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People: Meet the new shadow sports minister, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan

Shadow Sports Minister

Published in Sports Management Nov Dec 2016 issue 128
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Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, shadow sports minister / matt crossick / press association
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, shadow sports minister/ matt crossick / press association

When Jeremy Corbyn won the latest Labour leadership contest in September – increasing his already significant authority – he was given the opportunity to form a new shadow cabinet.

While old party stalwarts like Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry received top roles shadowing secretaries of state in domestic and foreign affairs respectively, Corbyn plumped for several newer members of parliament to take up shadow positions.

One of Labour’s latest intake of MPs, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan was appointed shadow sports minister by new shadow culture secretary Tom Watson. The promotion illustrates quite a rise for the “working-class, half Polish/half Pakistani” Allin-Khan, who was only elected in the spring after the previous MP for Tooting, Sadiq Khan, became London mayor.

Passion for sport
Despite her relative inexperience in politics, the sports brief is one Allin-Khan is relishing already, and she appears to have all the credentials to succeed.

“I’ve been a sportsperson all my life actually,” she tells Sports Management. “I represented my school in a number of sports, including cricket and athletics. Then when I went to uni I played football and basketball, and at medical school I played football and korfball.”

Allin-Khan also began to develop an interest in boxing towards the end of her time at medical school as, unlike team sports, it fit in with her busy lifestyle working in a hospital. She is now the team doctor at her local boxing club in Balham, South London, where she also trains. It is here that Allin-Khan properly realised the power of sport in wider society.

“I see sport as a fantastic way to bridge equality gaps and to tackle issues such as mental health, obesity and general wellbeing,” Allin-Khan explains.

“But I think it’s really important to look at the difference between sport and physical activity because sport isn’t for everyone. I was really lucky because I was good at sport at school, but I know that PE lessons where two captains have to pick a team can be a really daunting time for any child.”

Despite being good at a number of sports, Allin-Khan wasn’t immune to feeling left out, and developed an understanding of the importance of physical activity for those who are not comfortable with or who simply do not enjoy playing competitive sport.

“I didn’t swim very much as a child and when we started swimming lessons at school I was in the bottom class. I know that it can feel very intimidating. If there’s a sport you’re not deemed to be good at, it can be quite a discriminator,” she says.

“Physical activity is a way we can engage hard-to-reach groups like over-50s and young children without feeling there’s a competitive edge to it. We need to promote physical activity at the extremes of age.”

A healthy investment
During her time working as a doctor, Allin-Khan saw first hand what a sedentary lifestyle can do to people. While she admits it’s difficult to quantify the extent to which physical activity would have prevented the ailments of her patients, she is convinced that investment in sport and physical activity strategies can lessen the burden on the NHS.
She explains: “When you see people coming into hospital who’ve had heart attacks, who have diabetes, mental health problems, problems with alcoholism – all the research shows that being fit and healthy and active improves outcomes in all of these groups.”

Social cohesion is also an issue close to Allin-Khan’s heart, and she talks fondly about some of the initiatives Balham Boxing Club has developed to ensure it is accessible to everyone in the community.

“The club has sessions for under-11s, youth groups and white collar boxing where anybody can come and train,” she says. “Rather than advertise the boxing element, they talk about the benefits of training and keeping fit. You don’t even have to get into the ring.

“In my role I apply as much pressure as possible to ensure sport and physical activity is accessible to everyone,” she adds, explaining that she is intent on working with local authorities to demonstrate the benefits of investing in physical activity. Taking money out of physical activity, she says, is a “false economy”.

“More will need to be spent on social services for young children, as evidence shows that if we don’t invest in the early years then more money gets spent on social care later on,” she says.

“More money will be spent on older people in the NHS, and mental health is a classic example. The mental health budget is being cut and everyone is feeling the squeeze. I’ve seen first hand as a doctor just what physical activity can do for rates of depression. It can get people back in the workforce, increase their self-esteem and improve the local economy.”

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