Going for gold is great, but an orange at half time counts too

Kids’ clubs and minority sports are struggling while ever more money gets spent at the top

One of the most pressing problems facing British sport can be summarised by a question: which matters more, the plight of Manchester United or the plight of Deddington Colts under-11s?

It has been a difficult season for David Moyes, it’s true, perhaps reaching its nadir in the banner calling for him to go flown over Old Trafford. But at least they’ve always had pitches to play on. The Deddington Colts under-11s have not been so lucky. On a half dozen occasions or more, they have had to call fixtures off because of a waterlogged pitch.

“There’s no money to fix it,” says Jeremy Finch, who coaches the Oxfordshire side. “You talk to local government and they say talk to the FA. You talk to the FA and they say talk to the club. You talk to the club and they say talk to local government. The children get fatter, they aren’t playing outside, and eventually they give up.”

These difficulties are not likely to get Mr Finch on the back pages. But they point to a problem that in the long run matters far more than the difficulties of any one Premier League club. Mr Finch is also the chairman of a board of school governors. He says, “We’re constantly bombarded with obesity stuff. Meanwhile, you’ve got kids who want to go out and play on Saturday and they can’t because it’s rained on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s not about just attracting the ones who’ll be really good. It’s about playing, enjoying it, and being with your friends – breathing proper air, not sitting inside on your Xbox.”

The failings to which Mr Finch is referring are exactly the kinds of things that prompted Sport England, the body responsible for trying to increase participation in sport across the country, to cut £1.6m from the funding it gives the FA. Despite the extraordinary brand of the Premier League and the huge sums that it brings into the game annually, the number of people who play regularly is in sharp decline. And, in Sport England’s perfectly reasonable view, if the FA is not spending money effectively, it ought to get less of it.

The problem is not confined to football. Last week, UK Sport – the body charged with funding the programmes that are meant to win Olympic golds  – confirmed its decision to stop funding basketball completely. But basketball is one of the most competitive and popular sports in the world. The game is by miles the most popular among ethnic-minority kids, and it engages those from the poorest backgrounds in something productive at a precarious moment in their lives. The list of sports that will get the money instead does not sound like a group of activities that will change the lives of many except the medal winners: £7.5m for triathlon, £4m for fencing, £20m for canoeing. Are they buying them golden paddles?

Why is UK Sport making this decision, then? To me, it seems that the organisation is based on a false premise – that the only point of the Olympics is to win. Kevin Routledge, vice chairman of the British Basketball League Foundation and owner of the Leicester Riders, doesn’t pull his punches. “Basketball isn’t traditional,” he says. “If you look at the chief execs, they’re all traditional sport people. Sport England invest £170 [per participant] in rugby league over four years – in basketball, it’s £9.50. There was a feeling that the rugby league clubs are at the heart of the community. Well, what about the inner cities? What about the sports those communities play?

“I want to believe it’s a lack of understanding and knowledge rather than what might be read as a bias against particular ethnicities or the most deprived.” He sounds angry. “I don’t think they go seeking it out.”

You may feel that these issues ought to be aired in the sports section, not the news pages. But sport doesn’t always belong in a ghetto – or not this kind of sport, at least. This kind of sport isn’t only, or even primarily, about competition. It’s about health, teamwork, communities and aspiration. We might, for example, note that Sport England’s vote of no confidence in the FA came in the same week that we were reminded by the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, that nearly 28,000 children are found to be obese every year – and that whereas most adults fail to manage the recommended 2.5 hours of exercise a week, they manage about 27.5 hours of television.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as if those in power in sport don’t see a connection. The sports supplement is the right place to look if all that matters is elite competition, sport as entertainment, sport as a business. And, as far as they are concerned, that is where it should stay.

How else to explain the remarks of Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, whose response when asked about these issues was essentially: it’s not my problem. “We weren’t the government that sold off the playing fields, we weren’t the ones who chopped school sport. Sorry. Not my job,” he told The Guardian. “My priority is to put on the best possible show. Therefore, never apologise for doing the best you can in terms of TV deals, never apologise for giving the clubs the majority of that money so that they can reinvest it in the show.”

Set that clear-eyed statement of intent alongside the experience of Brian Mitchell, general manager of Rayleigh Boys and Girls Football Club in Essex, who has been running the club since 1976 and recently got an MBE for services to the game. He gets 100 under-eights out every Saturday. “We try to give everybody the opportunity to play,” he says. “Even the most useless kid gets a game. We don’t make any money out of it.”

He is quick to praise the Essex FA. But he adds: “When they only had two or three people, it was easier to get help. Now they’ve got all sorts but not so much happens. I’m not surprised they stopped the money because it’s not being well spent. I just don’t know where it goes.”

Me neither. I loved the Olympics. I even loved the canoeing. But when I hear basketball’s story, and the story of how football came to prioritise Super Sunday over Sunday league, I wonder if, actually, all that positivity may not have been for the best. More than ever, we want gold medals, and we want the Champions League, and it’s true those things can be thrilling. But what if, instead of acting as an inspiration, a tiny minority’s pursuit of superstardom just glues the rest of us ever more firmly to the sofa? 

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