Grassroots sports clubs are facing an Olympic task

What lasting impact will the Olympics have on sport in Croydon? Not much, says STEVEN DOWNES

The London Olympics are happening in neighbouring Merton…

It’s less than 50 days now until the Olympic Games begin in our city. But here, in Croydon, we seem almost untouched by the rapidly approaching Greatest Show on Earth.

As the Jubilee bunting is replaced in other London boroughs with Boris’s Olympic branding, the excitement being felt elsewhere seems absent here, where there’s barely an acknowledgement that the Olympics will be on our doorstep. Certainly, there’s no sign that Croydon has bought into the Olympic dream.

Since much of London’s Olympic bid was based on “legacy”, of exciting and energising a new generation to take part in sport, the failure of Croydon to buy-in to the build-up to the Games may have longer lasting, damaging impact on the sports participation and long-term health of the borough’s youngsters.

… but there’s no sign of the Olympics in Croydon

Not that we have any real idea of the levels of participation in sport in Croydon, or across the country, despite six years of expensive surveys conducted by Sport England. Certainly, as the Minister for Sport, Hugh Robertson, said over lunch earlier this week, setting targets of having an extra 1 million active in sport by 2012 was “just idiotic – it was as if someone just picked a number off a wall”.

Robertson was deeply critical of the manner in which Sport England had defined active sporting participation, and the manner they set about measuring it.

While Croydon has pretty much sat on its hands over sport – there is not even a senior councillor in the Tory group that controls the Town Hall with defined responsibility for sport – the drive for more people to take part in healthy, active participation has spawned some frankly ridiculous schemes in other London boroughs.

  • The proud Olympic borough of Tower Hamlets has spent public money in funding a series of special cycling classes specifically for women who wear the burka.
  • Brent actually set up an online virtual tour of the council’s leisure facilities, presumably so that anyone feeling lukewarm about getting fit need never actually leave the comfort of their own living room.
  • Then there is the suggestion from the head of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation to get more women taking part, every local council swimming pool should be compelled to install hair straighteners in the ladies’ changing rooms.

The social and health benefits of more sporting participants are well versed: less obesity, less heart disease, less diabetes, and shorter queues for treatment at the NHS. Everyone’s a winner.

To achieve the goal of more than 1 million people taking part in regular sporting activity, Sport England – the government-funded agency – put aside nearly £1 billion of public cash.

It works out to £880 on every new sporting recruit that Sport England lands. Provided that they reach that magic 1 million figure, something we will probably never know.

In 2009, Sport England announced that they would be investing £480 million in 46 sports national governing bodies, with 14 Olympic and Paralympic sports, including handball, taekwondo and wheelchair basketball. The other £400 million was being spent on other aspects of this legacy programme.

At the time of the announcement, Sport England’s then new chief executive, Jennie Price, said: “Sport England has worked hard to ensure that our half a billion pound investment in grassroots sport delivers value for money and, most importantly, results.” We italicised for emphasis.

Sport England stated that “in delivering a lasting grassroots participation legacy, this country will be achieving something that no other host nation has succeeded in delivering”. Too bloody right, for that amount of our money.

Hugh Robertson: Sport England’s 1m target was “idiotic”

Let’s face it, given £880 million to get 1million regular, new sporting participants, all we really need to do is stand on a street corner in the major cities, doling out one-year memberships of local fitness clubs. In fact, with those sort of numbers, we should be able to negotiate a bulk discount and save everyone some money. Job done.

But that certainly would not constitute Price’s “value for money”, and nor would it produce a lasting sporting legacy.

What is deeply suspicious is the self-justifying manner in which Sport England has for the past two or three years gone about patting itself on the back for a job well-done. Because no one will ever really know whether an extra 10 million, or 10,000, people are taking up sport.

Why? Because the methodology is flawed, something the Minister for Sport identified this week over lunch.

“When I was playing colts cricket in Kent,” Robertson, now a keen playing member of the MCC, said at the Ladbrokes-sponsored event, organised by the Sports Journalists’ Association, “I would probably go to nets on a Tuesday night, and then play a game at the weekend. But under Sport England’s method of measuring ‘regular’ sporting activity, that would not have been enough. They require at least three pieces of sporting activity a week.

“Even when I was playing hockey for the Army, we’d train once a week and play at the weekend. I’m sure that’s the case for thousands of people who play sport every week. Sport England’s definition was simply never realistic.”

Even the method used by Sport England to count sporting participation was flawed. No one was counting how many people have been using sports facilities each week. Every local council, after all, runs a public pool or leisure centre. Each has to count the number of users it has, for every hour of every day of every week. Yet this information is not being used by Sport England.

