On Elite Sport and Participation

Image: @Cor Vos

In our last Polemic, we concluded that the achievements of British Cycling’s Lottery-funded Olympic cyclists, far from being evidence that we are “turning Soviet”, are entirely praiseworthy. But this leaves us with an important question, namely: so what?

As things stand, British Cycling gets money from the National Lottery so they can win more medals, so they can get more Lottery money, so they can win more medals. There is no other objective, no vestige of any further responsibility to others beyond delivering ever more triumphs for the team’s riders. This being so, there is a risk that it may start to look like the public purse is being used to boost the egos and income of a tiny handful of already highly privileged athletes, and give jobs to the army of support staff whose job it is to pamper or bully them into delivering for a few seconds every four years. And the people who control the purse strings may begin to wonder whether this is really what they want, especially when they have had it so many times before. 

British Cycling is alive to this possibility, and has long sought to connect the success of its elite programme with its wider role as governing body of, and advocate for cycling in the UK. Indeed, British Cycling launched its latest campaign (complete with hashtag), #ChooseCycling, during, and with an explicit link to, the Olympics. In the words of President Bob Howden[1],

“Cycling has once again captured the nation’s imagination over the past two weeks, and it is clear that there is a growing appetite to get more people on bikes, which will make Britain a healthier, fitter, cleaner and greener country.” 

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Accordingly, the #ChooseCycling campaign calls for safer road infrastructure to encourage more cycling[2]:

“For the majority of people, the prospect of cycling on busy roads is too daunting . . . The solution is programmes of building networks dedicated space (sic) on main roads combined with traffic calming in residential areas. These should become more connected and dense over time so everyone can easily access routes to their destinations.”

The result, it promises, will be a sort of two-wheeled economic & environmental El Dorado: “we will create the cities and towns of the future; healthy, affordable, clean and more productive. Places where we would all want to live.” Surely this would amply justify the £30m or so invested by the Lottery-player in British Cycling’s elite programme.

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Perhaps: but, on the face of it, this purported linkage is rather implausible. Team GB’s similarly-successful (and also Lottery-funded) sailors and rowers do not attempt to deduce from their Olympic triumphs that the government should provide “super waterways” along the Thames (much less the Severn, Ouse or Trent) for river-borne commuters, however good that would be for our health, productivity and air quality. Why should a different logic apply to cycling? (To be clear: this does not mean that there are no cogent arguments for better cycling infrastructure in the UK. It only means that Olympic success, especially by track cyclists, is not obviously one of those arguments.)

But in any event, any new infrastructure would only be a means to a greater end, namely that of boosting participation in cycling by getting more people to use cycling as an everyday mode of transport. And it is this above all which Olympic success is clearly expected to “inspire”.

But again, the logic is not immune to further examination. It seems unlikely that Max Whitlock’s two gold medals in gymnastics will move people to start cartwheeling to the office. It is similarly improbable that the triumphs of equestrian Olympic champions Nick Skelton and Charlotte Dujardin will give a boost to commuting on horseback. So, we might ask again, why is cycling different? Why should the success of such highly-tuned, expertly-coached and micro-managed physical specimens as Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny or Jo Rowsell-Shand, in such abstruse disciplines as the team pursuit, keirin and match sprint, get the rest of us on our Raleigh Shoppers?

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Of course, participation in cycling is rising. But that is not the question. The question is whether the increase in cycling participation has anything to do with Team GB’s repeated Lottery-funded medal bonanzas.

Before looking at cycling, consider swimming, which is significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is the UK’s biggest participation sport. Secondly, most swimming facilities are provided by government-funded or non-profit bodies, who could potentially receive more Lottery money directly, were £20m of it not diverted to the elite programme.

According to Sport England’s figures[3], during the decade to 2015 the number of adults swimming regularly fell by almost three quarters of a million. And these numbers have dropped despite considerable success on the part of Team GB’s Lottery-funded swimmers. Rebecca Adlington’s two golds in the 2008 Beijing Games were the first for a British swimmer in twenty years. Team GB won three medals in the pool in London (two of them thanks to Adlington again), and an impressive six in Rio, including a gold for Adam Peaty. None of this has done anything to arrest the downward trend in the number of ordinary people actually going swimming.

The Amateur Swimming Association insists the outlook is brightening[4]. They claim that the number of people using the ASA’s “poolfinder” app doubled (to 80,000) between July and August 2016 – i.e., in the period immediately after Team GB’s swimming successes this year.

But this is surely a blip, representing a familiar phenomenon not restricted to swimming. For example: when I was at school, every year, for the two weeks of Wimbledon, Britain’s playgrounds were used for nothing but tennis. But, once Bjorn Borg had won the men’s final, the rackets were abandoned, and we all went back to playing football. Something similar, albeit over a rather longer timeframe, happened in the wake of the London Olympics: in December 2012, Sport England reported a record boost in the number of people playing sports[5], but by 2015 the downward trend was firmly re-established.[6]

This causes much anguish among the political class, fixated as they are on the purported link between elite success at major events and grass-roots participation. Tessa Jowell, one-time Olympic Minister, has described her successors as “wicked and negligent” for missing the opportunity to use London 2012 to “inspire” children to play sports.[7] So, she said, “we’ll go on wringing our hands about obesity, wringing our hands about the other benefits of sport and wondering in another five years’ time why we haven’t got more champions.”  But the other possibility is that the link between Olympics and "inspired" children just isn’t as strong or as straightforward as is often assumed. Looking at swimming and other sports suggests that putting on big shows, even ones in which British athletes become “champions” en masse, doesn’t seem to be enough to promote participation, or even maintain it at previous levels.

