Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Who's at fault for poor grassroots participation?

A 2001 UK Census table showed men participated in, on average, 18 minutes of physical activity a day, women about five minutes less.
The standard figure given by first-world government sports ministers around the globe is usually 30 minutes per day. But if taking part in sport or physical activity ends for many after the under-12 football finals, where is the next generation of champions going to come from?

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, had a stab at the poor sports participation rates, which leads over time to poor international sports performance, in a 2008 article for the Telegraph:

“the fault is in ourselves, and if we want to do better at sport… we should now launch a merciless Kulturkampf against every feature of modern Britain that is inimical to our competitive success. We should summon up our courage and tell our ballooning children to put down their beastly PlayStations and go and play outside. We should encourage them to walk or cycle to school. We should stop the sale of school playing fields. We should finally abandon the ethic of "all must have prizes".’

The comments section was revealing of the varying levels of support for Boris’ Kulturkampf: some commenters attacked the Mayor for even deigning to write some “trivial nonsense” when there are subjects like knife crime, racism and the loss of English values bringing today’s society to its knees; others thought he was right on the money.

The important part is: someone needs to inspire the youth to see sport as something anyone can do - not just the elite - for enjoyment, friendship and a healthy lifestyle.

There’s a reality of the value of networking from sport that predates the social networking concept by at least a hundred years. Old boys from private schools know the value well – a high school championship-winning rugby player gains the support of influential people who help him gain a sought-after graduate placement or start a business. My own experience came without the privilege attached but was still vital – on moving to an outback Australian town to start my first job after university, my love of sport and passion for writing was enough to convince a sports editor to give me a reporter’s job.

Years of playing basketball and football and watching Australian Rules football, rugby league, swimming and various other sports for enjoyment had the unexpected side-effect of making writing about sport almost second-nature. Of course, there was more to being a successful sports writer than knowing sport – you have to understand the draft process, contract payments, boardroom and changeroom politics and the detailed rules and acronyms of 101 sporting codes.

And as a sports writer, it was always inspiring to meet sporting celebrities who still maintained contact with the grassroots of their sport and wanted to see more young people getting off the couch and onto the field, court or into the pool. Aboriginal tennis player Evonne Goolagong-Cawley was one who made the trip to a small town and focused more on helping out fellow Aborigines to see the value of the sport, rather than spending time on her own self-promotion.

English sportspeople need to be serious about helping out the next generation while they still have the profile to command respect. If the London mayor can hit the target with words and occasionally back it up with dollars and action, current sport stars should do even better.

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