Karen Bradley, the UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, today celebrated the success of the government’s ‘Sport for Everyone’ initiative with a reception at Westminster.
The initiative arose from a report published by her department in early 2013 which looked at sport participation in the UK. The report revealed that, despite the success of the London 2012 Olympics, declining numbers of non-disabled people were taking part in sporting activities.
The research highlighted that Paralympians were acting as an inspiration for disabled people to increasingly engage in sport, but that the success of our non-disabled athletes was having exactly the opposite effect on those without disabilities.
The 2013 report went on to examine the reasons behind the radically different attitudes to sport participation exhibited by disabled and non-disabled people. The researchers concluded that this disparity was primarily related to the very different way that parasport was structured when compared to conventional competition.
Parasport is founded on the principle of classification. Athletes competing in parasports have, by definition, an impairment that leads to a competitive disadvantage. The classification system aims to compensate for the impact of any impairment such that the success of competitors is based on their skill, fitness, determination, and all the other positive characteristics honed by competition – rather than by the effects of their disabilities.
The 2013 report noted that non-parasports had no such process. The key consequence of this for conventional sport was summarised by a typical club athlete who was interviewed for the 2013 report.
‘People like me have no chance of getting anywhere in modern sport,’ the athlete lamented. ‘Back in the days when Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile, anybody with a bit of determination could have tried to copy him. Roger Bannister obviously trained hard, but his training programme wouldn’t have been beyond the capabilities of any dedicated runner of that period.
‘You’ve only got to look at Mo Farah to see that those days are long gone. He had to find an exceptional trainer in a foreign country and pursue his preparations, away from his family, with a degree of dedicated professionalism and sacrifice that members of the armed forces or astronauts would recognise.
‘Mo has had to exhibit nearly super-human commitment to his sport, to achieve all that he has done up to now. Undertaking anything even remotely similar is totally unrealistic for most of us, so why would we even try to compete?’
The 2013 report went on to speculate that this difference between parasport and conventional sport might also contribute to the almost total lack of performance enhancing drugs in parasport. It noted that parasport competitors mainly believed, in common with Roger Bannister in 1954, that they could win if they tried hard enough. Many non-disabled athletes, in contrast, believed they could never win any significant competition by simply doing their best.
It was the above conclusion that led to the critical innovation within the government’s ‘Sport for Everyone’ initiative. This was the implementation of a classification system for non-disabled athletes.
George Plumpton, world 100 meters record holder in the non-disabled, Z8 category, told reporters at the Westminster reception how the new classification system had inspired him to athletic success.
‘The Z8 category is for those athletes, like me, who are well outside Department of Health recommendations on weight, alcohol consumption, diet and exercise,’ he explained to journalists.
‘I can’t be asked to put down my burger, for example, stand up and walk across the room to get the TV controller.
‘For that reason, prior to the new classification system, I’d always assumed that sport wasn’t for me. It was wonderful, therefore, when the new athletics classification process allowed me to compete on equal terms with similar athletes at the recent “Sport for Everyone” Games in Manchester. I not only won gold for my country but also became the Z8 100 metres world record holder with a time of 25 minutes and 45.972 seconds.
‘I’m hoping for even greater success at next year’s “Sport for Everyone” World Championships in Toronto,’ he added. ‘I’m sure that several minutes could have been trimmed from my time in Manchester if those of us in the final hadn’t wandered off for a kebab and a pint half way through the race. If I can be bothered, I might try to be more focused in Toronto.’
In her speech at the Westminster reception, Karen Bradley emphasised that ‘Sport for Everyone’ meant exactly what it said. Athletes did not have to be in George Plumpton’s Z8 category to achieve success.
‘The Y6 category, for example,’ she explained, ‘provides opportunities for those who are reasonably healthy but who are simply too unmotivated to exert very much effort. As we all know, another British athlete, John Idleman, won silver in the Y6 400 meters in Manchester in a UK record time of 4 days, 6 hours, 24 minutes and 32.658 seconds. He might even have achieved gold,’ she added, ‘had he not still been in bed in Birmingham when the starting gun had been fired. I would have asked him to say a few words now about his achievement, but it appears that he hasn’t arrived here as yet.’
Despite the outstanding success of the ‘Sport for Everyone’ initiative, it has not been without controversy. In particular, some athletes have been accused of overstating their lack of fitness and/or absence of commitment, in order to be assigned to an ‘easier’ classification group.
George Plumpton, himself, was the subject of one such allegation when he was secretly filmed by an undercover Sun journalist while walking across a room to retrieve a TV remote. The subsequent investigation by the sport’s governing body, however, concluded that the remote was near his telephone, and George had been compelled to walk in that direction, anyway, in order to phone for another takeaway.
‘The government hopes that classification for everyone in all sports might ultimately replace non-classified entry to competitions,’ concluded Karen Bradley. ‘Many of us certainly believe that such a move would end the pathologically competitive behaviours that we now witness in sport and, in addition, provide much more fun for everyone.’