One year on from last summer’s riots, the Olympics present an important opportunity to harness the potential of sport for good. Sport can be a powerful tool for improving social outcomes: promoting good physical and mental health, reducing crime and bringing communities together. Yet, while inspiring a generation of young people to take up sport was at the heart of London’s Olympic bid, it is hard to see how the £9 billion Olympic investment will translate into benefits for the most disadvantaged communities. But investment from charitable funders could help harness the energy around sport in the UK this summer and translate it into lasting positive change.
David Cameron recently remarked that too many of Britain’s Olympic athletes went to public school – a third were privately educated. But inequalities run far deeper than elite sport: those from poorer backgrounds are far less likely to take part in sport at any level. Promoting increased participation in sport alone is not enough. Investment must be targeted at the most deprived and under-represented communities if social outcomes are to be maximised.
Although two thirds of young people in the UK play sport regularly, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, like many living in the five Olympic boroughs in east London, are least likely to take part. School leavers, especially girls aged over 16, and disabled young people also have significantly lower levels of participation. These groups will be among the hardest hit by government cuts to spending on local sports facilities and outreach activities: the halving of investment in sports facilities, parks and playgrounds compared to pre-recession levels heightens barriers for those without access to private sports clubs.
The UK government has invested heavily in elite sport in anticipation of the Olympics, but they have arguably diverted funding away from community and grassroots sport projects. The government’s new sport strategy, Creating a sporting habit for life, goes some way to address these issues, investing £1 billion over five years mainly to encourage participation in structured competitive sport. But there is still a shortfall in funding for community sport. Sport has other purposes aside from winning gold medals: it can be used as a tool to create positive change in key areas. ‘Sport for good’ must be recognised, promoted and funded in its own right if a true Olympic legacy is to be achieved. Trusts and foundations can fill this gap in investment.
Charitable funders can harness the Olympic legacy to use sport as a hook to tackle all sorts of social problems. Sport is not a panacea: it cannot hope to eliminate youth offending or mental health problems. But as part of a well-structured programme of support, investment in sport can improve the likelihood of positive outcomes. It can engage young people and draw them into other activities such as education and employment programmes. The Boxing Academy in London provides literacy and numeracy tuition alongside boxing classes, and has achieved lower rates of re-offending, increased qualifications and improved health for students who struggled in mainstream school.
Sport can be used as a diversionary activity to engage young people in positive pursuits, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. Projects can prevent crime and anti-social behaviour by engaging young offenders or those at risk of offending, helping to tackle boredom and provide positive role models. Kickz, a project in north London, uses football to engage hard-to-reach young people in deprived areas. Since the project started, youth crime has dropped by two thirds within a one-mile radius of the park.
Sport can promote community inclusion: bringing together young people from different backgrounds, increasing levels of trust, and encouraging leadership and volunteering. There are also direct benefits for individuals in terms of health, wellbeing and social skills. Children from deprived background are more likely to become obese and develop mental health problems, so sport can play an important role in tackling health inequalities.
If we experience the Olympics only as a nation of spectators, this is a missed opportunity for positive social change. Investment is needed in sport for good projects which respond to local needs, are aimed at the most disadvantaged, and are based on knowledge of what works if a true Olympic legacy is to be achieved. Funders have a real opportunity to leave their own Olympic legacy: a strong, community sport sector that attracts and engages hard to reach young people, and spreads positive change throughout other areas of their lives.
Dawn Plimmer is a consultant at New Philanthropy Capital