23 06 2011

Sky Sports News weekly ‘Special Report’ is the latest media attempt to examine the success or otherwise of the promised Olympic legacy of increased sports participation. Unfortunately, the programme failed to grasp facts and offered little new to the debate.

Not so special

On Monday evening (20th June) Sky Sports News broadcast its latest ‘Special Report.’ I had hoped that, at last, the matter would get a proper airing in the media, that in-depth research would lead to probing questions and the fallacy of the sports participation legacy would be laid bare.

Unfortunately, the report was far from ‘special’, failing to answer, or even summarise, views on the single, poorly researched, question it posed.

Of the programme, Sky Sports News stated; “We explore why amateur sports clubs are facing closure as their funding is cut. Should Olympics organisers be doing more to ensure a sustainable legacy?”

The programme pointed out that of the £9.3bn Olympic budget not a penny is for legacy. The point that Sky’s researchers appeared to have missed was that at no stage had any of the Olympics budget ever been allocated to legacy. So, when the programme reported that Haringey council were cutting the £50,000 required for the upkeep of the Finsbury Park athletics track and that councils up and down the country were doing similar, they were trying to tie two separate stories together.

Sebastian Coe quite rightly pointed out that; “those are borough priorities and it would be entirely wrong of me to start inserting myself in the local politics.

So, if the Olympic budget doesn’t have a responsibility to legacy, whose budget does?

The answer to that question was provided in the first few minutes of the programme when Sport England’s CEO, Jennie Price, told the viewers about Sport England’s £230m per annum budget of which £135m is specifically earmarked for legacy because of 2012. It sounded very clear to me but somehow Sky’s researchers had missed it and their presenter, Julian Waters, continued down the wrong road.

Early in the report, it became apparent that Sky were taking a scatter gun approach to the promised legacy issue but, lacking decent research, even a scatter gun approach lacked aim.

As part of our bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Sebastian Coe and his bid team as well as the government had repeated time and again that no Olympic Games had produced a legacy of physical activity simply by being staged; that no stadium had inspired a young person to take up sport. The evidence was clear; hosting the Olympics will not provide a legacy of increased participation in sport unless that legacy is specifically planned for. That plan is what we were promised, that plan is what we still await. Sky failed to pick up on this.

So when Coe stated; “our teams are preparing for 2012 and they will be of huge inspiration to local athletics clubs the length and breadth of this country,” he was telling us something he knew, in legacy terms, not to be true. Sky failed to pick up on this so the question as to why he suddenly
thought the Games would now produce this legacy where before he didn’t went unasked and unanswered.

Next in the sights of Sky Sports’ scattergun was the Centre for Social Justice’s (CSJ) report into legacy (on which we reported on 24th May). Cue Hugh Robertson the Sports Minister telling the camera that he thinks that they (the CSJ) are wrong. However, where the CSJ offered a report and researched evidence, Robertson offered none.

Caborn; on Sky's panel

Instead he went on to inform us that we (I assume the government) are only in the early stages of putting the sports legacy together, something former Sports Minister Richard Caborn would disagree with but, although he was among Sky’s panel of experts, was never asked to comment on.

Robertson was right on one point, in explaining that no one would expect them to have secured the (promised) legacy 14 months out from the Games. However, this is the same Minister who promised that he had a strategy for the development of sport a year ago but has yet to produce it. The same Minister for Sport who (correctly) criticised the previous government’s lack of strategy and use of ‘initiativeitis’ (a term he coined) before going on to employ a policy of, you guessed it, initiativeitis in the hope of producing a legacy of some undefined sort. We still await the strategy.

Laying the ground for the likelihood that the promise made to us all in 2005 was unlikely to be delivered, Robertson stated; “no other Olympic City has ever delivered big increases in mass participation on the back of an Olympics so we’re trying to do something very new here.

He’s right, of course, on both counts. It has never been done before, ergo it is something new. Unfortunately no one from Sky thought to ask him; “how?” That is, what is the plan?

Sky Sports News had assembled a panel for the programme of former Sports Minister Richard Caborn, Times reporter and former Olympic table tennis player Matthew Syed and former NBA star turned basketball developer John Amaechi. It should have been a good panel but the debate was fairly aimless, the presenter allowed direct questions to go unanswered and statements went unchallenged and unexamined.

Waters asked; “whose responsibility is it to make sure that next summer’s Olympics are not just 19 days of sport and nothing more?

It’s a straightforward question and easy to answer. As part of the bid Tony Blair sought and received support and commitment from all parties for the promised legacy of more people participating in sport. It was a government promise which made up part of the bid. Responsibility therefore sits fairly and squarely with Government, DCMS and with their quango Sport England.

The panel chose to ignore the question and so the viewer never found this out. Instead, Richard Caborn decided to tell us about the legacy  delivered through School Sports Partnerships. A component of a lasting legacy maybe, but Caborn demonstrated blind faith in his initiative failing to explain the need for the integrated approach he referred to later in the programme. Regardless, School Sports Partnerships are scheduled for termination by the current government in September.

