I miss the Olympics. I miss the buzz around London, I miss the games makers in their nifty outfits. I miss huddling round the TV at work to watch the rowing or the shooting or whichever sport Team GB looked like winning.
It was an incredible month of sport and an incredible showcase for Britain. It was also the start of fitness revolution in the UK as the legacy feelgood factor would mean more people being more active in more places. Or so we were told.
Earlier this year my work softball team, which is part of a league made up of 68 charities, kicked off this year’s competition. We arrived in Hyde Park, set up the equipment and got ready for the serious business of playing softball for fun. Out of the blue someone came wandering up and told us we had to pay to play. It turns out a private company, Will to Win, has been handed the contract to charge park users for “informal sports”.
We couldn't quite believe it. Ten years ago Leo Visconti set up the charity softball league with nine teams. Now, more than 68 organisations are involved. We’ve even got a player who now represents Team GB at softball (she played her first ever game in our league). It’s been a source of fun, fitness and friendships and a great way of using London's green spaces. Now we’re being told we have to pay for it.
In a speech last year about the legacy of London 2012 Boris Johnson said: “I’m determined to help clubs build on the enthusiasm generated by the Games and with the next phase of carefully targeted funding I am even more confident we can not only inspire a new generation of sporting champions, but also make London a fitter and healthier city."
We want to meet with Boris and ask him how this quote fits with the policy of charging for people to play sport in Hyde Park. We all pay council tax which was increased to cover the Games and, presumably, the legacy projects too. This is a clear disincentive for anyone who wants to kick a ball around with their friends; play sport against colleagues; generally use our parks and green spaces for what they were designed for in the first place.
Leo, who started the softball league all those years ago, has started a petition on Change.org calling for an end to the fees. We’ve got over 5,000 supporters and it’s rising by the hour. We’re sending the message loud and clear to Royal Parks and to the Mayor himself that charging to use parks we already pay for simply isn’t on. We’ve written to the Mayor, who has so far not replied. We will do so again. In the coming weeks we’ve got lots planned to keep this issue high up the agenda.
Hyde Park is not the only place where people are being forced to for the privilege of playing sport in their local park. We’re hearing from people across the London and the UK who are reporting similar schemes near them. At a time where we face a national obesity crisis, as well as a drop off grassroots sport participation this is entirely the wrong message to send to people. Governments and local authorities should be doing everything they can to make it easier for people to be active - not taxing them harder for it.
There will be lots of discussion in the next few weeks about the legacy of the Olympics. There’s a lot celebrate about that glorious month last year, but this is not the legacy we were promised. If the Mayor is serious about a lasting positive, legacy for grassroots sport in the capital then he must take action on this immediately - or the glory of London 2012 will have been for nothing.