So the department for Culture, Media and Sport is consulting on a new strategy for sport.
Like all other strategies and policies where sport is concerned, there is clearly a risk this one gets in a tangle between on the one hand, winning gold medals and exercising global soft power, and on the other tackling the issues of an inactive, unhealthy population.
In her foreword, Tracey Crouch MP, the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage (already a peculiar mix, you might say) puts her cards down face up. “I want people who don’t normally play sport to feel motivated to exercise and get healthy”, she says, and nobody could disagree….. but she has coincidentally put her finger on the key issue. People who don’t play sport may be encouraged, supported, even permitted to be more active in their daily lives, but that is the job of a physical activity strategy, not one restricted to sport. If they don’t play sport, why would that be the one form of physical activity we push their way?
Unfortunately, throughout the consultation document the boundaries are blurred. We are told that, “we need a fundamental shift in social attitudes to being active, where it is more normal to take part and be physically active than not”. Yes, be physically active, in the ways that work for the individual, and his or her self-image, lifestyle and preferences. In fact for the least physically active people it is quite unlikely that sport will be the form of PA they choose.
A bugbear of mine is the formula "sport and physical activity", frequently used by sport advocates to put sport in a special, shall we say podium position compared to other forms of physical activity. Sport is a slice in the pie chart of physical activity and should be regarded as just that, no more. So is walking. So is gardening. And so on. And it’s interesting that walking, which has been absolutely abandoned by successive governments in terms of policy and investment, is a more important contributor to the physical activity that people actually do than, you guessed it, sport.
My comments are critical and that is a pity. Sport – at least, participative sport – is a good thing, in many ways, and if government can deliver more participation in a cost effective way, great. But the whole pie of physical activity is worth far more than the slice which is sport. The sport strategy should be a part of a wider and fully resourced strategy for increasing physical activity.
That means we urgently need robust health economic analysis of which forms of physical activity, and which of the interventions to promote them, offer the best value for money, including co-benefits arising in other policy areas.
I can foresee there may be a disinclination to perform this kind of comparative analysis, because I do not believe that sport will be found to be the best value. Taking all the co-benefits into account I confidently expect active travel - which also generates value in air quality, congestion reduction, climate emissions, road safety and social/quality of life gains - to outperform sport investment.
The consultation is honest about one thing: “Government provides a significant amount of funding … to get more people playing sport. However, this model has not brought about the long term, sustainable increase in participation we hoped to see”. No, it hasn’t, has it? All the brave words about the 2012 Olympic legacy turned out to be hot air – just as had been the case with previous Olympics and other major championships. They are great, and they may be a shot in the arm for the tourist industry, but they don’t get large numbers of inactive people active through sport. Why would they?
So here is the Insall & Coe view.
1. Sport is beneficial, government needs an updated strategy for it, and this should focus on increasing physical activity levels among the least active, but it should not substitute for a really clear cross-government focus on physical activity in all its forms.
2. Sport should not dominate. It should not be regarded as somehow 'above' other forms of physical activity. Non-sporting physical activity, such as active travel, gardening, dance etc, should not be regarded as a lower level of the pyramid or a stage on the way to participation in sport.
3. And government investment should be driven by a comparative analysis of value for money, taking into account the full range of benefits achievable from each form of approach to promoting PA. We expect that active travel will be shown as a better value investment, giving large benefits across a range of policy sectors and helping more of the least active to become more so.
Consultation closes on October 2nd.