This briefing has been prepared ahead of a question for short debate that may soon be scheduled to be considered in the House of Lords:

Baroness Merron (Labour) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to harness public engagement in the Olympics and Paralympics to increase participation in sport and fitness, and improve wellbeing and health.

This briefing examines recent developments and prominent issue areas on the subject ahead of a date being set for the debate.

Potential impact of the Olympics and Paralympics

One of the stated aims of the Olympic movement is to promote sport and encourage public participation. The BBC has reported that it received 104 million requests to watch the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games online. This was more than for the 2016 games held in Rio de Janeiro, when the BBC received 74.4 million requests to view the games online. However, a recent study published in the Lancet has argued that, over the last 20 years, the games have not led to a measurable increase in participation in sport. The lead author of the paper, Professor Adrian Bauman of the University of Sydney, has described the Olympics as a missed opportunity to change health and physical activity in the broader population.

Levels of physical activity across the UK

The Chief Medical Officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have recommended that adults aged 19 to 64 years of age should undertake the following amount of regular physical activity per week:

Each week, adults should accumulate at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate intensity activity (such as brisk walking or cycling); or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (such as running); or even shorter durations of very vigorous intensity activity (such as sprinting or stair climbing); or a combination of moderate, vigorous and very vigorous intensity activity.

They also recommended adults aged over 65 and not already physically active should aim to accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week.

In December 2012, Sport England reported an increase in participation in sport following the London Olympics held earlier that year. However, more recently the number of people participating in physical activity has declined. Sport England’s most recent Active Lives Adult Survey found that, between mid-May 2020 and mid-May 2021, 60.9% of UK adults (27.8 million) did an average of 150 minutes or more a week. This figure has declined from 62.8% between May 2019 and May 2020. At the same time, the proportion of UK adults doing less than an average of 30 minutes of exercise a week increased from 25.5% in May 2019–May 2020 to 27.5% in May 2020–May 2021.

The following figures have been published for the rest of the UK:

Both public health and sport in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are devolved.

Supporting sport in England

The UK Government’s current sport strategy, ‘Sporting Future’, was published in 2015. Since 2015, the Government has made several funding announcements concerning support for sport in England. In November 2021, Nigel Huddleston, Minister for Sport and Tourism at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, outlined the Government’s policy on encouraging public participation in sport in response to a written question:

Sports and physical activity are crucial for our mental and physical health. […] we made sure that people could exercise throughout the national [Covid-19] restrictions and provided an unprecedented £1 billion of financial support to sport and leisure organisations during the pandemic.

The Government launched its sports strategy, Sporting Future in 2015 and we’ve achieved a huge amount since then. Sport England has allocated over £1.5 billion to nearly 5,000 organisations across the UK.

[…] At the recent spending review, £205 million was announced to build or transform up to 8,000 state-of-the-art community football pitches and multi-use sports facilities across the UK. Earlier this month, we announced £30 million for PE teacher training and to open up school facilities to provide access to the wider community. This was in addition to a £30 million package to renovate 4,500 park tennis courts across the country.

Responding to an oral question in the House of Lords in September 2021, Baroness Berridge, then a Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Education, said that the Government had committed to raise sports participation levels amongst pupils through the physical education (PE) and sport premium for primary schools.

Sport England is an executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It has launched a ten-year strategy for encouraging public participation in sport entitled ‘Uniting the Movement’. A plan on how the strategy would be implemented in its first year was published in May 2021. Sport England has also launched a strategy for supporting people with long-term health conditions to be physically active, entitled ‘We Are Undefeatable’.

The Labour Party has argued that the Government has failed to provide adequate support for sport in England. It has accused the Government of “squandering” the opportunities presented by the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. Alison McGovern, Shadow Minister for Cultural Industries and Sport, has argued that the Government has not provided enough financial support for sport and PE in schools. She has also accused the Government of cutting council budgets in England, arguing that this has had a detrimental effect on grassroots sport.

When asked in September 2021 whether opportunities to improve public participation in sport after the London 2012 Olympics had been missed, Nigel Huddleston said:

I think it would be a bit unfair to say there were complete missed opportunities there—there weren’t. We have anecdotal evidence that [the London 2012 Olympics] did have a strong and lasting impact. There’s a lot of other forces at work here as well. The big question is, were it not for the Olympics in 2012 would activity levels and health and wellbeing be even worse? I suspect it might well have been.

House of Lords Committee on a National Plan for Sport and Recreation

In 2020, the House of Lords agreed to establish a committee to consider the effectiveness of current sport and recreation policies and initiatives, and the case for a national plan for sport and recreation. The Committee on a National Plan for Sport and Recreation published a call for evidence in December 2020. This inquiry is currently ongoing.

On 7 July 2021, the committee held an oral evidence session with Nigel Huddleston, alongside Jo Churchill, then Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, and Nick Gibb, then Minister for School Standards. During this evidence session, the committee chair, Lord Willis of Knaresborough (Liberal Democrat) noted that, according to the evidence the committee had received, the Olympics had not had the expected impact on general levels of physical activity. He asked the witnesses whether there was a correlation between investing in major national sports and greater participation. Responding to this question, Mr Huddleston said:

We always get an uptick in activity around major international sports, including ones that happen overseas. People take up tennis during Wimbledon. Particularly with athletics and so on, there is a huge burst whenever we have these events. They generally have a pretty good bang for the buck, which is precisely why we have these quite aggressive global competitions to host them in the first place: they have a beneficial economic benefit as well as a pretty good legacy in terms of activity. You are right though to question whether we always take full advantage of them. I can tell you that for the [2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games] we are thinking of the legacy and sustaining it way in advance, perhaps longer than we have done with previous competitions.

The committee also took evidence from Sport England and UK Sport, the government agency responsible for investing in Olympic and Paralympic sport, on 30 June 2021.

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Cover image by Bryan Turner on Unsplash.