Sports digest: Problems to weigh on 2012

By Steven Downes

A couple of stories noted in the past 24 hours:

  • An NHS hospital in Norwich is spending £40,000 on equipment – let’s not mince words here, it is a special, extra-large, reinforced bed – that will cope with patients who weigh 40 stone or more. “Hospitals up and down the country are doing the same,” the ubiquitous spokesman says.
  • Meanwhile, Sir Trevor Brooking, an SJA member as well as being the FA’s director of football development, will highlight the loss of London playing fields during a visit to City Hall this week.
  • Might these stories in some way be connected?

    The dichotomy between the ever more corpulent Britain and our Olympic aspirations for 2012 has managed to stir two prominent SJA figures in their weekly columns today.

    John Inverdale, straight from Hoylake where he was fronting BBC Radio 5’s coverage of the Open, says in the Daily Telegraph:

    Why were there so many overweight spectators, a lot of them young boys, at Hoylake at last week’s Open Championship, many of whom were wearing minimal clothing to accentuate their lack of athletic prowess?

    Strewn across the links and the dunes were fish and chip cartons and remnants of burgers. I wasn’t looking that hard but you weren’t exactly tripping over lettuce leaves and apple cores.

    Inverdale goes on to note that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is today making a speech about the health of the nation. It is unlikely that Blair will echo MacMillan to tell us that we’ve never had it so good, but the cost of our relative affluence today, it seems, is a generation of kids who have never been fit.

    Blair certainly ought not mention his once favoured-phrase of joined-up government, because Inverdale highlights a glaring contradiction between Whitehall rhetoric and Town Hall obstruction, in the case of delays in local planning permissions for sports developments.

    Inverdale writes:

    You’d think that the pro-sport message in the run-up to 2012 would have spread from Whitehall to every local authority in the country. But no. A derelict and rather depressing stretch of land at Northwick Park in north-west London has been transformed by a company called Playgolf into a superb six-hole course which can be played in an hour (a kind of golfing Twenty20) and a baseball centre, which is taking hundreds of kids off the street every week.

    It does appear that Brent Council have been far from helpful in ensuring this ambitious project gets off the ground… it beggars the imagination how we are to produce sporting champions in the future when local bureaucrats do their best to place obstacles in their path.

    Read the rest of Inverdale’s column by clicking here.

    It is a theme that David Conn, a past winner of an SJA Sports Journalism Award, warms to in his weekly column in today’s Guardian.

    Conn normally concerns himself with deeply analytical pieces about the management – or rather, the mismanagement – that goes on in football. It might just be that he has stumbled across another rich vein of material.

    Conn writes:

    With the Olympics won and the first tender documents going out as we prepare to spend £4.4 billion, we should recognise that, on participation, we have a long way to go.

    Only 21 per cent of English people do the recommended three half-hour sessions of exercise a week. Clinical obesity and general slobbiness increase relentlessly.

    We love watching top sportsmen on telly and moaning when we think they are not doing well enough. We should be careful whom we criticise: Finland is the world’s leader in encouraging the general population to exercise more, boasting a participation figure of 52 per cent, more than twice our abject performance.

    Ah, Finland, the land of the midnight sun and this year’s Eurovision song contest winners, as well as one of Europe’s highest rates of alcoholism. Conn contrasts Britain with Finland because he feels Lord Seb Coe was wrong to have the audacity to point out that the Finns, whose national summer obsession is athletics, returned potless from the Athens Olympics. At last year’s World Championships in Helsinki, the Finns had an equally thin time of things.

    Lord Coe made the remarks because he was in Helsinki last August, and he saw the huge disappointment among the hosts because they did not have the athletic talent to compete on the world stage.

    Having seen Britain’s performances on the track there, too, Coe is justifiably right to be anxious about host nation prospects on the track in London in 2012.

    Lord Coe also understands that linking performance at the elite level directly to the general lack of sporting activity among the adult population at large is too glib a leap to make. The old-style Sports Council dropped its “Sport for All” message a long time ago, when the agency which became UK Sport was charged with funding performance sport.

    Dealing with the health of the population is a different task, and it is now the Department of Health’s job to educate those of us over 18 to look after ourselves better, albeit often helped by the national sports councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Schemes such as that launched recently at Everyday Cycling are akin to the programmes operated in Finland to get people active, even if, as Conn observes, it is just to go for a walk after work.

    As I found on a visit to Helsinki last year ahead of working at the athletics World Championships, the key thing that the Finns now do, at local and national government level, is ensure that access to sports facilities is made as cheap as possible.

    An hour’s swim in Helsinki’s new, Olympic-standard swimming complex costs an individual just 1 euro. Once it is opened as part of the “Olympic legacy”, how much will it cost for the public to use the Aquatics Centre at Stratford?

    In the suburbs of Helsinki, hiring a five-a-side football pitch (more likely to be used for street hockey, the summer equivalent of the national obsession of ice hockey) for an hour costs less than £10. Might the Dome be turned into a low-cost public sporting facility post-2012? And will all of the football pitches on Hackney Marshes be reclaimed after serving as Olympic car and coach parks?

    It has long been noted that kids no longer spend all day, unsupervised, down the local park playing pick-up games of football or cricket. It is not just the lure of the PlayStation, but also, sadly, many parents’ fears that prevents this. Thus, for their first week of summer holidays this week, my sons are at a local school, doing uncoached sport overseen by a few students earning some holiday cash. Total cost? £242 for five days, and there’s not even any lunch included.

    It is low-cost, publicly maintained sports facilities that help to remove an important barrier towards having a healthy population. It can also, as Sir Trevor Brooking so well understands, make access to sport at an entry level for all kids – especially those talented enough to aspire to making our Olympic teams in 2012 – so much easier.

    Read the whole of David Conn’s article here (may require registration).

    Read the recent comments by Lord Colin Moynihan of the BOA on sport in schools here.

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