Mike Rowbottom: Government cuts will force even orienteering to lose its way

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The Independent Online

I'll be honest - I don't know much about orienteering. It has always struck me as an excruciating paradox in that it requires thinking and running at the same time - maths on the move. As I recall from my Scouting days as a member of Squirrel Patrol, map reading is a difficult enough activity when you are static, especially if your patrol leader insists on folding the map into a thick wodge of paper and keeps on jogging you just as you've got the compass steady.

No wonder we always came last in the out-and-about exercises. Marching to our leader's favoured slogan of the time - "We shall fight, we shall win, Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh'' - didn't appear to have any mitigating effect upon our incompetence.

But I digress.

Although orienteering is not something close to my heart, I can understand its potential satisfactions as a test of mind and body. And it requires little more than a compass, a map and a stretch of God's earth, preferably wooded.

Healthy. Cheap. Educational. Sounds just like the kind of thing the Government wants to see more of as it promotes its latest policy document on delivering - love that word - sport to the nation. This report, known as Game Plan, was presented by the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, this week to the annual conference of the Central Council for Physical Recreation. It boils down to three main wishes, as the Minister himself expressed them: "Participation, participation, participation.''

Caborn's performance, notwithstanding his daring pink tie, was that of a man waiting impatiently for a train. Which indeed he was. And the need to be away in time to meet that train meant he was only able to address a couple of questions from the assembled representatives of the nation's sporting bodies before he made his exit.

But at least this gathering of dedicated sports administrators had the benefit of some invaluable insights into their chosen area of expertise. The Government, it turns out, is committed to sport. So too is the Prime Minister. And sport, it transpires, is vital to improving the health and economic vitality of our country.

There isn't enough space here to do full justice to the Minister's speech. Suffice it to say that his listeners were so dazed with its wealth of information that they almost forgot to clap when he had finished.

Among those left with their arms in the air at the end of "question time" was Robin Field, the chief executive of the British Orienteering Federation.

Like many others in the theatrically lit auditorium at Heythrop Park near Oxford, Field was experiencing a sense of imminent ruin. As the sale of Lottery tickets continues to fall, the Government has made no secret of its plans to concentrate resources on "mainstream'' sports. Officials at Sport England are currently steeling themselves to tell all but around 20 of the 64 sports currently receiving Lottery funding that the support will end next year. Those at UK Sport, which supports the élite end of sports, are having to make similarly painful calculations.

Field does not kid himself that orienteering will be up there with cycling, swimming and athletics when it comes to the great divide. His beloved organisation thus stands to lose more than half its income.

The question he wanted to put to the Minister was this: if the British Orienteering Federation [with an estimated 100,000 active participants] modernised and jumped through every hoop required, could it avoid the unkindest cut? In his heart, however, Field knows the answer.

Of course it may be that he, along with so many others, has missed the point in the Government's current drive for participation. Caborn reminded the conference that over the last seven years around £1.5 billion has been put into sport via Sport England, and while this has transformed facilities it has increased participation by just 0.7 percent, a situation that the Minister deems "unacceptable''.

So the new policy appears to be this. Having apparently failed to stimulate sporting participation through funding, the Government is now embracing the bold option of stimulating participation by not funding.

You have to say, that is out-of-the-box thinking. And who knows? It might work. But Field is not alone in doubting it.

"We have four part-time schools development officers,'' he said. "We could do with 20. But how can you expect to increase participation if you are not going to provide the seed money required to encourage it? The Government agencies, Sport England and UK Sport, are having to make the Judgement of Solomon. They are having to rob Peter to pay Paul.''

Caborn concluded his remarks to the conference by emphasising the watchwords that now apply to those in charge of sport's governing bodies - "delivery, efficiency, transparency and accountability.'' And, in Field's case, impossibility.