The former Minister did try to bring us back to the matter at hand pointing out that the £50,000 pa needed to maintain the Finsbury Park athletics track used as the programme’s backdrop, was a local authority issue.

He went on to state that he would; “argue very forcibly that investment into these facilities is good for health, good for social inclusion, good for education and it is also good for sport as well.” He went on; “I don’t think that message has got across as firmly as it ought to have done in Whitehall.

Why not? As the Minister for Sport wasn’t that part of his responsibility? Isn’t this a key component in making the case for legacy and wasn’t that legacy promised by all parties in 2005?

Sadly, none of those questions were asked. Instead we returned to the Olympic budget of £9.3bn. Yes, it is a huge sum but we had already established that the promised participation legacy didn’t come from that pot. Nevertheless, the panel were asked; “should Coe speak out on legacy?

Frankly, we all should; and Coe speaking out, provided he avoids the usual spin and sound bites pre-approved by his PR people, would be welcome as he does have the ear of politicians. And remember, forget the £9.3bn Olympic budget, it is politicians of all parties and the DCMS who promised the legacy and Sport England (not LOCOG) who hold legacy budget.

Instead, courtesy of Matthew Syed, we returned to the old chestnut of there being no evidence of the Olympics ever having any kind of legacy effect on young people and participation. Everybody knew that and acknowledged it at the time of the bid. That is why the plan for achieving the participation legacy is key: The still absent strategy.

Syed: Confused about when Game Plan was published

Syed did introduce a suggestion that something underhand was going on. He told us that; “in fact Game Plan, a government document that  wasn’t published at the time, said all this but we were not told as a public when we were being looked at for support for the Games.

I’d have hoped for better from an established sports journalist who works for The Times. But never let the facts get in the way of a good story, or do the research to check what you are saying is correct. For the record, the Olympic bid was won in 2005, three years after Game Plan was published and available to one and all via Sport England’s website.

No, and apologies for repeating myself, we (the nation) went into the bidding process with our eyes open, we knew that just holding the Olympics would have no effect on sports participation levels. We were promised that legacy would be delivered via an additional plan.

John Amaechi brought us back on track reminding us that sports participation legacy work has, successfully been taking place. Unfortunately he was referring to ‘International Inspiration’, another part of the promised legacy; that of increasing sports participation in other countries.

Back to the UK, Amaechi questioned the promise that had been made pointing out that; “you can’t promise the country a certain type of result, young people playing in Olympic facilities was the image dancing in everybody’s head, and then deliver on the other hand the idea that young
children simply looking at Olympic venues from their estate is a result.

So, have we established that? It seems clear that no one believes buildings will inspire participation. But then, no one ever did. So did the programme now move on?

No such luck. Without boring you with the full details the point was regularly returned to. I, on the other hand will move on.

Richard Caborn proceeded to inform us about the UK Schools Games at which 1300 young people will compete and which is now in its 5th or 6th year (he appeared uncertain).  On to legacy at last, even if 1300 is not exactly mass participation.

Caborn told us; “That is part of a legacy for sport as far as the Olympics is concerned. It would not have happened had it not been for the Olympics.” As a former Minister for Sport one would have hoped that he had heard of the English Schools Athletics Championships, an event that was first run in 1925. Athletics (along with many other sports) had its own version of the School Games 23 years before even the last London Games in 1948. So why something like the UK School Games would not have happened without the Olympics is not entirely clear and whether they are adding new participants to what existed is, at best, questionable. Unfortunately Julian Waters appeared to lack the knowledge to question Caborn’s assertion.

Instead, Matthew Syed picked Caborn up on whether the Schools Games would add anything to the legacy aim of increasing participation pointing out that 16-35 year olds are playing less sport now than they did in 2007. As Syed put it; “the words are great but the evidence doesn’t back it up.

Caborn chose to respond by talking about schools sport, ignoring the 16-35 age group and talking about the increase in quality PE participation enjoyed by school children under Labour. Forget the debate; he had a political point to make.

Caborn did show an understanding that schools, clubs, elite, coaching and more all need integrating to generate a genuine lasting participation legacy. Unfortunately neither his nor the current government applied that (sound) thinking to any integrated planning for the development of sport in this country.

He pointed out that in not integrating our planning we are missing the trick, “for example, like the Germans and French have done.

I hoped we were now getting there. Where? Pay attention!

Remember the cuts to funding for sports facilities, the £50k pa required to keep the athletics track at Finsbury Park open, somewhere for the population to play sport?

I hoped because in France and most of Western Europe sports facilities, sports development and community sports clubs enjoy statutory protection. Not in the UK. I hoped that Caborn or maybe the ineffective Julian Waters (Sky’s presenter) could introduce this apparent gap in UK sports provision to the discussion. It is something this blog has regularly suggested should be a key component of legacy planning; statutory protection for sport.

