“Give us goal posts, not gold medals”

Britons would forego Team GB Olympic gold in favour of better access to sport for all

Only 7% of Britons have been inspired by the Olympics to take up a sport, according to a new survey this week. Most say it’s too expensive, facilities are poor or non-existent, or they don’t have the time or confidence.

Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson says:

"Unless we look more creatively about how we engage everyone in physical activity, we may win medals but we will be bottom of the league table on health and wellbeing.”  

Author and journalist Simon Kuper, says:

“Instead of obsessing about who is the next England football manager, let's spend that energy creating places for people to play sport near their homes.”

UK Sport recently announced record funding of up to £345m to take us on “the journey to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and beyond”, but a new survey has found that most Britons would forego medal wins at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in favour of better access to sports facilities in the UK, enabling many to participate in sport – not just the elite few.

Rather than prioritising Olympic gold, the public would like to see government sports funding channelled into: more community sports centres and making entrance fees more affordable (18%); the reinstatement of school and public playing fields (14%) lost in the mass sell-off since the 80s; support for local grassroots sports and fitness initiatives (14%), and improved physical exercise in schools (13%). 

By contrast, only 4% of the population backed UK Sport’s funding strategy for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which puts the emphasis on “more medals and medallists to inspire the nation”. This aspiration is judged less valuable than initiatives – such as ‘This Girl Can’ – which target people who don’t do enough exercise (9%) and sporting activities which engage the disadvantaged (5%).  A further 12% of people said priority for sports funding in the UK should not lie in any specific area, while 10% had no view on the subject.  

All these findings emerge from a survey commissioned by charity Pro Bono Economics, which on 27th February at the Royal Institution hosts its annual lecture, given by author and journalist Simon Kuper. He will ask: “Has Britain got sport upside down?”

Olympic feats might inspire, but lack of sports facilities and high costs continue to impede nationwide take-up of Olympic sports

After the British athletes’ performance at Rio in 2016, achieving a record haul of 130 medals in the main games, the UK is now considered an Olympic superpower; yet only 7% of the 2,000 respondents to the YouGov survey had been inspired by the Olympics to take up a particular sport.  The five sports most favoured by those who did were cycling (27%), swimming (27%), athletics (19%), tennis (10%), and football (9%).

It is not, however, a lack of interest in sport that stops others from participating, but expense (17%), a lack of local facilities (12%), or local facilities that are of poor quality (6%).    Almost one in five (18%) respondents blamed their busy lifestyle, and just over one in ten (12%) said they lacked the confidence to participate in sport.  Nearly one third of people said they had no interest in the Olympics.

By contrast, in a separate survey of leading experts from sport, economics, health and the media, no respondents blamed the poor take-up of sports on any failure of Olympic athletes to inspire the nation.  They said it resulted from: our busy lifestyles – jobs that are too taxing and young people prioritising academic achievement over exercise (27%); a lack of affordable local sports facilities (19%); poor diet and lifestyle (19%) and a deep-rooted culture of disinterest in sport and exercise UK (18%).  

Simon Kuper, co-author of Soccernomics and Financial Times columnist, who is giving the Pro Bono Economics lecture, commented: 

"These findings support my theory that Britain really has got sport upside down. Why spend billions on an Olympics when few kids in the country have the facilities to play judo, fencing or equestrianism anywhere near their homes? In many neighbourhoods it's hard even to find a decent football field. The sell-off of school playing fields in the Thatcher/Major years did terrible damage to British sport.”

“Instead of obsessing about who is the next England football manager, let’s spend that energy creating places for people to play sport near their homes. It would be a strategy to increase national health, happiness and sense of community, to fight crime - and maybe even to improve the England football team.”

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Gold medal Paralympian, parliamentarian and television presenter, will join Simon Kuper in a panel discussion after his lecture. She added: 

“In the UK we like to think we are a nation that loves sport, but perhaps we are more of a nation who loves watching sport.  We know there is a disconnect between elite sport and participation.  Currently inactivity costs the nation £20 billion a year so this is not something we can keep putting off. Unless we look more creatively about how we engage everyone in physical activity, we may win medals but we will be bottom of the league table on health and wellbeing.” 

Professor Diane Coyle, author and Professor of Economics, University of Manchester, who will chair the lecture and the subsequent discussion, commented:

“The 2012 Olympics in London were inspirational but there is no point in inspiring people if they can't follow up on it. What the survey suggests is an unmet public appetite for better access to affordable facilities, serving a wider range of sports than just football. The benefits of greater participation in health and well-being could be significant."

The findings quoted come from a YouGov survey of 2,000 people, carried out in preparation for Pro Bono Economics’ annual lecture. The event will bring together renowned experts from sports, health, economics, and the media at The Royal Institution of Great Britain at 7pm on Monday 27th February.  Together, they will explore challenging questions on the relationship between sport, public health and the economy in Britain today.

Professor Diane Coyle will then host a panel discussion and invite contributions from audience. Simon Kuper will be joined on the panel by:

  • Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Paralympian, parliamentarian and TV presenter
  • Mark Gregory, EY's Chief Economist for the UK & Ireland; his work has quantified the economic and social impact of sport institutions, including the Rugby World Cup 2015 and English Premier League.
  • Will Watt, founder of Jump; providing expertise in policy evaluation, impact analysis and behaviour change in sport and volunteering.

Pro Bono Economics, established in 2009 by Martin Brookes (Tomorrow’s People) and Andy Haldane (Bank of England), is a charity that matches professional economists, working as volunteers or on a voluntary basis, with charities and social enterprises that want to understand and improve their impact and value.

This event is generously supported by Nomura (www.nomura.com) and Weil (www.weil.com). There are a limited number of free tickets still available.   To register online: www.probonoeconomics.com/news/has-britain-got-sport-upside-down

About the survey

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2001 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 10th and 13th February 2017.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

24th February 2017