13 08 2012

As the London Olympics close no one is doubting they have been a huge success. Team GB have finished an unprecedented third in the medals table, fantastic crowds have turned up to watch, huge television viewing figures have been attracted and people young and old have been inspired to somehow get involved.

Now we look to the future, to the legacy, the promise that these games would inspire more people to take up sport, the very pledge on which the Games were won in 2005.

Over the last week, ‘legacy’ has become the bandwagon that everyone has wanted to jump on without really considering what legacy is and what was promised. Talking on the BBC on Saturday evening (11th August), presenter John Inverdale asked his studio guests, “is this legacy?” when talking about the sudden increase in interest in playing sport. Excitedly, his guests and others talk of hoping legacy is what we are seeing. Now we have hosted a successful Olympic Games it seems all we need to do is hope that a generation will now be inspired.

There is a term for this and it isn’t legacy. It is ‘Wimbledon Effect.’

It is that effect we see every summer during the Wimbledon fortnight and, sometimes, for as long as two weeks after where ‘inspired’ people take to the nation’s tennis courts before gradually they return to previous interests or jump on the next fad that grabs their fancy.

The challenge hasn’t changed since before the Golden sixteen days we have just enjoyed, since London won the Games in 2005. The challenge is to avoid relying on hoping and have in place strong, sensible, integrated planning; it is in putting in place a dedicated strategy for the development of sport in the UK for the first time ever.

Governments past and present have promised such strategy and talked such strategy but delivered only a seemingly endless stream of initiatives. Current Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson even promised he had such a strategy but was not able to produce it when asked.

The focus of the legacy debate these last seven days has been on two specific areas; the continued funding of elite sport and the quality of school sport. A cynic might suggest that debate was deliberately framed to ensure popular support for yesterday’s announcements from Prime Minister David Cameron that elite funding will be maintained and that competitive team sports would become compulsory in all primary schools. Both are announcements that it is difficult not to support and yet both are, yet again, populist initiatives plugging gaps where no fully functioning strategy for the development of sport exists.

The funding news is fantastic but maintaining a healthy peak to any pyramid is folly when the strategy to build and support what sits beneath is not in place.

The news that competitive sport will become compulsory in primary schools is also welcome but in isolation does not address many other gaps in sporting provision in primary schools. For example, training in PE for primary school teachers is woefully inadequate and it is those teachers who will be in the front line of delivering the Prime Minister’s new initiative.

The benefits of a healthy sporting nation – where more and more take part in physical activity – cannot be underestimated, not only to the ‘pipeline’ of elite sport. It has value in healthy people making fewer demands on an already stressed health service, in keeping crime down and fighting anti-social behaviour as well as in understanding the ethics of hard work, of being part of a team and of having a well organised life.

In short, done well this is not money spent, it is money invested. But simply having competitive sport in primary school is not doing it well; it is doing something but not the right thing. For every person like me who is eternally thankful for being good at sport and for the advantages it has given me in life there are two or more who missed out because they weren’t as good, they were the twelfth player in football, the ones who walked around at the back in cross country. How do we involve them?

The most vital lesson for sport and for a life of healthy physical activity we can teach in our primary schools is not competitive sport; it is the skills that enable the participation in sport. These skills (collectively termed ‘physical literacy’) are best learned during the primary ages of 8 to 11.

This is not to say competitive sport doesn’t have a place, it just shouldn’t have the place in this age group. Not if we want a broad base and healthy pipeline for our well-funded pyramid, not if we want to develop a healthy, sporting nation that continues to participate well into middle or old-age. It is not a populist policy aimed at votes in the next election, it is doing the right thing for the long-term health and sporting success of our nation, laying foundations that will remain even if/when the funding reduces. Moreover, it is not expensive to do.

Physical literacy in primary schools is one important but overlooked element of creating and delivering an integrated strategy for the development of sport in the UK. There are others which service the sports development continuum providing a pathway through foundation to participation to performance and to excellence and which provide well thought out support structures at and between all stages (such as providing primary teachers with the training they need in PE). It provides entry and exit routes at and between all levels. It recognises that while the talented few aspire to and pursue excellence the vast majority will never move on from and be happy with participation. All is planned, nothing is accidental and use of the word ‘hope’ is eradicated.

We must move away from debate by sound-bite and delivery by initiative and start thinking more of what the long-term vision is and what the strategy is to get us there; the fully integrated, strategy for the development of sport in the UK which recognises and fully services the sports development continuum.

