Our incredible athletes have proven life’s simplest adage correct, that if you work hard and commit, then you can achieve your dreams. But it has not always been that simple for our elite athletes. Starved of funding for years before John Major’s heroic decision to set up the National Lottery to fund Olympic sports, we had been typecast as a nation of perennial underachievers on the global sporting stage; we were the nearly men and women of sport. Our new found dominance in Olympic sport is not an accident. We are the nation as Jacques Rogge said at the London Olympics opening ceremony that invented modern sport. We invented and codified the vast majority of Olympic sports, from tennis to boxing. We are a nation that loves sport. Yet to ensure continued success at Olympic Games we must do more than just continue using National Lottery funding; we must encourage grassroots participation wherever we can which requires joined up thinking from national to local government.
We have though a growing level of obesity in the UK. Obesity is literally killing us. The percentage of obese British men is forecast to increase from 26% in 2010 to 36% in 2030. Similarly for women it will increase from 26% in 2010 to 33% in 2030. What is the point of spending so much money on drugs and treatment to cure people when it’s too late? For someone with heart disease or cancer caused by a poor diet and lack of exercise taxpayers money could have been better spent on preventing those conditions. This is where sport comes in. Exercise is the greatest way of ensuring our nation’s health. Yes we must have access to the best drugs in the world and ensure that hospitals are efficient, care is individualised and unique to the patient. But if we are able to prevent more people from getting to hospital in the first place then we can all live longer and healthier lives. Exercise helps people lose weight; it focuses concentration in the brain and improves productivity. Why therefore is sports funding not protected in the same way that NHS funding is?
The Department of Culture Media and Sport reduced funding for community level sport by 5-6% in 2015 and 2016 but protected elite sports funding. This is wrong. Cutting funding for grassroots sports inevitably affects the amount of success at Olympics. When you reduce the pool of athletes to choose from you have less chance of sporting success. All our athletes in Team GB started out at grassroots level. Sport should be moved away from the Department of Culture and placed under the Department of Health. It is the first stage in the strategy of ensuring public health and encouraging more people to partake in sport. We need to make it easier for our children to partake in sport. The more children we get playing sports the fewer will suffer from obesity. Subsequently less people will be vulnerable to life threatening illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and osteoarthritis.
It requires more to ensure continued Olympic success than just protecting funding for community sport and placing sports funding under the Department for Health. It is about gearing the whole system of local and national government with joined up thinking to encourage sports participation.
Firstly let’s make it easier for sports facilities to obtain planning permission. The planning system as it stands currently is a highly complex, slow process from start to finish. It gives plenty of space for Nimbyism to flourish, stifle debate and stand in the way of a utilitarian outcome. Sporting facilities should be given special status in our planning legislation. They should not be subject to the same strict criteria. Moreover green belt development rules should be relaxed for sports facilities. The green built is for all of us to enjoy, granted. Currently though only 10% of the UK is built upon. If we are to build on our green built for anything, it should be to encourage people to be active. Having a track and field athletics pitch built in one area of green belt can consequently help more people appreciate it. By exercising regularly more people will want to run and walk in our natural landscapes to escape the hustle and bustle of our cities, those cramped ant colonies that do not allow for safe cycling or running. I am not advocating the mass paving over of our green belt with a new generation of all weather hockey and football pitches. Rather I am saying we should look to moderately increase the amount of green belt built upon for sporting needs.
Furthermore we need a fundamental overhaul of PE time at school. When I was at school we had two lessons of PE a week. By the time we had changed at the start and end of the lesson it amounted to no more than half an hour of exercise. We need to really double this. Extend the school day to accommodate more hours of exercise. Scrap PSHE. Most of the topics can be taught in other subjects like English or Philosophy and ethics. Moreover we should scrap the health and safety regulations that force school teachers to be present after school if children want to play on school tennis courts or train on the athletics track. My friend and I wanted to play on our school tennis courts after hours but could not as we were told the laws said a teacher had to be present. Schools are so scared of the damages culture that blights our society. They can too easily be sued by parents. Where has the culture of individual responsibility gone? We need to do away with this culture. People must take and accept more individual responsibility in society. If I see a tree I know full well what the risks are of climbing it. As do many teenagers. People should be free to make their own mistakes and decisions in life. Individual freedom is so important for competition and life in general. If we are to encourage more people to partake in sports and exercise we have to enable a greater degree of freedom for individuals to make their own choices; including the choice to utilise perfectly good sports facilities.
We need to make it easier for people to compete too. I myself have been through the process through my running life. Getting on the coach at university to go to cross country and athletics meets. I had to find the money on an already tight budget at university to contribute to the team’s petrol. It is hard for people to compete seriously in sport without financial backing. We could allow discounts on public transport for students en route to a sporting event. Also we could give sports clubs tax breaks on new sports equipment and rent.
On a local scale we need to get our communities involved in creating more sporting and fun physical events for people to partake in. We need our local councils to work with sports centres to create ‘sports weeks’ where a lucky few can use their facilities for free for a week. Also fun physical activities for people of all ages must be set up. Councils need to organise more fun runs, cycle rides and local competitions. If at the end of these ‘sports or activity weeks’ the net result is that 15 or 20 more out of 100 take up a sport then that is 15 or 20 more who will go on to lead healthier lives and could potentially represent team GB.
Continued success at the Olympics is not guaranteed just because we continue lottery funding for elite athletes. These elite athletes come from somewhere. They come from the grassroots. They are all of us. We must create an environment in this country where exercise is the norm, obesity is a plague of a small minority as opposed to a large minority and sport is a result of our lifestyle. Sport does not just need money thrown at it. It needs joined up thinking from local to national government. From rules and regulation, the curriculum, to local councils creating events, to recognition of sports true place in the health of our nation. That is the way we can ensure continued success for Team GB and indeed sports across the board.