Sport and physical activity – firmly on the margins of political discussions

As the battle lines are drawn over the principal issues shaping the election campaign, and party manifestos unveiled, one area that will be conspicuous by its absence is that of sport and physical activity, writes Dr David Hindley.

I am probably on safe ground in predicting that you are unlikely to hear any pledges on investment in elite sport or strategies for promoting grassroots participation. No-one will promise a commitment to delivering high-quality physical education.

And yet there can be little doubt that sport over the years has become increasingly politicised. Governments around the world invest significant amounts of public money to encourage engagement in sport, whilst in the UK successive administrations have demonstrated great faith in the potential of sport both in its own right, but progressively for the achievement of wider social goals. In this way sport has been promoted as a relatively cost-effective antidote to a variety of social problems, and more generally to ‘improve’ both individuals and the communities in which they live.

A pertinent illustration of this is the document A Living Legacy which the government published on March 25, which unashamedly celebrates its achievements between 2010 and 2015. The publication touches on a variety of themes including building on the legacy of London 2012, elite success, grassroots participation, sport for young people, international impact, major sporting events.

In spite of such platitudes clearly there remains much more that can be done. The Youth Sport Trust has recently launched its own manifesto for PE and school sport, entitled Unlocking Potential. The Sport and Recreation Alliance – the umbrella organisation for sport’s national governing bodies – meanwhile, has called for the next government to give sport a greater focus, as well as voicing concerns that sport will disproportionately suffer from any fresh round of funding cuts.

One area of common ground between these organisations is the desire for there to be greater joined-up thinking and coordinated activity across Whitehall departments. In some ways this is curious given the widespread assumption that sport has the potential to contribute to a variety of cross-cutting policy agendas, such as health, education, social inclusion, and neighbourhood renewal.

What is also intriguing is the apparent contradiction that whilst on the one hand sport and politics are inextricably linked, with besuited politicians falling over each other to attend international sporting events and to be seen alongside sporting heroes and heroines, that when it comes to penning the party manifestos, sport evidently isn’t seen as a potential vote winner.

Part of an explanation may be due to the ongoing challenges the sport policy community faces when it comes to raising its political profile. In the UK admittedly it has changed from a relatively unknown area to one attracting greater public attention – accelerated by London hosting the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The other side to this argument is that in an era of evidence-based policy-making, the cumulative evidence base for many of the claims surrounding sport’s positive role, remains relatively weak.

Until the current state of knowledge and understanding of the assumed benefits of sport and the contribution sport can make to public policy is significantly enhanced, it is difficult to see a change in the status quo. And with it sport and physical activity will remain firmly on the margins of any political discussions.

Dr David Hindley
Senior Lecturer in Sports Education
School of Science and Technology
Nottingham Trent University

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