Friday 15 November 2019

UK sporting plan offers blueprint worth following

Key stakeholders in Ireland must take note of how sport is being shaken up in Britain, writes John Greene

When thinking about sport in Ireland, we could perhaps reflect on these words from last week: "It is time to recognise the importance of sport and be clear how we are going to make it an integral part of our everyday lives. I want every school child to be happy that they have a PE lesson that day. I want people who don't normally play sport to feel motivated to exercise and get healthy. I want those with raw talent to succeed, supported by the structures we put in place.

"In developing a new strategy, we will need to rethink the traditional ways of funding sport participation. We need to embrace technology and appreciate the power it has to get people active. We need to consider how we make sure that everyone - no matter who they are and what their ability - has the opportunity to take part. As part of this, we need to ensure that sport is designed to meet the demands of consumers, who each have different motivations and engage with sport in different ways.

"We should also consider whether the way in which we think about participation is too simplistic. Are some types of participation more valuable than others, for improving health, for addressing inequality or improving educational outcomes?

"As part of the funding process, should we ascribe more value to getting someone who was previously inactive to participate than someone who is already sporty doing a bit extra? We need to start thinking of participation as a means to an end and not necessarily the end result."

This is the kind of language we need to hear more of if we are to believe that the value of sport is properly understood by those who should know better. In Britain last week, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a 56-page document which is the start of a process which will ultimately lead to the production of a strategy for sport in the UK. The first step commenced last week, with a public consultation process on sport which will remain open until October 2 next.

The extract above is from the foreword, written by the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage, Tracey Crouch, who says she is determined to implement a complete overhaul in how sport is run. Given how far we are already behind the UK in terms of a national sports policy, this should be setting alarming bells ringing in some quarters of Irish sport.

Furthermore, when it comes to participation levels, and although Ireland's recent track record is impressive in this area, with surveys showing steady increases, the fact that the UK has experienced a fall-off since reaching peak (in Olympic year) should also give us pause for thought.

Much of Britain's current sports policy is based on its last strategic plan, published 13 years ago, before a decision had even been made to bid for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and which has now been slammed as outdated. What does that say about attitudes to sport here, given we are still waiting on our first meaningful plan?

Anyway, let's say that's all water under the bridge now, and let's say that we are going to take stock of what our neighbours are doing and follow suit.

For starters, our British counterparts say "the involvement of virtually every government department is so important". Why? Because "the power of sport extends across almost every area of government activity and it is this universality that we are seeking to harness through this new strategy".

Many people looking to advance the cause of sport here - including in the Department of Sport itself - have been banging this drum for a while to little avail. As sporting organisations in Ireland have matured in recent years, largely through bringing in the right level of expertise and experience to move forward, so they have become a shining example that there is no such thing as a quick fix, rather hard work, a good plan and plenty of determination will deliver results. Few areas of Irish life have a track record to compare with sport when it comes to making a little amount of money accomplish an awful lot. Necessity has been the mother of invention for Irish sport.

The next thing that strikes you about the UK initiative is the breadth of its targets. There are 10 areas of study: Participation; Physical Activity; Children and Young People; Financial Sustainability; Coaching, Workforce and Good Governance; Elite and Professional Sport; Infrastructure; Fairness and Equality; Safety and Well-being; International Influence and Major Sporting Events. This is as comprehensive as its gets. Each one is central to effective sports policy and administration.

All aspects of this process should be of interest to the key stakeholders in Irish sport and followed closely.

Even against the backdrop where the final report will form part of an overall spending review in the UK, this is the level of detail and cross-department co-operation that is required in Ireland. The Guardian reported last week that there is growing concern at the cost of international success - UK Sport invested £347m in preparing its elite athletes for the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio - and at the decline in participation, and that a "shake-up" is imminent.

It would be nice to think that a shake-up is imminent in Ireland, too.

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