The problem with ‘sport’ and the Olympic legacy

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Yes, I know, provocative title, especially seeing as we have all been so absorbed by the dramatic trials and tribulations of Team GB (or your own country’s team) in the superb London 2012 Olympic Games. So, what is the problem with sport? I think there are several, but first I should define what I mean by ‘sport’. Even in the academic literature it is obvious that we have difficulty defining exactly what we mean, and the Olympics seems to have this problem too – including curling in the winter Olympics and prone rifle shooting in the summer Olympics, but not chess, or darts. Obviously, in this case, it is essentially the decision of the International Olympic Committee what is in and what is out (for example, windsurfing has been excluded from Rio in 2016, whilst kite surfing will be in, to the chagrin of the windsurfers). So why am I making such a meal of defining what we mean by sport? It’s because it is central to the arguments being made currently by politicians and by interested groups and policy makers now and in the past. Most policy documents prefer to use the Council of Europe’s European Sports Charter 1993 definition of sport:

“Sport means all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels”

Essentially, they mean anything which could be regarded as exercise. In fact, you could probably include gardening in the definition above if you did it mainly to keep active! So, this is one end of the spectrum – a definition which embodies the ‘sport for all’ ethos – as long as you are aiming to stay active, then as far as the policy makers are concerned, you are participating in ‘sport’. Academics have taken a different tack to this, and have often used a nested model of definitions. Exercise is a sub-category of all physical activity (see Caspersen 1985), and sport is often regarded as a sub-category of exercise. Sport is a formalised version of exercise, involving structured organisation, an explicit focus on performance, adherence to rules, and is often associated with a sports governing body. When we use the word ‘sport’, often we are not clear which of these definitions we are implicitly referring to. In the government’s sport policy documents, this lack of clarity is common, and is exacerbated by the way in which the government seeks to increase participation in exercise by the general population in any way possible, but also wants to identify and develop talented individuals at an early age, encouraging success in international elite sports competition.

So, I hope you can see how I am cunningly about to segue to the topic of the Olympic legacy! Recently, politicians have been falling over themselves to say what we should do and what they are going to do to increase participation in sport, on the back of London 2012 enthusiasm. Jeremy Hunt has been reiterating the government’s commitment to promoting competitive sport in schools, David Cameron has been happy to be seen to commit increased funding to sport in schools and maintain funding to UK Sport, and Boris Johnson, bless his soul, has put his oar in by letting the public know he wants all children to do 2 hours of sport in school per day. The Prime Minister has been explicit in saying that he wants children to start competing in sport at a younger age, and focus on the traditional games and sports.

This is all deeply worrying. Why? Because the available evidence suggests it is a bad idea. Many children do not enjoy competitive sport. Basing policy around this approach risks putting a vast number of children off of sport and exercise for good. But why is this? The politicians (particularly the Conservative ones) are fond of reminding us that competing in sport teaches valuable life lessons like how to win and how to lose graciously, perseverance, self-discipline, etc. The problem is that this is not generally what happens in practice. At school, and particularly when puberty kicks in, the difference between the maturational age of children in the same school year can be vast – with growth spurts occurring any time between 10.5 and 16.5 years for boys (see Stang 2005).

illustration of puberty in boysAdd in the differences in birth month, natural ability, size and body type, and you have a situation in which competition in any physical activity (for example, a brawl) is inherently unfair. As a result, when the focus is on direct competition, often the losers lose and the winners win …for much of the school career. Also, qualitative research into why young children decide to be active and what they prefer has consistently shown that the two main reasons for participating are that it is fun and they get to socialise with friends. As a result, the experiences which tend to be recalled as the most enjoyable are informal ad hoc games with friends, with no formal organisation and no adults around. The models of sport development frequently referenced in the academic literature warn of the risk of ‘specialisation’ too early – i.e. focusing on one or two activities in a formal manner, training to compete. When children are young, they should ‘sample’ lots of activities, in order that they find something they enjoy and are likely to keep participating in over the long term. Amazingly, even government policy documents have made note of the risk of early specialisation (see Game Plan 2002). We may want to have more success (or maintain the current successes) in international elite sports competition, but I really don’t think it should be the focus of school sport policy. Shouldn’t we focus on the needs of the many rather than the few? Under 10% of children are identified as gifted at PE and sport (see DfE 2010). Only a tiny fraction of these will go on to compete at a national level in sport. Only a tiny fraction of that fraction will be successful on the international stage. Is it really sensible to encourage all our children to seek international sporting glory? It smacks of the “X-factor” to me.

So, that is the problem with competition. What about the activities being promoted? It seems the government is keen for young children to play more ‘competitive sport’ – the kinds of sports in the Olympics. There are many ways to be active that are not in the Olympics, and are not the focus of ‘mega-event’ international competitions. At a time when we are trying to encourage the nation to be physically active, why reduce the possibilities to find something you truly enjoy and feel good at when young? It is well known that children appreciate having a wide variety of activities to choose from, why limit this? From a health point of view, the nature of the activity isn’t particularly important. We should focus on making sure as many people as possible choose to remain active for the entire duration of their lives. This can only be done by focusing on encouraging enjoyment, making an active lifestyle easier to maintain, and not getting sidetracked by the irrelevance that high performance, elite training methods, and aggressive competition represent to the vast majority of people seeking to be active.

Boris Johnson playing tennis
One last thought. Why is all this talk about children and youth sport? What about the adults? What about the politicians? What Olympic sports do they compete in? Are they going to increase their participation now? Are they going to enter more competitions, train harder, fight for the win, build their character? It seems all too common for us to see children as a panacea for the nations problems, hopes and dreams. I will be watching with interest to see whether the Olympic ‘legacy’ has any effect on the nation’s participation in sport and physical activity long term; since Sport England started measuring it, it has done a good impression of flat-lining. I wonder whether the Olympic passion will shift it dramatically from the horizontal?