Watching elite athletes will not make children more active

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Don't expect too much when big sporting occasions come to town, conference-goers told

Major sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games do not increase young people's participation in sport.

That was the clear message from several speakers at a sports conference in Edinburgh this week: getting children physically active was far more complex than merely letting them witness elite athletes.

Government and sporting figures have talked up the potential legacy of a "decade of sport", which will see a host of events staged in the UK, including Glasgow's Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, both in 2014.

But Eamonn O'Rourke, Manchester City Council's head of sport and leisure and a major player in the city hosting the hugely-successful 2002 Commonwealth Games, warned against expectations that such an event increased participation.

"I don't think it does, and I have evidence to prove that," he said.

Manchester had some success in increasing general participation, but this had far broader roots related to regeneration projects dating as far back as the 1980s.

He stressed, however, that the games had benefited pupils in other ways: pound;1 million was invested in school sport afterwards; there was an increase in high-quality PE; competitive sport, both between and within schools, had increased; and schools had close connections to the Commonwealth venues.

Mr O'Rourke's view was backed up by Henrik H Brandt, Denmark's sports writer of the year in 1995 and now director of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies.

"The Commonwealth Games is not enough," he said. "If you want to increase participation, don't target it at the Commonwealth Games."

A sum close to the cost of staging the games (which rose to pound;454 million late last year) would be needed to make a serious attempt at increasing participation.

The presence of elite athletes in Glasgow for two weeks in 2014, he told The TESS, would not in itself have a lasting impact; elite and amateur sport were best understood as two entirely separate entities.

Christine Grahame, convener of the Scottish Parliament's health and sport committee, knew of no research evidence establishing a direct link between major sporting events and increased participation.

Even Australia, a country with a traditionally strong sporting culture, was suffering from problems such as obesity, despite having staged the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Rhona Martin, the skip of Scotland's 2002 Olympic curling gold medallists, had told Ms Grahame that less curling was taking place across the country than eight years ago.

Delegates at the conference, organised by MacKay Hannah, also heard the chair of VOCAL, the body representing local authority officials with responsibility for sport and culture, express concerns about a "fixation" with the national target of two hours' quality PE a week for all pupils.

"The quality of the teaching of the sport is far more important than the amount of time spent on it," said Rod Stone, Aberdeenshire Council's head of lifelong learning and leisure.

Mr Stone's local authority had set a broader target of five hours a week that took in PE, but also school sports, the Active Schools programme and sport in the community.

A number of speakers advocated an open mind to private investment in sport and physical activity for young people.

"I just don't see any other option," said Stuart Younie, Perth and Kinross Council's sport and active recreation manager.

Scotland had become "used to a big public service," said John Fyffe, the same authority's education and children's services executive director.

"The relationship between the citizen and the state cannot continue the way it currently is, because there isn't going to be the money."

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