Editorial: New ideas must get a sporting chance

Throwing money after sports participation has not achieved the desired results

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Nine months after the Olympic roadshow departed from London, what is left? We bought the Union flag tracksuits, the Olympic-ringed mugs and the DVD box set of British triumphs – all in great quantity. But, with regards to the much-trumpeted aim of the Olympic legacy – inspiring a generation to get off the sofa and take up sport – it seems things are heading in quite the wrong direction.

A report released by Sport England this week is perhaps best read sitting down. Between April 2012 and April 2013, 20 of the 29 sports that receive public funding recorded a fall in the number of adults taking part. Fewer Britons are exercising for a paltry 30 minutes a week. Worst of all, the proportion of 16- to 25-year-olds playing sport has in fact decreased since 2005, when Olympic money started pouring in.

Dismal this might be, surprising it isn’t. Very few sporting events lead to a permanent boost in the number of citizens getting active. And, though overall participation has risen in Britain by 1.4 million over the past eight years, the reward for massive investment has consistently failed to live up to expectations.

It should be asked if money is being spent the right way. Last year, the Government announced once more that the majority of a £1bn investment between 2012 and 2017 will go towards raising participation. In all likelihood, the same excuses – cold winters, iPhone-distracted youth – will be trotted out at the end of this period to explain why we so stubbornly refuse to take up tennis, badminton and rugby.

There is another way. A growing body of evidence points to the benefits of using sport to tackle social problems. Such a model, known as sport for development, replaces the blank invitation to participate with programmes that embed coaches long term in poor parts of town and uses sport as part of an intensive package of mentoring. In May, a three-year study of 4,000 such programmes revealed cheering economic returns, as young people involved avoided delinquency and drug abuse. As things stand, however, much of this difficult work is left to charities, such as Street League, sponsored by Downing Street, and Greenhouse in London.

For the Government, it seems an open goal is being missed – sport that not only changes lives, but spares the public coffers too.

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