Background. Over the years ABAC has criticised Sport England’s obsession with increasing participation in recreational sport at the expense of competitive activities. The recent ABAC Fact Files have highlighted the huge difference between the small number of athletes participating in track and field and the enormous participation figures claimed by Sport England.
In July 2007 ABAC sent the DCMS a petition requesting that competitive sport should receive more support and mass participation targets should be reduced. We thought this message had got home when in November 2007 the Chairman of Sport England Derek Mapp was forced to resign in a row over the future direction of the funding body.. Mapp who was paid £32,000 a year for a two day role, quit after a showdown with James Purnell, the Secretary of State for the DCMS. The press (Ref 1) reported at the time that Purnell told him he did not believe he was fully behind his plans to shift the organisation’s resources away from active pastimes such as jogging and walking, to more traditional sports.
Sadly, despite changes in top personnel Sport England not only refused to follow Purnell’s public instructions but moved further towards increasing mass participation targets.
On 14th January 2009 ABAC officers met with England Athletics to learn of new planned initiatives. (Ref 2). To summarise;
1. Sport England/England Athletics planned to increase participation by funding Park Runs with approx £100,000 per annum for 4 years.
2. Additionally funding up to £200,000 was to be provided annually to the existing Womens Running Network (WRN) for a period of 4 years to enable them to expand around England and broaden membership to include men. This came as no surprise because WRN had been receiving financial support directly from Sport England since 2006
So rather than support grass roots clubs England Athletics had produced plans to spend £1.2 million on mass participation projects.
Two years later.
Half way through the planned EA participation programme there seem to be major doubts about mass participation targets and programmes of work .
Park Runs. As far as Park Runs are concerned the intention to absorb them into the EA system did not materialise. For reasons unknown the organisers of the Park Runs decided not to get involved with EA who have had no input into this initiative. At the time of the EA support proposal there were about 11 Park Runs events. In the following year a further 18 meetings were added and in the last year a further 24 races started up. On average about 7,200 identified runners take part in 53 Park Runs on any given weekend. Many of these runners belong to clubs. It has been determined (Ref 3) that in all approx 5000 non club runners take part on a regular basis in Park Run events. The original EA target was an additional 50,000 non club runners.
Run In England. On the 7th March 2011 EA issued a press statement which followed a decision by the project managing body WRN to resign the commission from EA to deliver the Run In England Programme. The statement reported that “England Athletics is working in partnership with UKA and Sport England to evaluate our work in the areas of recreational running and in creating opportunities for newcomers to run. As part of this review, the role and delivery of Run In England Project is being evaluated.”
As reported above WRN has been receiving approx £200,000 each year to organise and develop the RIE programme. This involved four full time development managers and a number of part time County activators each working between 8 and 16 hours per week. We estimate the salaries for these staff totalled around £200,000 each year. By withdrawing from the contract with EA, WRN has lost this income.
Based at Exeter university, WRN –a not for profit Company – has been reported to have ceased trading.. Local press reports (ref 4) indicate that the number of Run in England participants was lower than expected and financial targets were not being met.
What for the future?
Well, the Park Run organisers have demonstrated that mass participation projects can be successful without grant aid.
And our partner organisation the Association of Running Clubs (ARC) has demonstrated that extra stadia competitions can be permitted and insured at much lower costs than those set by the sports NGB’s. Again ARC is a volunteer led body operating with no bureaucracy and at no cost to the tax payer.
It is quite conceivable that many of the listed 325 RIE groups will reform and continue as before but with affiliation to ARC.
The agreed minutes of our meeting with EA in Jan 2009 included the statement that Sport England did allocate funding in proportion to the number of participants and so initiatives to increase participation were valuable.
While the Run In England project seems to have stalled the Park Run initiatives do seem to be attracting modest numbers of non club runners. However there is a downside to the Park Run initiative. Several ABAC clubs have cancelled traditional and long standing road and country events due to falling entries as athletes prefer the free entry and early start opportunity offered by Park runs. So the main downside is a loss of revenue to clubs with little compensating benefit because club’s membership is not increasing as a result of Park Runs.
ABAC has on many occasions offered to provide input when new plans and initiatives are being considered. But we have been ignored. It gives us little pleasure to point out that many of the changes imposed on the sport of athletics following the 2004 Foster review were predicted to fail. And they have.
Let us hope that in future common sense will prevail.
From The Guardian 29 March 2011. (Ref 5) Jeremy Hunt, the Olympics secretary, says the pledge to inspire one million adults to play sport is set to be dropped. It is understood that key participation targets, bequeathed by the previous administration, to which only negligible progress has been made, will be dropped.
ABAC Comment. In 2007 we petitioned DCMS to scrap this clearly ridiculous programme. Four years and many millions of pounds later the penny has dropped. We said it would not work. How could it have taken so long for this wasteful project to be rumbled? Well you don’t have to look too far. First, Sport England has spent around £10 million on its “Active People” survey producing over inflated numbers of participants in sport. Second UKA, with its 10 man strong media department, has worked tirelessly to spin the numbers. The chickens are now coming home to roost.
1. Minutes and notes of a meeting between the ABAC Committee and England Athletics on 14th January 2009. (Agreed minutes on ABAC website dated 23 January 2009).
2. “Sport England’s Derek Mapp forced to quit. David Bond. Daily Telegraph 30th November 2007.
3. Rob Whittingham. Private communication 10th February 2011
4. University’s Women’s Running Network hit by cash crisis. Patrick Phelvin, Exeter Echo, 29 March 2011
5. Jeremy Hunt admits London 2010 legacy targets will be scrapped. Owen Gibson, The Guardian, Tuesday 29 March 2011