I have now written about the Olympic Legacy on a number of occasions; most frequently questioning the lack of competent strategy in fulfilling the promise our politicians made to us and to the world in 2005; that the Games would bring an increase in sporting participation.
Nearly eight years later, we still await any strategy worthy of the name and, for some sports, time is running out.
I have a lot to be thankful to the sport of athletics for. As a former athlete I spent many enjoyable years training for and competing in the sport. Later I became a coach and was fortunate to work with many talented athletes. I have made friendships which have endured the years and the miles, I have seen more of the world than I could ever have dreamed of and I learned much about myself as a person. Athletics gave me a base from which I worked in a number of other sports with many fantastic individuals and great teams. Other than my parents, the sport of track and field athletics contributed more to my being the person I am today than anything else. I am grateful, extremely grateful.
Why do I share this with you?
Because athletics in the UK is in serious trouble. Forget that ‘Super Saturday’ of last summer; forget the success of Mo and Jessica and the others. That is the glossy picture that fronts a sport in decline.
The official figures paint a picture far rosier than reality. Sport England’s annual Active People Survey reports 2.1 million adults regularly (once per week) taking part in athletics. That is more than 1 in every 20 people but few other than politicians and those in sport whose jobs depend on these figures believe them anymore. Grass roots athletics certainly doesn’t. Even when you allow for the fact that Sport England includes joggers as athletes the figures are barely credible.
But what about the sport the public think of as athletics? What of the sport of Mo and Jessica and the others? What of track and field athletics?
In 2011 the Association of British Athletic Clubs asked world-renowned athletics statistician Rob Whittingham to take an independent look at track and field participation focusing on the key adult competition age of 20 to 34. His findings were that fewer than 2000 people regularly participated in track and field athletics. That is 0.1% of people participating in what the public might term ‘real’ athletics compared to Sport England’s figure for their definition of ‘athletics’.
As a way of picturing 2000 people, let me put it this way; it is insufficient numbers to field even 182 football or cricket teams (that’s fewer than four per English county) and enough for only 133 rugby union teams (fewer than three per English county).
Since 2011 athletics plight has continued. Local, national and international facilities have come under threat of closure from Mansfield to Gateshead and from Cwmbran to Don Valley in Sheffield. Britain’s most successful ever athletics club, Belgrave Harriers, has had to withdraw from the British League because of a shortage of volunteers. For the uninitiated, Belgrave has been athletics equivalent of Manchester United having won 11 National titles in The League’s 43 year history. Now their top flight aspirations are over.
In the absence of any competent strategy from DCMS, Sport England or England Athletics, Belgrave Harriers are now going it alone and have developed a strategy which will develop new, non-funding reliant income streams which, given time, can be reinvested in the club to support proper development. Where once they led on the track, perhaps Belgrave Harriers are now leading in new directions which will benefit a sport in desperate need of leadership if it is to save itself.
This is not the sport of Super Saturday, this is a sport in transition from major to minor. The sport of my youth, the sport which gave me so much and which has the potential to give much to others has become a minority sport. Strip out the joggers and not much of a sport remains.
Despite the promises of 2005 we have still to see an integrated strategy for the development of sport in this country, one which recognises the full sports development continuum. There has been plenty of talk and lots of initiatives and more than a few bad strategies, but there has been little of quality and now athletics is paying the price.
If the Olympic Legacy is to mean something, if politician’s promise to the people of the UK and of the rest of the world is not to ring hollow that must change and change quickly. Competent, quality strategy is required now, for the bell is ringing for athletics’ last lap.
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, February 2013