Without such protection it is inevitable that councils like Haringey will cut funding to facilities like Finsbury Park when funding is tight. Why? Because by law they have to preserve those other services which do afford statutory protection. They might not want to cut sports provision, but that is not the point.

But having brought Germany and France into the debate, they were forgotten and not mentioned again.

John Amaechi skirted the issue by talking about the cost of playing sport and how the fees add up and can be a deterrent. He raised the issue that the CSJ had previously reported about coaching needing to be relevant and appropriate; “kids don’t stick around just because the ball is shiny…..they want somebody that they can connect with.

His comment hinted at the need for an integrated, planned approach not the expensive and unproductive initiativeitis relied on by governments past and present.

The first half of the programme ended and I was left wondering; what was the point? Surely it would improve? Surely Sky’s researchers had dug up some facts? Surely they were going to speak to someone who had a deeper understanding of sports development and of strategy?

Bicourt; questioned official participation figures

The second half started promisingly. Double Olympic steeplechaser, school teacher and Coach John Bicourt openly questioned the participation figures Sport England produce (which this blog has discussed) and which do not bear any sort of close examination. The programmes second reporter, Geraint Hughes, was not interested. Bicourt was cut short and we returned to the panel.

Amaechi wasn’t playing and suggested that the way participation is measured is “problematic” that to get meaningful data measurement of consistent participation is needed whereas Sport England’s measure is “episodic.

Caborn, the Minister under whose party’s stewardship the measurements were introduced, speaking about boxing (he is the President of the ABA), suggested the figures don’t represent the real picture. He told us that if we are talking about more people being active the figures are moving in the right direction but if we are talking about participating in sport they are probably going down.

However if Bicourt, Amaechi and Caborn are all correct (and the evidence suggests they are) and the way the figures are gathered is “problematic” how we know any of this with any degree of certainty was not explained. (Thanks to independent research we do know that the data for athletics are grossly over exaggerated, so must assume the same for other sports in the absence of further research). An important element of judging the success or otherwise of any strategy is the ability to measure accurately.

But let’s get back to the point at hand, the promised legacy. The panel were asked; “Are there two sides to this, supply and demand? Supply of facilities and demand from people to use them?

We’re back to needing an integrated strategy again without anyone really grasping and making the point. Matthew Syed did inadvertently pick up on a vital element of strategy though; that it is based on sound research and consultation, that what it sets out to achieve is achievable. He talked of picking figures from the air referring to the now abandoned target of one million more people taking part in physical activity. He talked of how randomly the figure had been chosen.

John Amaechi described the possibility of returning to the Finsbury Park athletics track just before the Games start to find it closed as “criminal if
we have promised one type of legacy from the Games and, because we’ve decided certain facilities have to go, that doesn’t get delivered.

Amachi; poignant statement

Pointedly, he went on; “what’s going to happen here at the Olympics could be worse even than just people not participating afterwards, it could be that you excite young people to play, they go out into their communities to look for where to play and they come here and they realise it’s grassed over, it is no longer a facility where they can get the right kind of coaching and the right kind of development. That would be a true tragedy.

Indeed it would John.

Amaechi’s poignant statement aside Sky Sports News Special Report failed to address the issue of the promised legacy of more people playing sport. It rambled; it failed to zero in on salient points when raised. It suffered from a lack of research, misunderstanding and failing to establish who is responsible for the legacy; it’s planning and its delivery. Ultimately it didn’t just fail to answer the question it had posed, it failed to offer any conclusions at all.

So what should the programme have addressed?

Having clearly identified that simply holding the Olympics will not increase participation the programme should have asked; how are we planning to deliver the legacy we were promised? Where is the legacy plan?

A sharper more focused programme might also have asked why, as part of that plan, sport in the UK is not afforded the same statutory protection it receives from many of our European neighbours?

And if they really wanted to probe they might have asked why the fixation with structure when, without clear strategy we have yet to define what structure would best benefit direction, management and delivery of any strategy?

We are not talking about anything more than sound sports development principles and sports development planning. We are talking about the need for a fully, vertically integrated, strategy for the development of sport in the UK.

Perhaps next time Sky Sports News commission a ‘Special Report’ into this area they should ask; Olympics or not, with the millions of public money funding sport in this country why have we never had such a strategy?

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2011

Twitter @cowanglobal



3 responses

8 04 2012

[…] in good strategy which most undermines grass-roots sport in this country. In June last year a Sky Sports News special report on legacy highlighted the problem of local authorities being unable to fund sports facilities when using […]

13 04 2012

[…] in good strategy which most undermines grass-roots sport in this country. In June last year a Sky Sports News special report on legacyhighlighted the problem of local authorities being unable to fund sports facilities when using […]

11 09 2012

[…] highlighted by former NBA basketball star John Amaechi. In June last year, Amaechi appeared on a Sky Sports News Special Report on Legacy and, talking of the threat of facility closures, […]

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