Olympics fail to inspire as fewer young people take up sport

Concern as number of 16- to 19-year-olds who play sport drops – despite massive investment
  • @RobinScottEllio

Six years ago London secured the Olympics on the back of a promise to inspire young people to swap the sofa for sport.

Yesterday, eight months from the opening ceremony and following unprecedented levels of investment, it was revealed that the number of young people taking up sport is falling. Figures released by Sport England show a drop in the number of 16-19 year-olds playing sport, and a fall in the numbers of women too, raising fears over the wider legacy of a Games that has had £9.3bn of public money spent on it.

The number of 16-19 year olds playing sport three times a week has fallen from 930,400 to 825,900, while the number of women has dropped by 106,000. The overall figure shows a decline of 11,200 on this time last year.

Hugh Robertson, the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, admitted the figures were "very disappointing". Sport England said the fall was of "real concern."

The inspiring but vague idea of sporting legacy presented in Singapore, where the bid was won in 2005, has proved difficult to translate into something tangible. Labour's pledge to get two million more people physically active has been dropped since the change of government.

Sport England invests about £250m a year – funds provided by the Government and the National Lottery – in grassroots sport, distributed via governing bodies, but their latest Active People Survey shows it is not having the required impact in getting people to take up or participate. Economic reasons, such as cost or lack of time due to work commitments, was blamed by a third of those questioned.

The latest figures show 19 sports with decreasing levels of participation, including football, tennis and swimming, while only athletics, boxing, table tennis and mountaineering are increasing. Sports that have declining numbers face a funding cut.

Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England, said: "Sports need to react to this. We need to tackle head on the widening gender gap by doing much more to make sport relevant and appealing to women."

Ms Price insists the Olympics can still have a positive impact on participation, although no Games has led to a subsequent rise in the host nation. She said: "I think when we get into the Olympic year we will see an increase – I don't see that the opportunity is lost."

Lord Coe, chairman of the London organising committee, took an even more optimistic stance. He said: "I haven't seen the figures but this may be about how they are tabulated because my instinct is that they are increasing. There's a much better story that's unfolding out there than is being presented."

Mr Robertson said: "We [are] working on a new strategy with particular emphasis on youth sport."

Teenage sport in numbers

£480m Sport England's grassroot investment programme from 2009-2013.

104,500 The reduction in 16- to 19-year-olds playing sport since 2007.