Level Playing Fields: Investing in grassroots sport

By Jacob Whitehead

I once won an egg and spoon race. Hold the applause, I’d like to thank my team, the coaching staff, and the fans. Quite embarrassingly my celebration was probably pretty reminiscent of Kieran Trippier’s when things were looking oh-so-rosy against Croatia. Arms wide, knee slide, feeling on top of the world for a glorious hour or so, before it all came crashing down. For him, losing the chance to play in a World Cup Final, for me, falling over in the sack race. That’s some parallel for you.

The point is, grassroots sport, even at its most basic, is so important because of how it makes us feel. Lost in a moment, we can be just as excited as a professional, or even equally despondent. This aside, it can have equally important health benefits. So, when I read Sebastian Coe’s recent comments in the Evening Standard, arguing that UK Sport should concentrate on funding elite sport over grassroots, I thought back to my egg and spoon race.

Grassroots sport is so important because of how it makes us feel

If we have learnt one thing from eight years of austerity it is that funding is a balancing act. Fundamentally, there should be funding at both the grassroots level and at the very highest end of the spectrum.

The two have a symbiotic relationship; elite athletes don’t appear fully formed, ready to sing the national anthem on the top step of the podium, and similarly, young children may take up sport without the inspiration these heroes provide. It’s effectively an athletic formulation of the chicken and the egg paradox.

Yet for me, choosing which of the two to prioritise is hugely revealing about us as a nation. What should sport be to us? For Sebastian Coe, sport seems to be primarily an entertainment business, as he evokes a nostalgic gaze back to Super Sunday in 2012, before warning us, in an Orphean manner, not to look behind, but surge forward to greater triumph. Sporting success can be measured only at the very highest end, gold medals and gleaming trophies are the indicators of sporting success.

Choosing which of the two to prioritise is hugely revealing about us as a nation

Is this really what we should prioritise? Was the 1996 Summer Olympics, with its paltry return of only one gold medal really a national embarrassment? It could be argued that the UK should find that adult obesity rates have quadrupled in the last 25 years far more shameful. Or that only 36% of UK children currently play sport outside of school. Maybe that 70% of 5-10 year olds said that the 2012 Olympics played no part in encouraging them to play sport (that one’s on you, Lord Coe). Rather than take our pride from a select group of our most talented athletes and a healthy dose of banal nationalism, shouldn’t we prioritise the other benefits of sports, and bask in their healthy glow?

Only 36% of UK children currently play sport outside of school

Couldn’t we be gratified by having low obesity statistics, high participation rates, and be rubber-stamped by any consequent elite success? Is this enough to demonstrate we’re a sporting nation, rather than celebrate the triumph of a few with a ticker-tape parade every few years?

I’m not sure if everybody allowed the Winter Olympics to infringe on ‘summative season’ as much as I did, but the shining example of Norway can offer us a template moving forward (and I’m not talking about a Brexit deal). Refusing to fund sports which ordinary people do not play, the Norwegian Olympic Committee instead concentrate on helping their 11,000 local sports clubs – which 93% of children and young people regularly participate in! Committee President Tom Tvedt told the Guardian in February that this benefits both sides of the debate, as the more children that enjoy sport, the broader the talent pool for elite teams later. It has certainly paid off- Norway operates on a budget of £13.7m, as opposed to UK Sport’s £137.5m, yet have won 43 medals in that time, spending only £320,000 on each podium, rather than Team GB’s £1.9m.

The more children that enjoy sport, the broader the talent pool for elite teams later

If Norway demonstrably shows that investing in grassroots not only fulfils a government’s social responsibilities, but delivers elite performance too, surely this model is better than Coe’s investment in the few? Yet sadly this doesn’t seem to be the existing case, as Sport England’s vaunted £27m extra funding was announced at being ‘mainly targeted at people who already have a strong affinity with sport’, rather than in the general population. But then again, is this surprising from an organisation who measures success ‘in terms of medals won and number of medallists developed’?

rawdonfox via Flickr and Creative Commons

Rarely does life in the Durham bubble accurately mirror a national issue, but it could even be argued the divide between Team Durham and non-elite sports could be symptomatic of the wider debate. Whilst the university is thrilled to name themselves ‘Britain’s Number One Team Sport University’ on their homepage, it appears to lack any immediate mention of non-elite sporting activity. It seems clear where Team Durham take their pride from and it is not from a developing a mass-participation programme. Their focus is investing in the top end, to ensure their website will be suitably glittered in the years to come.

Undoubtedly, at both a national and university level, we need to fund both grassroots and elite sport. One simply cannot do without the other. Yet when it comes to a matter of prioritisation, the tough calls seem to exclusively favour the thinner end of the wedge rather than the fatter. Elite victory is glorious for the few, and for the supporters, a brief boon. But I’d sooner give every child the chance to win their own egg and spoon race.

Featured image: Rachel Clarke via Flickr and Creative Commons

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