In terms of medal haul, our neighbours have justified the enormous investment placed in their elite athletes (65 medals, 29 gold). Now that the Games have come to a close, the challenge is to make sure the long-term benefits of the infrastructural investment and the feel good factor achieved by their high performance sportsmen and women is transferred into participation across all sports at grassroots level.
On the BBC Olympics 2012 programme on Sunday morning the British PM guaranteed the funding levels of the previous four years of £125m per annum will be continued until the Rio de Janeiro in 2016. UK Sport – the quango that oversees sport investment in the UK – has received approximately £500m over the past four years, with around £312m of it directed into Olympic sports and athletes. Those expected to win medals received the most (cycling, rowing, sailing and athletics all receive more than £25m over each four-year cycle).
However, for the first time ever all Olympic sports with UK Olympic representatives received funding (the majority of which, since 1994, comes from the UK Lotto with the remainder coming from the Exchequer) in an attempt to not only expand the potential for Team GB medals but to bring these relatively minority sports to a broader audience.
Considering the economic times we live in sometimes it’s difficult to justify such large investment in such a small number of people particularly in face of cuts by the British government of more than £100m in funding that had been ring-fenced for organised school sports. Participation in sport at grassroots level in the UK – particularly amongst the 18-24 year-old age group – is dropping according to recent figures.
Capturing the buzz that has clearly captivated the country and transferring that into continued volunteerism and renewed participation is the real legacy challenge of what has been decreed (admittedly by the BBC) as the greatest Olympics ever.
We have has some remarkable individual performances in the Olympics too, with Katie Taylor lifting the entire country with her historic gold medal. That fight was watched by 1.1 million people in this country. I found it an incredibly emotional experience and admit I was welling up as I saw the relief on Katie’s face when she finally learned she had made her dream come true. Taylor has the perfect combination of talent, determination, belief and faith.
Taylor and the rest of our Olympic winners who achieved Ireland’s greatest medal haul for 60 years, deserve to be held up as examples and icons, and hopefully will inspire a new generation to engaging with sport, any sport.
The 2011 Irish Sports Monitor report (which measures adult participation in sport and physical activity levels across the nation) suggests we are in the midst of a sporting surge and we should build on this nationally and locally. It doesn’t come as a surprise – just look at the amount of people who have turned to sport or exercise in some way since the recession kicked in. Some of the key findings include:
• Participation in sport increased from 34% in 2009 to 46% in 2011
• Rates of volunteering in sport increased from 7% in 2009 to 15% in 2011
• Club membership has increased from 32% to 38%
• Personal exercise (11%) and swimming (10%) are the most popular physical activities
• Increased time a key factor in increased participation with notable increases among the unemployed as well as those among the younger and older groups of adults.
If we are to really tap into the potential of sport and the positive effect it can have on our lives physically, emotionally and socially, we need to place it on a formal footing in our education system. An appropriately designed, age-specific Health and Wellbeing module would not only teach our primary and secondary school going children the link between healthy bodies and healthy minds, but would expose them to simple truths about diet, nutrition and exercise that would benefit them throughout their lives.
In the UK the government is considering mandatory participation in team sports in primary schools. I’m not sure about this approach as team sports are not for everyone, but at least it displays a realisation of the potential of sport during the formative years. For years various proposals have been made regarding the introduction of sport into the curriculum in Irish schools. I think it’s time to pass the baton onto a new generation and take that step.
Finally, a word on our two Olympic athletes. I don’t know what to say to Colin. To get disqualified at 38km while performing well must have been gut wrenching. As ever his open and honest assessment of the situation on social media is a breath of fresh air. Colin possesses knowledge and experience in the field of high performance most Irish sporting people could only dream about. I’m looking forward to seeing how he uses it next. We are already witnessing his influence. His protégé Laura Reynolds achieved a great PB in her first Olympic Games. I can safely say it won’t be her last. Congratulations to you both and thanks for representing our little county at the greatest games on earth.