge opportunity for local authorities to intervene. As public health budgets are taken from PCT’s, will local authorities use some of the money to invest in tackling the barriers to participation?

Engaging adults of all ages in sport doesn’t just benefit their health. It also helps younger people access opportunities for participation. The Olympics will rely heavily on older volunteers for example. Big and small sporting events across the country benefit from the huge contribution given by older volunteers.

Yes, in times where money is tight, the Government should prioritise spending. But participation in sport declines with age. In other words, finding ways of keeping people participating well into adulthood and old age should be as big a priority as getting people engaged in the first place.

The Government must take a more strategic and long term view here. We need to not pitch one generation against another, but take a lifecourse approach and look more at investment in health promotion at different life stages.

For the Government to say that it will not focus on all ages is a folly, and one that could prove to be very costly.

David Sinclair

See: Jeremy Hunt admits London 2012 legacy targets will be scrapped 29th March 2011