The BBC published an article on its website this morning about class and access to funding for elite performance programmes in Scottish sport. It’s raised a number of issues for me about access to sport and sporting opportunities, what elite sport is for and why it’s important for the rest of us.
Scotland is facing huge public health issues. There are ongoing problems with alcohol and drugs, diet, and smoking. In some ways, participation in sport can be seen in a positive sense as a shortcut to improving public health outcomes for a wide range of the population. Less charitably, public support of elite sport is a sticking plaster over a gaping wound or a distraction from the real issues, the bread and circuses approach. That has been the criticism some people have expressed over hosting the Olympics or Commonwealth Games and it’s one I can just about understand but not one I agree with.
If you want to attract people into sport because it might improve their health, their relationships, their involvement in the community or even because they might have a good time running around the place and having some fun then you need ambassadors and advocates for it. That is why we need to spend public money on elite sport. Those athletes need to perform at the highest level to get the public exposure which in turn will feed into the public consciousness that maybe, just maybe it might be a good idea to be a bit more active.
It’s probably true that many athletes who receive public funding come from households where they have already had support from their families. Those families have spent money getting to clubs and coaches and training sessions and it’s not easy, even when clubs like the ones I belong to offer reduced fees and make as much of our programmes as possible free to enter. Even so, most sport other than football is seen as what rich people with time on their hands do. Until that changes, then so-called “middle-class” athletes will continue to benefit from whatever funding is available because they already have had support from their family network. It may be stereotyping but I don’t think that every family has the resources to give the financial support to young athletes before they enter performance programmes even if they had the inclination to do so.
Athletics is relatively accessible. All you need is a pair of shoes, some free time and a bit of guidance to get you going. Other sports are much worse off. Swimmers need to get to the pool, usually at hideous, hideous times in the morning when buses are few and far between if they run at all in rural areas. Cyclists need a bike, helmet, warm clothing for winter training, cool clothing for summer training, maybe a turbo or a set of rollers and somewhere to stash all that stuff when it’s not being used. Then there are the facilities like gyms for indoor training, pools, velodromes, ice rinks, tracks, playing fields and pitches all of which need to be built, maintained and paid for from a limited public purse or bought from private suppliers. Middle class families find the means to support their young athletes. Poorer families often just can’t.
We have a problem in widening participation and removing barriers from all sorts of areas in public life.
It’s not unique to sport. I have doubts about making universities more accessible but I accept that it’s generally a good thing that more people can now have the same opportunity I had to take some time to sit and think about the world and my place in it. I benefited from that so why deny the same opportunity to someone else?
What is unique to sport is the role that our elite athletes play in inspiring and motivating others to change or maybe even to excel themselves. There’s a telly programme exploring some of the issues tonight. It might be worth a watch. Links are available through the article I mentioned above.