Wednesday 13 December 2017

Sport can be central to nation's well-being

John Greene

John Greene

We are just coming to the end of a four-year Olympic cycle. This means a new four-year cycle, leading up to the next Olympics in Brazil, will be beginning soon.

There will be less money to fund the country's high-performance system, and less money to promote greater levels of participation in sport and general physical activity.

This is not to say there won't be any money; there will of course, and how it is spent, and how the balance is struck between maintaining an elite system and promoting grassroots activity, will be important.

The Irish Sports Monitor, published last week by the Irish Sports Council, is the fourth such report, the latest reality check on the Irish boast that we are a proud sporting nation.

We love our sporting heroes, for sure. We love to watch the O'Driscolls, the Shefflins, the Goochs and the Keanes do their thing, but a large number of the population are still content to merely watch.

A lot of the findings in the report, which is based on a survey of 8,749 people taken across last year, confirm impressions which have been formed with regard to trends in sport. Chief among these is the dramatic rise in the number of people jogging, cycling or swimming, something which has been evident for some time.

Another is that State-promoted schemes can be highly effective when properly resourced and implemented -- good examples include the local sports partnerships, the women in sport scheme and the bike to work scheme. The country's unemployment rate has increased dramatically since the last survey in 2009 and while there was a drop in this latest report of almost ten per cent in the number of people walking to work, there was no change in the number of people cycling to work.

For the purposes of the survey, sport is defined as any physical activity undertaken for exercise, recreation or sport. The central finding is certainly encouraging -- that the number of people taking part in sport since the last survey has risen sharply, up from 34 per cent to 46 per cent. Of course, the flipside of this is that over half the population not alone does not participate in sport, but more worrying still, does not even manage 20 minutes of exercise a week.

So, the underlying trends as outlined in the findings of the ISM are positive, because more people are physically active now than when the monitor was first taken in 2007. In the first report, for example, it was found that one third of the population was active so in that sense the improvement in four years is significant and shows that as a nation we are moving in the right direction, while not forgetting that we are coming from a low base and still have a long way to go.

To put some context on the figures, though, it's worth bearing in mind that of those who are regularly exercising or playing sport, many are still falling short of the minimum recommended guidelines for physical activity, which is 30 minutes at least five times over seven days during which your breathing rate was raised or you walked at a 'steady pace'. Using this as the barometer, then, paints a slightly different picture because 70 per cent of the population are not meeting these guidelines. Even among those who are active in some way, over half do not meet the guidelines.

This government appears keen on participation, and on diverting as much of its dwindling sports investment as it can in this direction. Both ministers, Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring, rarely pass up an opportunity to make this point to a sporting audience.

The new round of sports capital grants totalling €30m to be made later this year, if properly dispersed, will encourage greater participation. Ring is also understood to be working on a new sports strategy which again will have increasing the number of people who are physically active as one of its primary goals.

In order to achieve this then a number of problem areas need to be targeted. Those who are poor, poorly paid or poorly educated are well behind the rest of society when it comes to physical activity. In bald terms, 38 per cent of those in the lowest income bracket play sport, compared to 58 per cent in the higher bracket, which is taken as a household which has an annual income of more than €66,000. And whereas one fifth of those who received no more than a primary school education take part in sport, half of those who took a post-Leaving Cert course of some kind do.

In contrast, the ISM shows a noteworthy increase from the last report on the number of unemployed people who are active, up from one third to over half (53 per cent). This suggests that those who have become detached from society or live in severely disadvantaged areas, or both, need special attention.

In general, we have an idea of what works and what doesn't, so it's just a matter now of getting the message of the importance of physical activity to a wider audience. Education, then, is key. We know that financial incentives work, and that easy access works too -- these have been at the heart of the success of the Dublin Bikes and the Bike to Work schemes. Another scheme which appears to have some success in those areas it has been rolled out in is the sports partnerships' Link2beActive scheme, which helps unemployed people to get more affordable access to swimming pools and gyms in their area.

We also know that a more concentrated effort is needed to connect with poorer elements in society, for whom the benefits would be ultimately hugely significant. As the report's authors note, "increased levels of physical activity is a key strand in tackling the obesity crisis as well as in adding to the health capital within the population".

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