Is cycling different? Or is it possible that Team GB’s cycling gold medals have nothing to do with the cycling boom? There are certainly plenty of other possible reasons for it.

It is worth remembering that road cycling has long been a major sport on the continent, and a significant niche sport in the UK. So perhaps it was simply waiting to be discovered, and overdue for a boom. If it is elite cycle sport that has encouraged participation, then it is much more likely to be other kinds that have done the trick – kinds which have little or nothing to do with Olympic medals, but which are obviously much closer to the everyday experiences of most cyclists, for the simple reason that they ride on the road. The UK has held the Grand Départ of the Tour de France twice in recent years: the Yorkshire start of 2014 was a particular triumph, and has given rise to the similarly-successful Tour de Yorkshire, one of the most popular events on the calendar despite its recent provenance. Surely this has done more to boost participation than has Olympic success.

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And there are other possible explanations for the boom, which can be deduced from the demographic profile of the new cyclists. According to Cycling UK’s latest figures[8], 30-49 year-olds cycle almost twice as many miles as any other age group, and men are more than three times as likely to cycle as women. In other words, what we have here is a boom in MAMILs – Middle-Aged Men in Lycra, who have discovered (or rediscovered) the pleasures of cycling. But before the MAMILs, in the 1990s, there were the BAMBIs – Born-Again Middle-Aged Bikers, men who had discovered (or rediscovered) the pleasures of motorcycling. And it is obvious that the Born-Again Biker phenomenon did not depend on British two-wheeled motorsport success on the international stage, for the simple reason that there wasn’t any. Conversely, it is not hard to understand the appeal of both cycling and motorcycling to a certain sort of middle-aged man: both offer lots of “boy’s toys”, gleaming equipment and outfits, as well as a sense of freedom and identity. And both industries have spent plenty on marketing their merits.

And there is another issue relating to this demographically limited boom. President Bowden again: “we recognise and take seriously our responsibility to represent each and every one of [our] members, whether they race competitively, ride to keep fit, or commute to work or school on their bike.” And #ChooseCycling is all about cycling as transport, not sport. Yet, as the text of the “#ChooseCycling Charter” acknowledges, “many that do [cycle] don’t consider it a transport option”. In other words, not only is growth in participation apparently largely restricted to the rising number of MAMILs, rather than competitive racers or commuters, but also the reasons for that growth have little to do with the use of bicycles as a way of getting around. Like the BAMBIs, the MAMILs have taken to two wheels for recreation, not transport.

So perhaps there is no link between the cycling boom and Olympic success. In fact, there is evidence from other sports that an approach based on the achievements of hyper-competitive elite sportspeople actually puts people off participating. England Netball, for example, launched its “Back to Netball” programme to try and attract women between 18 and 30 who played at school then stopped – precisely because continuing meant joining a serious club, and few women of working and family-starting age wanted the commitment or the competitiveness.[9] “Back to Netball” sends a professional coach to a community centre to get people started, and who then trains up one or two of the participants to be coaches themselves.

Indeed, generally, this “bottom-up” approach is what seems to boost participation the most. The most successful projects rely on “engaging directly with communities” (i.e., listening to what people actually want), providing an initial boost via small grants and provision of professional coaching, and identifying volunteers who can ultimately take responsibility for the long-term survival of the programme. This is the approach taken by the Love2 Campaign, Walking for Health, Fit as a Fiddle and ParkRun, all of which have been very successful. Another effective device is subsidised drop-in or taster sessions: see, for example, getbackinto.co.uk, nostringsbadminton.co.uk and the very successful Go Play Rugby campaign, in which the RFU got over 9,000 men between 18 and 30 to start playing rugby again through taster sessions at clubs throughout the UK.

One final example. The people at makesportfun.com (source of many of the above examples) developed the Get More People Cycling project, in which employers compete to see how many of their employees can be prevailed upon to ride a bicycle for a minimum of ten minutes, on the basis that if they just get started pedalling they might keep at it. The result: “without any central funding companies started improving their facilities for cycling (adding access to showers in gyms or on site and adding cycle racks) because so many of their staff were travelling to work that way”.

So, if the Olympics in general and Team GB’s cycling success in particular does not encourage participation, what is the point of it? This is a very good and surprisingly difficult question, the answers to which relate partly to politics and partly to the history and economics of sport itself. But it will have to wait for future Polemics.



[1] https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/about/article/20160822-about-bc-news-British-Cycling-underlines-determination-to-capitalise-on-Olympic-success-0

[2] https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/search/article/cam20140206-Campaigning---Choose-cycling-0

[3] https://www.sportengland.org/news-and-features/news/2015/june/11/further-decline-in-swimming-numbers-dominate-latest-sports-figures/

[4] https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/culture/opinion/asa/78371/rio-2016-success-inspires-more-people-take-pool

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/olympics/20625689

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/jul/05/olympic-legacy-failure-sports-participation-figures

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/jul/05/olympic-legacy-failure-tessa-jowell-coalition-government

[8] http://www.cyclinguk.org/resources/cycling-uk-cycling-statistics

[9] https://www.englandnetball.co.uk/backtonetball/

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