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Worth a Punt?: An assessment of UK Sports Policy

(An edited version of this article appeared in The Political Quarterly, Vol. 89, Issue 2, 2018)

In the course of studying international sports governance Alan Tomlinson and I became convinced that an important variable which must be considered in comparing organisations is the extent to which they are real as opposed to being a form of pretence. This arose initially because I had been looking for an example of a non-bureaucratised, pre-modern sport and had come up with skittles (a game I play on a regular basis). But when the facts were checked it turned out that from 1952 to 2014 skittles was governed by the Federation Internationale de Quilleurs and is now supposedly governed by the World Bowling Association. In many respects and like many other SINGOs (Sporting International Non-Governmental Organisations) the FIQ looked like a small version of FIFA. Indeed we had started with the assumption that what distinguished an organisation like the FIQ from a mega-SINGO like FIFA was size, but were forced to conclude that actually the most important difference, related in complex and variable ways to size, was reality. Most people involved in Association Football know about FIFA and all are affected by its decisions. The number of skittlers or quilleurs who know about or were or are affected by the FIQ or the WBA is approximately zero. (Incidentally, neither “skittler” nor “quilleurs” is to be found in the appropriate current dictionaries, but they are simple derivations from words – “skittle” and “quille” – which are.) (1)
The continuum between reality and unreality is as applicable to many other kinds of organisations, including states and other international organisations. Probably the most prominent example of an unreal state was the Holy Roman Empire before Napoleon formally dissolved it in 1806: for example, in understanding the rise of Prussia in the eighteenth century you would barely need to acknowledge that it was nominally a part of the Empire.. The League of Nations, the United Nations and the Commonwealth can only be properly understood by grasping the elements of unreality which they contain. But it is also true of aspects of government activities within a sovereign state and must be born in mind when considering statements of government policy such as the current statement of UK sports policy, Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation. (2)
Up to a certain point in the twentieth century it was normal for government policies to be increasingly real in the lives of their citizens as states systematically reinforced their own power. But a new phase of globalisation created a much more complex system which is rightly sometimes seen as “New Medievalism”. The original medievalism as represented (for example) by Florence in the fifteenth century was a pattern of institutions which were both competing and layered: (at least) the Duke of Tuscany, the city council, the pope and the emperor. This is duplicated in contemporary Edinburgh: at least UK government, Scottish government, European Union and Lothian Region.
Thus the importance of preceding an assessment of sports policy with an acknowledgment that it is at least partly unreal. There are many reasons for this, but the principal ones are connected with the shaping of modern sport under what I have called the “amateur elite hegemony” which had a formative period from 1863-95 and a relatively stable period from 1895 to 1961 during which sport placed itself clearly and even aggressively outside state control. The requirement for political independence is included in the rules of most SINGOs though such regulations have proved tolerant of Communist (and later many other) state sports programmes. But it remains the case that the major developments in sport take place independently of government policies and governments tend to work within them and to accept the policies of SINGOs and supplicate to them when wanting to be the hosts of major events.
The principal examples of change to three major sports in the UK and the last three decades have had nothing to do with government:
– the formation of the Premier League in English football in 1992 and its successful marketing as a television product on a global scale.
– the professionalisation of Rugby Union in 1995-6.
– the rise of short-form (“T20″) cricket and its effect on other aspects of the game. (The first professional competition in England was in 2003.)
Of course, sport is a peculiarly “globalised” phenomenon and it would never have been easy for governments to intervene in these matters even if they had formed the aspiration.
The existence of a minister for or of sport also illustrates the dimension of unreality in the relation between government and sport. For many years the orthodox answer to the the question of who was the first British minister for sport was given as Dennis Howell, the former football referee who was appointed to the position by Harold Wilson after Labour’s narrow general election victory in 1964. It is now generally accepted that the name of Quentin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) should precede. Hogg volunteered for being Minister for Sport in 1962 when the MacMillan government came under pressure to be seen to be doing something about the country’s poor performance in international sport and specifically as a result of reports on the state of British sport produced by Birmingham University and Sir John Wolfenden. Hogg said that he would add the post to his list of responsibilities and interpret it in a minimalist way, as befitted one who believed in the amateur ethos.
