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Thought leaders: Andy Reed column: Rio Success Is Masking Underlying Issues

The medals may have come thick and fast, but sport needs to coordinate itself better to safeguard its future

by Andy Reed | Published in Sports Management Sep 2016 issue 126
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue
Investment in medals is masking problems in school and community sports provision / image ©: julien behal / press association
Investment in medals is masking problems in school and community sports provision/ image ©: julien behal / press association

As the warm glow of our success at the Olympics starts to mellow into the longer autumn evenings, it does feel as though we’ve lived through the most extraordinary summer for sport and sports politics.

Starting in June with Brexit, and the quick succession of our new PM and her cabinet, followed by the Olympics and Paralympics, it has been easy to forget the day-to-day reality that shapes our local communities and the sport and physical activity agenda we all aspire to deliver.

The warm glow created by our amazing Rio success has led to many from outside the sector assuming all is well if Team GB can come second in the medals table ahead of China. Yet many commentators and practitioners are keenly aware that of course there is still work to be done.

There has always been one ask from the sports lobby – and that is for a joined up approach from government in its sport and physical activity strategy and inter-departmental working inside government. This is much tougher to achieve than many believe, but I now worry that Rio success masks a series of tough underlying issues which could impact on long-term success.

The issues
The long awaited obesity strategy was launched during the recess and in the middle of the Olympics in Rio. This timing smacks of burying bad news. The strategy has been universally underwhelming and seen as a missed opportunity.

In my June column I said I was surprised by the interventionist tone taken on the Sugar Levy and by George Osbourne’s strategy in the Budget.

Our new PM signalled her intention early on – by sacking Osborne – that it won’t be business as usual and the watered down strategy is our first sight of what a May government might look like.

Elsewhere, the sports system needs to offer better coordination – from early years physical literacy, and fun experience of sport, to a competitive structure and decent levels of PE which extend through Key Stage 4.

My CSP review found very few people committed to the delivery of excellence in primary school PE and sport.

A PE teacher friend told me recently his hours have been cut and he’ll be teaching information and communication technologies for half of his time this year.

This kind of uncoordinated and unstructured approach doesn’t create a solid foundation – especially if the amount of investment is to be doubled in 2018 by the Sugar Levy.

In local communities, facilities and clubs will ‘struggle on’ this winter against a backdrop of further local government cuts. These may not actually be in sport, but youth service cuts are putting a strain on other areas of public expenditure.

Like cutting sports spending, these are false economies and mean other parts of society have to pick up the pieces.

So we should celebrate our elite Rio success for what is was – investment in a system to deliver gold medals – but the challenge ahead will be to use this inspiration to garner support in Whitehall for the changes needed to create a proper school, community facilities and elite legacy. All are dependent on each other.

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