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Sport England's participation figures reveal decline in young people playing sport

  • @RobinScottEllio

With the London Olympics a month away, the struggle the government faces to persuade young people to take regular exercise was starkly illustrated today with the release of the latest sport participation figures.

While overall numbers have increased beyond 15 million for the first time, among 16-25 year-olds there has been a decline since London was awarded the Games seven years ago.

Sport England’s headline figure shows a healthy total increase of half a million people playing sport once a week in the last six months, and a rise of 1.3m since the Games were won – in part on a vision of sporting legacy – in 2005. It is claimed this is already a sign of the effect hosting the Olympics will have, with Olympic sports such as cycling and athletics boasting rising numbers.  

But the failure to see a rise in young people playing sport represents an ongoing concern. In 2005/6, 3.651m 16-25-year-olds played sport once a week; now it is 3.784m, which represents an actual decline of 1.6 per cent. Lord Coe’s claim that the Games would inspire a generation remains a distant hope as the figures flatline.

Hugh Robertson, minister for sport and the Olympics, suggested there is a need for patience in what is a long-term project.

He said: “The long-term downward trend is a concern. We have to be a little bit patient. Changing people’s sporting habits is like turning an oil tanker around so while we’re making great progress the real impact will be seen in the years that follow 2012. The Games themselves will put sport in the shop window for young people and inspire many more to get involved in sport.

“In this digital age, young people have a lot of different things competing for their time and attention, so sport has to be innovative and sell itself well to young people in a way that appeals.”

Jennie Price, Sport England’s chief executive, accepts the figures are a concern and that sports must adapt to a different challenge in attracting young people. She said: “They are worrying. Those numbers are hard to shift because there is so much going on in young people’s lives and they consume sport in a very different way to how its been traditionally offered. Sport has got to catch up and compete with that. I would hope by 2013 we will see a stabilisation and then we will start to see a progressive rise.”

No previous Olympic Games has led to a rise in participation in the host country which always made the previous government’s pronouncement of getting a million more people into regular exercise a heady promise. That target was dropped by the coalition last year and the means of measuring regular exercise switched from three sessions of thirty minutes a week to one. Under the three-times-a week criteria the headline figure is up 400,000 since last year, which might suggest a Games-inspired rise among those aged 25 and upwards.

The government’s scrapping of the £162m ring-fenced school sport budget in 2010 and free swimming for under 16s have both been suggested as among the reasons why youth participation has struggled to rise. But the coalition claim the issue is being addressed with 60 per cent of the £450m lottery and treasury funding destined for Sport England from 2013 being targeted at the 16-25 age group. Other projects, including the School Games, funding to improve grass-root facilities and schemes to improve links between sports clubs and schools are also held up as ways in which numbers can be boosted.

Of the 31 sports funded by Sport England – it is investing £480m over four-years from 2009 – 18 have rising figures, but only athletics and cycling have seen significant increases, by 370,000 and 170,000 respectively. Swimming, second only to football in overall numbers and one of the leading Olympic sports, shows the largest decline, falling by around 430,000.