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  6. Sheffield Hallam University leads the Olympic legacy debate

Sheffield Hallam University leads the Olympic legacy debate by building partnerships between academics and practitioners

In early September, as the outstanding success of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was drawing to a close, Sheffield Hallam University’s Academy of Sport and Physical Activity was quick off the mark in hosting the latest European Sports Development Symposium.

Entitled 'What Next for Sport and Physical Activity? – building partnerships between Universities and industry professionals', the Symposium brought together over 100 academics and sport and physical activity practitioners from around the UK and Europe to address the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for sport and physical activity, learn from existing academic and practitioner collaborations, and encourage further such collaborations in the future.

The symposium attracted an impressive line-up of keynote speakers representing the diverse constituencies of academia, sport development, physical activity and health. Delegates were treated to some challenging and thought-provoking presentations which were supported by an extensive workshop programme.

Barrie Houlihan, professor of sports policy at Loughborough University, began the symposium by outlining the social and political context affecting sport and physical activity in the medium and long term. In a stimulating address he emphasised the key social and demographic changes taking place in the UK – notably the growing and ageing population, the increase in lone parent families, rising unemployment among the 16–24 age group, and growing levels of income inequality. He also highlighted that levels of disposable income will continue to fall amongst most social groups in the UK for the foreseeable future. Houlihan summarised these changes by stating that in the medium term, people in the UK will be on average older, poorer and living in a more ethnically diverse society.

He then turned his attention to the possible policy implications of the UK’s outstanding success at London 2012, suggesting that it may lead to a distortion in sports policy towards 'inspiration' and continued support of the elite sport system rather than a more balanced and holistic approach which arguably existing under the previous Labour Government. Concerns were expressed that inspiration alone is not enough – this needs to be supported by a renewed commitment by government to physical education/school and community sport, and a more joined up and integrated approach to sports policy across the three policy strands.

Houlihan also questioned whether NGBs are best placed to deliver sustained increases in sports participation, a point which seemed to find favour with many of the delegates.

Finally he offered two contrasting views on David Cameron’s Big Society. The optimistic view which emphasised, amongst other things, its potential to encourage greater engagement and participation by individuals and local civil society organisations (including sports organisations). The other, a more pessimistic view which described it as little more than a smokescreen for reductions in public expenditure and a slimming down of the state. Houlihan suggested that it will be the groups with non-standard needs (families, women, the poor) and those who live in less affluent areas who will suffer most because the voluntary sector will not have the capacity to fill the gap left by reductions in public services (including sport and recreation services) traditionally provided by local authorities.

Dr William Bird is a leading thinker and practitioner in the fields of public health and physical activity. Still a practicing GP, Dr Bird has founded several major environmental and health programmes, including Walking for Health and the Green Gym. More recently he has established Intelligent Health – an organisation dedicated to improving the nation’s health through the design of innovative and simple techniques that integrate exercise into people’s daily lives.

Dr Bird treated the delegates to a fascinating insight into relationships between physical activity and public health. Backing up his arguments with evidence-based medical research, he suggested that physical activity must be viewed by the medical profession as important in its own right because it has the potential to be the primary contributor to the delivery of positive public health outcomes. 'It is more healthy to be fat and fit than thin and unfit' he stated, an important message which according to Dr Bird is not widely understood amongst health commissioners. Talking directly to the sports practitioners in the audience, he suggested that for sports organisations to have any reasonable chance of securing a significant proportion of the public health budget, the bar must be lowered to encourage new people to be active in sport. For this to happen sport must be packaged in different ways that are non-threatening, fun and delivered in a non-traditional manner.

He then turned his attention to the importance of evaluation in securing funding from public health. 'The quality of evaluation has to be of a high enough standard to count', he stated, which lays down a challenge for academics and practitioners carrying out evaluation of sport and physical activity programmes.

Sean Holt, CEO of the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA), made an impassioned plea to the delegates and through them to their employers. He asked them to support the development of the institute and in particular to continue to commit time and funding into continuous professional development during this period of austerity, using the CIMSPA professional development framework as a tool. He identified a number of significant challenges currently facing the sport and physical activity sector including:

  • how do we attract and retain the best talent?
  • how do we reconcile the number of graduates to the current and future jobs market?
  • how do we ensure that universities produce graduates with the right mix and knowledge, skills and personal attributes need by employers?
  • Holt called for greater flexibility in university provision, including a better mix of academic and vocational courses and qualifications, more opportunities for part-time study and distance learning, the introduction of work-based degree courses, and greater exploitation of the digital technology to enhance learning and development.

During the afternoon session Steve Nelson, representing the County Sports Partnership Network, spoke about the challenges of delivering a meaningful sports development legacy from London 2012. He called for three key things to happen, which were:

  • better joined up marketing, communications and data sources for sport
  • greater clarity and simplicity in the sport system with clearer roles and responsibilities for key sports organisations, including national governing bodies of sport, Sport England, county sports partnerships and their local delivery partners
  • for the consumer, a more integrated and seamless system between school, community and elite sport which creates opportunities for people from more diverse backgrounds to participate, progress and fulfil their potential in sport

Delegates were able to attend up to four out of 24 workshops covering a wide variety of sport and physical activity topics, delivered by a range of sport and physical activity academics and practitioners. Key messages to emerge from the workshops included:

  • turn the Olympic legacy dream into reality by addressing the perceived imbalance in favour of elite rather than community sport, thinking beyond national governing bodies and by focusing on engagement not just competition
  • increase the dialogue between sports and health professionals for mutual benefit
  • use an evidence-based approach to commissioning at the local level
  • exploit the enormous potential which exists for young people, in particular HE and FE students, to volunteer in local sports programmes
  • training and CPD is required for current and future senior leaders to address the leadership deficit which currently exists in the sector
  • replace anecdotal evidence with robust measurement frameworks and approaches

As delegates left the symposium they were encouraged to reflect upon what they had learnt and identify the actions they and the organisations they represent would take.

The symposium provided an important forum for many of the key opportunities and challenges currently facing the sport and physical activity sector to be identified and discussed. The important thing now is that appropriate actions are taken by key agencies and individuals. Also that academics and practitioners continue to work together, and in so doing, make a substantial contribution to the London 2012 legacy.

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