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20 February 2017updated 05 Aug 2021 7:19am

How the sports industry inspired us to become less active

Sport’s obsession with being “inspirational” doesn't help public-health interventions – it hinders them.

By David Goldblatt

A year before the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, the nadir of English football’s fortunes, the original New Times debate mapped precisely the forces that would transform this venerable but declining working-class game into the global commercial spectacular that is the Premier League. The new communications technologies and their global reach would be shaped by private rather than public interests (privately owned clubs, not the Football Association) and by the market, not the state (Sky rather than the BBC).

That debate also recognised the relentless individualistic consumerism that has driven the continuing success of sport in Britain: we now have record levels of gym membership, buy more sports goods than before, and watch more sport on ever more devices. If newspapers and internet chat rooms are anything to go by, we read more and talk more about sport than we used to. The New Year honours lists suggest we accord it ever more social weight.

What the New Times thinkers failed to note, however, was that we would be consuming most of this sport sitting down and with distinctly bigger waistlines. In the years since the London 2012 Olympics, Britain – already perilously sedentary – has been exercising even less. In the late 1950s the average weight was 65 kilograms (10.2 stone) for men and 55 kilograms (8.7 stone) for women. Today those figures are 84 kilograms (13.2 stone) and 70 kilograms (11 stone), respectively, with nearly a quarter of adults classed as obese.

It has become clear that a central legacy of the deindustrialisation of the 1980s was an increasingly sedentary life, made worse by the collapse of public transport, the relentless motorisation of everyday life and the difficulty of cycling as a mode of transport. This was compounded by the entrenchment of the snacking and fast-food industries, which helped shift the nation’s already poor eating habits in the direction of sugar. The fortunes of the McDonald’s chain can stand proxy for the process. It took ten years, from 1974 to 1984, for the company to reach 100 outlets in the UK; over the next two decades it increased its presence twelvefold.

Under successive governments, school playing fields, public commons, parks and municipal leisure facilities, already dilapi­dated and many of them of Edwardian vintage, were either sold off or abandoned. Our own era has added to this litany; digital screens continue to multiply and unsupervised play has collapsed following concerns about children’s safety.

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All this at a time when our elite athletes are prospering. Yes, England may not have won the football World Cup, but its rugby union team is the Six Nations champion. Its cricketers have won the Ashes. The Premier League is hailed as the world’s best and richest. Team GB has had an ever-increasing haul of Olympic laurels, and has showcased and celebrated women’s and disability sports as never before. How, in an era of such “inspirational” sporting success, can we in fact be exercising less?

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We need to start from the idea that sport, even the Premier League, is just the rule-bound, competitive end of a much wider spectrum of physical culture and ways of playing. Sport has its special place in this culture – fun runs, Zumba classes and personal training sessions do not offer athletic brilliance, narrative complexity or collective ecstasy – but the world-views of commercial and elite sport should not be given special importance. Indeed, there is good reason, in their present form, to disregard them altogether.

In the world of elite sport, decision-making is meant to be “performance based”, so it is remarkable how immune it is to arguments that more star athletes do not translate into a healthier population. Perhaps it is true that future Olympians will be inspired by role models during their youth. For most children, however, the mundane reality is that parents, peers, schooling, wealth and access to infrastructure are the primary determinants of participation. One reason why levels of exercise have fallen is that household budgets don’t stretch to dance classes, swimming lessons and the like.

Where there is a clear and established path out of poverty through professional sport – football in most parts of the world, baseball in the Dominican Republic, athletics in Jamaica – the commercial spectacular continues to feed the grass roots with hope, if not resources. And given the make-up of its labour force, the English Premier League seems to be doing most of its best work outside of the country.

Sport’s obsession with being “inspirational” is a hindrance to public-health interventions, not a help. We need to be cajoling, entreating, even tricking people into activity. While some will want to go to the “next level” or “just do it ”, others might be quite happy to wander around their own level, or “just about do it”. We need to ask people to dance and invite them to play. It is clear enough from comparable countries such as Finland and Denmark that the precondition for an active and healthy nation is getting more people moving about by walking, cycling and, where conditions allow, skateboarding, skiing and skating. For a fraction of the cost of the HS2 rail link and, I suspect, with much greater social and economic benefits, we could make a significant start on this.

Our priorities need to shift in other ways, too. Children should continue to be an important concern, but the sports industry’s fetishisation of youth must be countered by an equal concern with getting the disabled and the elderly to be more active. Indeed, there may be bigger health gains to be made here for each pound spent. Given current trends, informal running, swimming and gym use will account overwhelmingly for our calorie-burning. But are we building and maintaining the infrastructure that makes this type of exercise possible, and offering prices that make it affordable?

It is worth returning to two initiatives of the last Labour government – the Playbuilder scheme and school sport partnerships – which were either scrapped or diluted by the coalition government in 2010. The first created a small central fund to support the creation of new playgrounds; the second established grass-roots networks that stitched together educational and sporting institutions of all kinds. Both could be revived, devolved and expanded significantly.

But why stop at playgrounds? Why just schools and sports? Add urban running zones, cycle networks and a new generation of lidos. Sports clubs and facilities should be plugged in to the health and social-care systems, and a new generation of innovative, grass-roots sports NGOs should be brought into the network.

None of this is to suggest that we should stop trying to shape and regulate the commercial sporting spectacular, or the governance of sport, or that we should even drastically reduce the funding for elite Olympians. This last costs considerably less than the annual wage bill of a smaller Premier League club. There is an important agenda of opening up, democratising and diversifying sports governance, as well as addressing sport’s intersecting crises of corruption, doping and crass commercialism.

However, what needs to end is this: the risible notion that globalised, commercial sporting spectaculars are models for running our institutions, or the route to an active and healthier society.

David Goldblatt is the author of “The Ball Is Round: a Global History of Football” and “The Game of Our Lives” (both Penguin)

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times