Sport England, the Government agency that invests in grassroots sport, is tripling the money it spends on encouraging people who do no exercise to take up sport. With more than one in four people in England (28 per cent) doing less than 30 minutes of exercise a week, the Government wants sport to do more to tackle diabetes, obesity and other public health issues.
Sport England will now spend 25 per cent of its annual budget, about GBP60million, on schemes specifically targeted at the inactive. "Over the next four years we're going to dedicate more time, expertise and over GBP250million to tackling inactivity," said Sport England chief executive Jennie Price. “We will be the single largest national investor in projects for people to whom sport and physical activity is a distant thought, or not even on their radar."
This represents a major shift in focus for the agency, as it has spent much of the last decade handing over big cheques to sport's national governing bodies (NGBs) for them to spend on projects aimed at getting already-active people to play more organised sport. But figures for sports participation - on a broadly upwards trajectory since London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics in 2005 - have stalled in recent years, prompting many to suggest it is time for a rethink.
Price said Sport England would still continue to invest in organised sport via NGBs but the new push on inactivity would inevitably mean "a bit less money for sport's core market".
"We still want to support them but we have probably over-invested in them," said Price, whose organisation will distribute GBP1billion over the next four years. And only a few have really extended their reach. We know it will be more difficult to reach people not traditionally involved in sport but the benefits for the country are huge and for a lot of people inactivity can be temporary - life just gets in the way."
Price said Sport England would help NGBs maintain their investment in mass participation sport by encouraging them to find additional revenues from the private sector and cutting costs by sharing resources. The winners of the shift towards general health and fitness will be charities and start-up companies in the sports sector. Sport England has recently run popular pilot projects with Macmillan Cancer Support and mental health charity Mind, as well as encouraging the National Trust to make better use of its real estate for sports events.
But perhaps the most high-profile recent success story in British sport has been the rise of parkrun, the free 5km runs for adults and 2km for youngsters that take place in public parks every weekend. Parkrun found itself in the spotlight in April when Stoke Gifford parish council announced it would charge participants for the use of Little Stoke Park, in South Gloucestershire. The parish council later instead called on parkrun to apply for a grant to cover "increased wear" on paths in the park, which did not stave off a backlash from runners and supporters. Gold medal-winning athletes Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes condemned the parish council's plan, along with sports minister Tracey Crouch.
Sport England has invested a small amount in parkrun's growth already but that is set to increase. Nick Pearson, the chief executive of parkrun Global, said: "This feels to me like a watershed moment, this long-awaited directional change in strategy will encourage organisations to focus in areas that we know make a difference. We particularly welcome the extra investment into volunteering, into tackling inactivity and focusing on the next generation through extending the scope of investment to include children from the age of five."
Sport England's shift in emphasis is part of the Government's wider Sporting Future strategy that the sports minister announced last year. This included funding projects aimed at much younger children than before - from five upwards - and offering PE training to at least two teachers per secondary school. "The principle remains the same: we'll invest public money where it can make a difference," said Price. That could be cycling, rounders or table tennis - it is about what people do, not who they are."