The government has launched a public consultation on sport participation as it seeks to address a worrying decline in the number of people taking part in regular exercise since a post-2012 Olympics high.
While there are now 1.4 million more people playing sport in England than in 2005 – when the UK won the right to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – this increase came in two short bursts: one after London’s bid was declared the winner, and another around the 2012 games themselves. The current trend is a gradual decline in the number of people playing sport regularly.
“London 2012 was an incredible success and a high point for British sport,” said Tracey Crouch, the sports minister. “It showed that the UK has an elite sport system to rival any nation in the world after the incredible record medal haul from Team GB and Paralympics GB athletes.
“However, there are challenges to address to help further improve sport in this country. Sports participation figures have declined recently and the government wants to ensure that public funding is targeted at those organisations who can deliver in encouraging people to get involved in sport and physical activity.”
The latest figures from Sport England for the 12 months to March 2015 show there are 15.49 million adults aged 16 and over participating in sport every week. This is up from 14.08 million in October 2006. However, numbers have declined since October 2012, when15.9 million were participating each week.
Figures show there are now more than 1.2 million more people doing no sport at all and that the decline has been particularly marked among those from lower socioeconomic groups.
Critics have attributed the fall in sport participation to cuts to local authority budgets by the last coalition government, and the decision by former education secretary Michael Gove to cut £162m in ringfenced funding for school sports partnerships.
Speaking to the Guardian last month, former Labour Olympics minister Tessa Jowell said a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to use the London Games to inspire children to play sport has been squandered, blaming her “wicked and negligent” successors.
“So we’ll go on wringing our hands about obesity, wringing our hands about the other benefits of sport and wondering in another five years’ time why we haven’t got more champions,” said Jowell, who is the bookies’ favourite to be Labour’s candidate in next year’s race to replace Boris Johnson as the capital’s mayor.
The consultation document describes inactivity as a “hidden killer” that directly contributes to one in six deaths in the UK, the same proportion as smoking, making it the fourth largest cause of disease and disability.
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Crouch denied that there had been an underinvestment in sport. “We’ve spent a lot of money, but we want to make sure we’re getting value for that money,” she said. “At the moment we’re not necessarily seeing a return on that. Three quarters of [sports funding] is lottery money, so I think people have a vested interest in making sure the money is being spent correctly.”
The consultation document argues that the international sporting stage is becoming increasingly competitive, driving an expensive international market in coaches, performance directors, training programmes and equipment. “This is driving up the overall cost of success, at odds with the current financial climate,” it reads. “The most pressing question for Olympic and Paralympic sport after Rio 2016 is how to sustain our success without the costs continuing to escalate to a point where they are unsustainable to be supported from the public purse.”
Responding to the launch of the consultation, Jowell said the 2017 world athletics championships, which will be held in London, represented a second chance to “promise every child the chance to become an athlete”, a challenge she said she hoped the government would rise to.
Emma Boggis, chief executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, which represents more than 320 sports governing bodies and about 8,000 sports clubs, said she was pleased the government was wasting no time in developing a new approach.
“A new strategy has to aim to integrate physical activity policy everywhere – from schools to local authorities, from transport to health services. Anything less will be a lost opportunity,” she said. “It’s been 13 years since the last sports strategy. A lot has changed since then and we need to work together to make sure that the UK is fit for the future.
“This review can’t be about patching together existing schemes and targets across a range of departments and non-departmental bodies. It needs to be a root and branch review of the government’s objectives, how sport can contribute to making them happen, and the best ways of supporting and funding sport in that work.”