It is the difference between there being a genuine Olympic Legacy or yet another Wimbledon Effect.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, August 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal




5 responses

13 08 2012

The sound of nails hitting heads is louder than any Olympic fireworks – great piece

13 08 2012

Thank you Paul. Let’s hope someone in Westminster wakes up to the need (and benefits) of doing this properly.

14 08 2012
john bicourt

Spot on, Jim. If only government actually took any notice.

“inspiring a generation” sounds wonderful and worthy but do they know what it actually means and how to implement it to create a sustained increase in participation across sport in general, especially for the 16-25 year age groups? No, they don’t.

“Participation” can mean many things depending on how anyone wishes to interpret it: Young kids, 7-14 generally and naturally love participating in sports. Older kids and young adults generally have some experience of sporting activity/s as do a very significant percentage of the rest of the population.

But what is “participation”? Government seems to define it as anyone doing any kind of physical activity which is not work, regardless of the infrequency and counts all in the same category as professional participants and Olympic competitors!

Those who jog, cycle, swim, play physical games of any kind or go to the gym just for fun to socialise and perhaps to keep a bit fitter and less fat than they might otherwise be are all classed as “participants” the same as the elite. All a good thing in one way, but how does it develop and sustain the pathway for those who aspire to try and achieve their potential and perhaps even elite level?

The problem, as you rightfully identify, is the total lack of an integrated sport provision strategy and their inability to recognise that all sports at grass roots relies on the dedication and time put in by the volunteer, coaches, officials and team managers without whom formal organised sport and the elite they produce, could not exist.

Pouring money into more competitive sport in schools is a good thing, but only if it linked with specialist training for teachers (especially at Primary level) and/or supervised by paid local qualified and CRB checked club coaches who are then able to guide those, keen enough, through to a suitable club set up after school.

The outstanding sport at these and every Olympic Games is the athletics in the main stadium which caters for all body types and offers the greatest number of choices through running, jumping and throwing for any child and adult interested enough. However, creating the incentives to keep young potential high achievers motivated and dedicated to try and become part of our next generation of international and Olympic representatives (in all sports) is where the government appears to be oblivious. They’ll contribute to the bottom rung of the ladder and to the top rung but continue to ignore the rungs in-between which would enable far more to reach the top whilst at the same time increasing ‘participation’ at all levels helping to drive a sustainable and robust sporting nation.

20 08 2012
Liz Behnke

I was down at a Rowing Club on Sunday to deliver another initiative called SportMakers which the ARA and the CSP had packaged up with a Come and Row event. What became clear was the impact that the Olympics had had on people young and old. My concern was the club’s capacity to take these people on, and my heart sank when they said the next learn to row course was either Friday day time or next January. We have a real problem in capacity. By January people will have forgotten, and going out on the river in January is hardly going to get all but the hardened athlete out there.

I know that this is a problem all over the country where volunteers in clubs are struggling to cope due to lack of investment in them. We hadn’t anticipated how well GB would perform, we knew that there would be a surge in interest but we hadn’t geared up to this. Surely this should have been predicted. If the government moves fast we might just be able to redeem the situation, but I suspect that the wheels of bureaucracy will turn too slowly and we will see a missed opportunity as we did back in 1988 when we won gold in the hockey, and we were not able to capitalise on the opportunity.

Your piece about primary schools is spot on, we need teachers who are enthusiastic about PE, but if all we are going to offer what I heard was more of the same in terms of hockey, football, netball etc then we are going to have the same effect on children as we have already had where thousands vote with their feet and forget their kit and cry off sick. We saw other sports which are new to the British sporting scene which some kids might just take up, what we need is a system that gives youngsters a good physical literacy based programme in the first instance and then allows them to migrate to sports that they have an interest in. Then we might just hold their interest.

22 08 2012

Hi Liz,

Thank you for taking the time to comment. I believe you sum a large part of the problem up perfectly.

In response to your (rhetorical) question, “surely this should have been predicted” the answer is, yes it should. Indeed it was by myself (see numerous previous blogs) and many others but no one was listening. Now, we are where we are and we have to start from this point in time; not ideal but not a lost cause either.

Government past and present should have done/be doing far better. I can only assume that either they do not listen to their expert advisers or that their advisers are not expert.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: