Action for Sport – Douglas Flett

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The then Scottish Executive’s Physical Activity Taskforce said, in 2002, that 72% of women and 59% of men in Scotland were not physically active enough to maintain good health. And because local and central governments are very good at producing reports, the City of Edinburgh Council reacted in 2003 with their own report, fearlessly calling it, “A Capital Commitment to Sport.”

Sadly, it was to be yet another false dawn. Its aims and promises disappeared into the ether of budgets, the changing of the political guard, and the churn of Council officers. Even in the name of the committee responsible for sport there is a clear declaration of the city’s diminishing place of sport. First, the city merged its sports committee into a mixed portfolio, and they called it ‘Culture, Leisure and Sport’. Finally they dropped ‘sport’ from the department and committee names  altogether, and they called it ‘Culture and Communities’.

I understand that the current committee did not even discuss sport in its first eight months of meetings. Actions speak louder than reports.

Edinburgh Council proclaimed their aim was to make the city, “the most physically active city in Europe by 2002.” Today they are eclipsed by several UK cities… but Europe! Well, they better get moving – only two years left and they have just closed Meadowbank Stadium which hosted Commonwealth Games in 1970 and 1986. No, they did not arrange other facilities for Edinburgh Athletic Club’s 500+ youngsters. The club was left to its own devices.

Meadowbank Stadium’s high times were followed by decades of decay. The City washed its hands of sport and passed it to its arms-length company, Edinburgh Leisure, who presided over a steadily, diminishing list of sports facilities. Those of us who played 5-a-side footie at their Queensferry pitches for 10 years will endorse that appraisal. To turn around JFK’s famous line, “ask not what your city can do for sport, ask what sport can do (income) for your city.”

What can be learned from this dismal tale of failed aims? Fifteen years on, and with another Commonwealth Games behind us, held in Glasgow, what can we learn?

  1. Pathways: This was the word used in Edinburgh’s 2003 report. Create pathways for people to engage in sport.  When physical fitness and sport become an integral part of schooling, then children learn and like the lifestyle. Politicians and Educators need to appreciate that getting an obese child only to pass written tests is not properly or fully nurturing that child. It does not adequately prepare them for the challenges of High School and life ahead.
  1. Athletics – the cross over sport for Primary: This sport is multi-faceted. It is geared to all shapes and sizes of children. Its many disciples can be simplified into fun exercises and games which provide the core skills of coordination, strength, endurance and speed. In athletics youngsters begin to learn what are their best skills and physical attributes. Its like their paper / stone / scissors game – each one can do something the others cannot. It teaches self awareness, teamwork, individuality as well as providing the model and experience of a lifestyle with healthy activity.
  1. Athletics – the cross over sport for Secondary: If athletics is fostered in High Schools, then Scottish students will be stronger, fitter, faster when they play football or rugby, or take up gymnastics or any sport. They will have better prepared and conditioned physiques. The spin off will not just be a healthier nation, a better workforce, and a society with better mental health, but performances and standards by Scots in the all sports will improve.  Better background health in the fitness of Scottish young people will increase performance in the Scottish workplace as well as making us a healthier nation with less cost to the NHS, less sick leave and more productivity.
  1. Politicians have got the strategy badly wrong: They have concentrated on adult health. The smart game is to reach and inspire the children. Listen to Judy Murray and a host of other Scottish voices who understand what sport can do for child development, and lets stop listening to those who always wanted to skip gym class.

Sport involvement benefits learning, improves social life, helps mental, emotional and physical health. And, if local and central governments cannot succeed in this task alone, then here is a challenge to the business sector who usually know how to turn a report into action so that Scots of all ages will profit.

Douglas Flett is a retired architect and former Scottish Athletics internationalist