We’re missing out on the wider benefits

Bruce Kidd

Opportunities to provide lasting legacies from major sporting spectacles like the Olympics and the football World Cup are not being taken up. The enthusiasm and goodwill generated by these events should be used to promote health, education and democracy across the world

There’s a significant disconnect between the world’s most highly-visible sporting events and the priority of recruiting sport to the urgent developmental tasks of improved health, education and youth engagement. Despite the frequent claim that athletes’ inspiring performances stimulate new participation in their different sports, there’s no evidence that they actually do so, let alone in ways that produce sustainable outcomes.

Millions are inspired by watching sports and witnessing the possibilities of the human condition as the champions and great athletes perform, but research shows that unless the average spectator or television viewer can enjoy full access to sustainable programmes – with safe, adequate facilities, conducted by competent, ethical leadership – the take-up and the resulting benefits of sport and physical activity are short-lived and ineffective.

In Australia, where the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games gave tremendous visibility to the outstanding performances of Australian athletes, participation rates in sports and physical activity, especially among children and youth, are in sharp decline, while sedentary spectatorship is on the increase. In Canada, host of the successful 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, participation rates in the very sports that Canadians cheered themselves hoarse about are also in decline. Despite a steady improvement in performance during recent years, the sources from which successful Canadian athletes have been drawn remain very small.

Like many other parts of the world, Canada faces a crisis of physical inactivity. According to the 2010 Report Card of Active Healthy Kids Canada, 88 percent of children and youth do not engage in physical activity sufficiently to experience the adaptations necessary to healthy growth and development. Where Canadian children and youth excel in spending their time is in front of a screen: 90 percent of them spend over two hours a day before video, computer or game screens, and some as much as seven hours a day.

Children from the lowest-income levels are three times as likely to have never participated in a sport or physical activity as children from the highest-income levels in Canada. Given the demonstrable links between physical inactivity and the alarming incidence of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cardio-vascular illness and cancer, and the proven contribution that sports can make to personal growth and community well-being, these findings are deeply worrying.

The disconnect between major international championships and sport for wider human development reflects the separation of the high-performance sports from the most accessible activities, and this has been accentuated by the decline of public opportunities in our age of neo-liberalism. The culture of high performance events is increasingly preoccupied with the recruitment and training of champions. Governments, sponsors and the media all reward and punish on the basis of the medal count – no matter how courageous, moving or ethical the performances.

As the requirements for success in the major international competitions become more demanding, athletes and their teams of coaches, psychologists, and medical, scientific and logistical specialists spend virtually all their time in training, testing and the activities related to it, leaving administrators challenged to meet their ever-expanding budgets. Many sports administrators are volunteers, with little time, opportunity or incentive to initiate programmes that reach out to those not already participating, let alone develop new ones targeted to address social inequality, the lack of basic education and the spread of HIV/AIDS in impoverished countries and communities. Not surprisingly, only a fraction of the public and private funds spent on sport goes to grassroots development.

Despite the best intentions of organisers, the tremendous effort and cost of staging major games often militates against the realisation of a sustainable legacy for sport and physical activity. It’s a worldwide dilemma. Every bidding organisation intends to keep down the costs while delivering successful games and a sustainable legacy, but once the games are awarded and the adrenalin hits, it’s very hard to keep to plan. The Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games are just the most recent example. The pressures to outdo previous hosts, accelerate infrastructure improvements, and provide the very best for the participating athletes are just too great and budgets quickly escalate. The increasing requirements of security, necessitated by the terrifying recent attacks on major sporting events, add another cost escalator. The result is exhausted economies that have little left for a sustainable sports legacy.

In an earlier age, children learned sports through the public school or local recreation centre. But after decades of assault on the idea of universally-accessible state programmes in education and recreation, these opportunities have been significantly diminished. The ‘Second Worldwide Survey of School Physical Education’, published by the International Council of Physical Education and Sport Sciences in 2009, concluded that there has been “a disconcerting trend of reducing time allocation to school PE” across the globe. This is particularly the case in Africa and Asia, where the lack of trained teachers, adequate facilities and equipment – and the perception that the skills of lifelong physical activity and sport are marginal to what students really need to know – undermine the implementation of even the best curricula.

It is high time that the tremendous energy and goodwill generated by events like the Olympics, the football World Cup and the Commonwealth Games were recruited to sport for development. There is much to build upon. Well below the radar of the mass media, sport for development is beginning to gain momentum. While woefully underfunded, there are programmes developing effective techniques, which could be quickly grown to scale and be extended to more participants in more countries.

The UK’s International Inspiration, which seeks to engage 12 million children in 20 countries in the years up to the 2012 London Olympics, and the ‘1 GOAL: Education for All’ promoted in conjunction with the FIFA World Cup, provide instructive case studies of a link between major games and development.

There is a tremendous desire among young people to contribute to sport for development. This is as true of top athletes as it is of those who are pursuing careers in health and education. In the Canadian Sports Leadership Corps (CSLC), which provides youth volunteers to sport development programmes in some 23 African and Caribbean countries, national-team athletes have served terms abroad. One of them, Heather Moyse, won a gold medal in bobsledding at the 2010 Winter Olympics. In 2001, she created a sport leadership development camp for deaf and hearing-impaired children from across the Caribbean as a CSLC intern in Trinidad and Tobago.

Given the spirit of events like the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, it is not too much to imagine a closing ceremony in which the importance of development and democracy is symbolically affirmed – after which a global corps of athletes, coaches and other specialists, drawn from the participants in the games, could ceremonially march out of the stadium for a term of service as sport leaders in countries and communities in need. An earlier generation of athletes actually called for a programme like this to be introduced into the Commonwealth Games, signing and circulating a petition in 1994 known as the Victoria Athletes’ Declaration.

My own view is that a workable strategy to effect significant, sustainable increases in child and youth physical activity, with measurable targets, monitoring and evaluation, should be a requirement of every bid and every major games, and just as important a factor as the quality of the facilities and the housing for athletes and visitors. Before the successful bid is announced, host governments should commit to a sustainable legacy for sport and physical activity.

Most of all, a way must be found to harness the talent and idealism of the world’s youth that is inspired by gold medal and championship winning performances, to push forward the urgent tasks of sport for development. If we did that, we would never have to conclude again that “they were great games; too bad they did so little to enhance sport for development”.

About the author:

Bruce Kidd is Professor at the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, University of Toronto, and Chair of the Commonwealth Advisory Body on Sport. In 1962, he won the 6 miles in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.


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