Instead, Sport England’s chosen measure of participation was through an online survey, which relied entirely on the veracity of the responses. “How many times each week do you take part in active sport?” was the gist of one of the survey’s questions. Hmmm. The answers are data of sorts, but virtually worthless.

Had Sport England ever bothered to go to the sports clubs, such as Amphibians Swimming Club, Croydon Harriers, Shirley Park Golf Club, Purley Walcountians Hockey Club or Streatham and Croydon RFC, or to local schools, and to the people there dealing with membership, trying to fund the club’s water rates, organising officials and coaches, booking venue hire and providing the teas, week-in, week-out, they might actually get a truer picture of the state of grassroots sport in this country.

For all the billions spent on the London Olympics, grassroots sports clubs still struggle to fund their activities or recruit officials

Most clubs, in whatever sport, cannot ever find enough volunteers to referee all their matches, to measure the long jumps in the sand pit, or coach all their kids, let alone fund the activities that might be required to help with any increase in participation.

Yet none of Sport England’s funding was targeted, directly, at the area of greatest need, the sports clubs or schools, where it might do the greatest amount of good, and directly impact increased sports participation. Organisations where, even when the funding runs out, they would carry on functioning within the community, thanks to the on-going goodwill and hard work of its members and volunteers.

There is a sense that Robertson appreciates this. On Thursday, he promised to review and re-launch a sporting participation survey, and the drive to use the inspiring qualities of the Olympics to boost sporting activity. “I am going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that we deliver on those legacy promises,” he said.

Instead of going to the next Lord’s Test, the Euro 2012 football championships or even taking a seat in the Olympic Stadium during the Games, the minister would do well to seek out some city sports clubs, away from his Kent constituency.

IN ONE FORTNIGHT last year, it was possible to attend two sporting events which involved around 2,000 people at each. Neither received directly any public money, yet both were typical of the sort of events staged the length and breadth of the country every week, thanks to an army of sporting volunteers who receive precious little support from the outside their own communities.

The first event was a schools rugby match. Or rather, matches. Throughout the Saturday, two local schools, one private, one state – let’s say Cipriani’s old school against Sackey’s old school – staged no fewer than 26 games of 15-a-side rugby through every year group – that, of itself, represents nearly 800 lads involved in competitive sport on that one day alone.

On playing fields greedily eyed by developers, all the matches were staffed by at least two teachers, while the host PTA laid on teas and refreshments. By the time of the first XV clash in the afternoon, the attendance at the school playing fields was more than 2,000. The day’s sport wasn’t bad, either.

The following week, there was a local 10-mile road race, an event founded during the first “running boom” in the mid-1980s. In the past 25 years, the organisers, the local running club, have managed to find sponsors to meet the bills and volunteers to man the water stations, and they now attract more than 2,000 runners, including a good proportion of women, to an exceptionally well-managed sporting event.

This event has never received any direct funding help, yet every race entrant is “taxed” with a levy that goes to the governing body. The same governing body that is receiving millions in grant aid to improve participation from… Sport England.

In July 2005, Lord Coe, with his Olympic bid-winning speech in Singapore, won the 2012 Games for London on a promise of reversing more than 60 years of under-investment and neglect in sports facilities and participation. To this day, for example, London has fewer 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pools than Cairo, Warsaw and Nairobi.

It is unfortunate that for all the money Sport England has frittered away on meaningless surveys and further funding to the top-down, top-heavy sports governing bodies, little will ever truly assist the country’s beleaguered sports clubs and schools, the people who really could have provided truly cost-effective way of making the nation fitter for the rest of this century.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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2 Responses to Grassroots sports clubs are facing an Olympic task

  1. On Croydon’s failure to buy into the London Olympics, the problem is county borough syndrome.

    Many in the Town Hall Establishment have never fully accepted that Croydon is part of Greater London.

    They still hanker after special treatment; hence the public money Croydon keeps wasting on half-hearted attempts to attain city status.

    In the eyes of these still influential Surrey recidivists, Croydon has never truly become part of London, so it cannot be expected to support any capital-wide celebrations.

    • Our pictures of borough signs were taken at the north boundary at the borough. A similar contrast could have been shown at the southern end, because Surrey signs also display the LOCOG logo.

      Surrey has also embraced a role with the London Olympics, in common with other areas which have been allocated a slice of the action: the cycling road race with lap around Box Hill; the tennis, of course, is at Wimbledon.

      We fear that you may well be right in your judgement, David. The pity of it is that because of the snobbery of a small, unrepresentative cabal at the Town Hall, the vast majority of the people of Croydon will miss out on making the most out of a once-in-a-lifetime occasion in this city.

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