Musings From The Padded Cell

An Olympic Legacy? – Yorkshire Post 25/2/12

“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” John F. Kennedy

Olympic year this may be, but what legacy will we really be left with once the party is over? And just what benefits will kids in Yorkshire see from the East London jamboree? Personally, I never believed it would be either worthwhile or within budget.

Initially projected at under £3 billion, the budget is expected to be almost £10 billion; is anyone surprised? Given the woeful state of school and recreational grassroots sport, plus the escalating issues of obesity, poor health and inactivity in our young people, could £10 billion have been spent better?

In the last three decades, school sport in the state system has all but vanished. Given that over 90 per cent of children are educated by the state, what opportunities do children now have to pursue the legacy dream? There is little point in raking over how we got here; it is far better to accept this as a starting point and redress the main issues.

My background is not in education or health, but I grew up in an age where competitive school sport was a given and competition was encouraged. Yes, we relied on the goodwill and dedication of our teachers to give up free time beyond the normal working day. It is equally true that the only league tables we worried about were the sporting variety. But we grew up healthy and being slim was the norm.

The consequences of the decline of school sport are actually incalculable. The NHS can only estimate the future financial burden in terms of obesity-related illnesses. Equally damaging (and acknowledged in SportEngland’s “Strategy 2011-15”) is the impact on wider society; grassroots sport depends on school sport to survive. The opportunities to interact; to play, to compete and to shape personalities for later life are all diminished.

Call me a cynic, but I do not believe Lord Coe when he claims this colossally extravagant party has any real meaning for tomorrow’s kids. I know he achieved the goal he was set, but how can he really understand what is available to kids today?

The Labour Government attempted to revive school sport largely through the Sport England funded Youth Sport Trust (YST), which grandly calls itself “the landscape lead organisation for school sport”. The Department of Health noted that fitness levels in young children had reduced by 9 per cent during 2003-9, despite an estimated YST budget of £1.4 billion.[1]

The same agency is now tasked with The School Games but you have to wonder why; they have achieved so little to date. As a volunteer grassroots coach, my perception of the YST was that this was an expensive and bureaucratic beast. We also have the recently announced “Get Back into Sport” aimed at 14-25 year olds, but how can they get back into something most were never in?

There are so many agencies with different pots of money that it is impossible to see how this can be either focused or efficient. Perhaps some broad figures may help further illuminate the problem:

1 – 33.4 per cent of final year primary school children are overweight or obese;[2]

2 – NHS spending £4.2 billion on obesity related issues;[3]

3 – 90 per cent of today’s children are predicted to be overweight or obese by 2050;[4]

If we really want a lasting Olympic legacy I suggest a much simpler approach than the confusing multi-departmental, multi-agency one we have. At the centre of any strategy has to be the grassroots organisations and clubs that are the lifeblood of sport. Government funded bodies simply do not get it.

The role of the PE teacher in primary schools should be key. However, it’s not all about sport and should encompass and encourage basic physical literacy and healthy living as a way of life. That should be the sole remit and outside any league tables.

In addition, as many schools have limited sports space or specialist equipment creating positive links with local clubs is essential. This would have real benefits for clubs struggling to attract new members. The YST was tasked with this, but I saw no evidence of it locally. Making this a key role for the new PE teacher would make sense. The clubs are full of committed volunteers willing to help.

This is not simply about sport though; we have to change our culture and arrest this decline. Reversing several decades of ignorant living is not easy. Sport in isolation is not the answer, but surely being fit and healthy should be everyone’s goal? If sport is a means to an end it’s a hugely valuable one.

When the VIPs have all gone home and the showcase Olympic facilities are quietly sold off, most likely for a fraction of what was promised, it may just be worth the price if we see a radical shift in the way we all live. We should start with the youngest, those with the least baggage; that way, we might not fail another generation.

[1] Sky Sports News – November 2010

[2] National Child Measurement Programme 2011

[3] Sunday Times 20/11/11

[4] Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer, 2009

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