This is a numbers puzzle – small numbers, big numbers, rising numbers and falling numbers – and it is one that does not add up. Leeds rowing club is raising funds to build a new clubhouse, such has been the surge of interest inspired by the London Olympics. Twenty of the 29 sports funded by Sport England recorded a drop in participation in the latest figures released last month. Athletics clubs around the country report a brisk walk-up of people wanting to run and jump in the footsteps of Jess Ennis and Greg Rutherford. Sport England figures show fewer people were playing sport in April 2013 than in April 2012. It’s a complex sum.
No Olympic Games has led to a rise in participation in the host nation. No matter how many gold medals were hung around British necks across those two glorious weeks last summer, that millstone hangs heavy already. There was a spike in participation figures taken in October 2012 but for that figure to fall by April 2013, however slight the 100,000 decline is, is cause for alarm.
There has never been a better time to be a British Olympian with the potential to stand on a podium in Rio 2016. They are as well supported, trained and funded as any in the world. Below the elite, however, the future is murky.
“I have always felt that this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Tessa Jowell, former Olympics minister and a key figure in the bid, told The Independent. “I don’t think it is being seized. That is my fear.”
It is a fear founded on the muddle the Government has made over school sport – the make-or-break area if a generation is to be inspired – and in particular the decision made by Michael Gove three years ago to scrap the £162m school sports partnerships. “An act of vandalism” is how Baroness Billingham, a Labour peer, labelled it during a recent House of Lords committee meeting exploring the London 2012 legacy.
Earlier this year another baroness, Sue Campbell, the former chair of UK Sport and a long-time campaigner for sport’s place in wider society, wondered in genuine anguish in a check-in queue at Rio airport whether she had wasted her career. Campbell had just toured a school on the edge of a favela that had better facilities than those of schools bordering London’s Olympic Park.
Beyond the school gates the picture is as complex as a Kandinsky canvas, a swirl of different interests. Public funding for sport is distributed by two quangos, UK Sport and Sport England. UK Sport looks after the elite level with the ultimate aim of winning medals at Olympic Games. Sport England takes care of the grassroots. Its job is to increase participation and it will invest £493m in individual sports over a four-year cycle to the next Olympics. The money is distributed to sport governing bodies in instalments and is dependent on them meeting targets. After the initial handouts the funding can be suspended if sports are perceived not to be using it to sufficient effect or are poorly managed. Already swimming and tennis have had funding withheld.
The focus across sport is on young people, particularly around school leaving age. Sport England also distributes funds via two schemes: Places People Play, a £135m programme focused on small grants to improve local facilities, and the Youth Sport Strategy, through which the Government claims to have £1bn to invest. That figure includes money going directly to sports.
The potentially key part of the strategy is the aim to strengthen links between sports clubs and schools, sharing facilities and helping create a simple pathway to remaining active after leaving school. Stopping the post-16 drop off is all important. It is a scheme that if properly executed and funded will be a key building block in what those charged with getting bottoms off sofas – what the Olympics proved is that nobody watches sport like the British – insist is a long-term fight.
“The next figures [due in September] will give us a year since the Games and that is the first time you can begin to assess,” said Nick Bitel, chair of Sport England. “But this is a long-term trend ... we have a four-year funding cycle. At the end of that four years we have got to see significant growth.”
It is not any great ambition that has been targeted. The aim of getting a million more bottoms on the move, the original target, was dropped before the Games even began. Even the measure used to determine participation is just one half hour of exercise once a week.
Lord Coe, installed by David Cameron to oversee the post-Games future, has stressed the need for “joined-up thinking”. Many remain to be convinced there is enough of it, or even a will for it. Coe has always struck a positive note for what the Olympics can bring, in participation. He insists there is ample anecdotal evidence around the country, from the likes of Leeds rowing club, to suggest a change is under way.
There are plenty in the other corner. Toni Minichiello, Ennis’s coach, believes it is already a “missed trick”. He has seen Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, where he rehearsed Ennis for her golden show on Super Saturday, closed down (see right). It was too costly.
Local authority cuts will continue to hit sporting facilities – figures suggest they will strike deeper in the North – and if these close, people will not come out to play. The amount given to grassroots sports from central government is to be cut by 5 per cent.
“This is not just a sporting issue,” says Lord Coe. But that is a view not obviously echoed across Whitehall, let alone in town halls. The danger for the grass-roots legacy of London 2012 is that the more distant those stellar Stratford nights become, the more the wider appetite to stand up for sport wanes. In an era of austerity priorities change. The likes of Coe and Bitel need time and funding to exercise real societal change. It requires Olympian optimism to imagine they will get it, and the chance to solve the puzzle.
CASE STUDY: THE PEOPLE’S OLYMPICS
The Wythenshawe Games, Greater Manchester
With its boxing grannies, mass-Zumbathon and Tudor dancing lessons, Manchester’s Wythenshawe Games proved one of the outstanding examples of grassroots participation during the Olympic summer, and is set to be repeated later this month.
Organisers anticipate that, later this month, upwards of 10,000 local people – from a community that has become a media-byword for deprivation, anti-social behaviour and unhealthy lifestyles – will take part in the nine-day event: even more than last year. According to Manchester City Council, 92 per cent of those who participated in 2012 are continuing with their chosen sport or hobby a year later, while 36 per cent are doing so three times a week. The Games were designed holistically to promote local heart-health, offering a range of competitive and non-competitive disciplines. There was a cultural side, centred on Wythenshawe Hall, which had previously been closed but has since been reopened at weekends. The organisers also sought to get people into work through volunteering schemes and to re-engage local people’s pride in their area – all of which are being studied as a blueprint for future community sports projects.
CASE STUDY: DEATH OF A STADIUM
The Don Valley Stadium, Sheffield
The stadium where Jessica Ennis began her career will be demolished in September: a depressing reminder of how quickly the euphoria of the Olympic summer was punctured by local authority budget cuts. Sheffield City Council had been pouring £400,000 a year into the 25,000-seater stadium, built to host the World Student Games in 1991 (an event which left the city with a crippling £658m debt overhang). But the decline in the popularity of athletics and the rise of more modern stadia elsewhere rendered it little more than an increasingly dilapidated white elephant. The council will open a much smaller community facility a mile away at the cost of £300,000 – far cheaper than the £1.7m it would have cost to refurbish Don Valley. Sheffield still boasts world-class facilities, from the English Institute of Sport to the Ponds Forge swimming and diving pool. But Toni Minichiello, Ennis’s coach, says the closure of Don Valley is evidence of “galloping apathy” in British sport. “It’s great that kids want to be Jessica Ennis,” he says, “but there is nothing to deal with the numbers coming in. Too many people sat on their hands and then watched the Olympics on the telly. When it finished they just switched it off.