Including Hogg there have been eighteen ministers of sport, though their titles and the combination of portfolios has varied frequently. The average length of tenure has been almost exactly three years. Perhaps the most committed sports person to hold the post was Kate Hoey (1997-2001), the second under Tony Blair after Tony Banks. She has said that when a friend telephoned her to congratulate her on becoming “in charge of British sport” Hoey replied, “I wish”. By complete contrast and in apparent reaction to having a minister with such a strong commitment to sport Richard Caborn became her successor in 2001. He foolishly agreed to attempt to answer five quiz questions on contemporary sport put to him by Clare Balding on June 17th 2001 on Radio Five Live. He scored zero; many reasonably informed sports fans would have scored four or five. Nevertheless he remains the most longstanding occupant of the role, holding it until 2007.
All of this is intended to provide context for understanding what government does and does not in the field of sport, but also the language that is used to talk about it. The state is important, as it has been since the early twentieth century, in the provision of facilities through local authority parks and state educational institutions. More recently it has also become important in developing programmes of elite sport probably best described as “Olympic oriented”. This should not be taken to be concerned purely with the Olympic Games as such because it also extends to world championships in the many sports in which the principal event is to the Olympics (for example, swimming, track and field athletics, rowing and the shorter forms of cycling) and to other major championships such as the Commonwealth Games. These programmes have their origins in the moral panic of the late 1950s and early 1960s which led to the appointment of a minister, but their effectiveness increased exponentially when funding from the National Lottery became available after 1994.
It is important to note that the word “sport” is nuanced in a completely different way when used by governments as opposed to its use by the contemporary equivalent of the man on the Clapham omnibus. The paradigm case of sport in the popular sense is (Association) football with cricket, rugby, horse racing, boxing and motor racing in a jumbled queue behind football. It denotes a world of big money and big celebrities. As used by governments it refers to a wide range of “Olympic” sports and to grass roots participation. The difference between these senses (or at least emphases) has many important consequences. The more prominent Olympic sports are highly bio-mechanical in nature and involve physical prowess taken to extremes. Thus the discourse on doping is bi-polar: it is a huge issue in Olympic sport, but much less so in popular sport.
The central fact about government policy on Olympic sport which must be a major premise of any assessment of policy is that it is unequivocally successful and, as far as most commentators are concerned, unexpectedly so. At the Summer Olympics in 1996, before any effects of John Major’s lottery were felt Great Britain and Northern Ireland finished in 30th place in the medals table with a single gold (in rowing) though a total of fourteen medals. In Rio in 2016 the country finished second (behind the USA) with sixty seven medals including twenty seven gold. This achievement was noted internationally as it was intended to be: “Britain’s Huge Investment in Summer Olympic Sports Pays Off” was the headline in the New York Times and the article under the headline estimated the average cost of a British medal to be $6.5m. Perhaps one should not be surprised by the success since the Soviet policies which it essentially imitates were also highly successful. (3)
But the interesting issue must always be the question of what we gain from this. As a question it demands a sort of cost-benefit analysis, albeit one with little hope for precision on the benefit side, but merely a philosophical reflection on possible benefits. In addressing the question Sporting Future says:

First, it provides significant wellbeing, social and economic benefits to the nation. Put simply, the more our teams win the better the nation feels and alongside that sporting success often sits economic success as well . . . Secondly, international and domestic success can inspire some people to consider other forms of engagement in sport. (4)

International success is almost always coupled, as in this case, with the importance of hosting international events which is ” . . . .an important soft power tool, providing a positive image of the UK around the world.” London 2012 – third in the medals table and free of substantial problems or incidents – was the dream combination for this kind of policy statement.
All these objectives are very vague and trying to give them precision proves difficult. As an academic writer with a reputation in “the politics of sport” one of the questions I have been most frequently asked by journalists concerns a precise assessment of the “feelgood factor”. This is not possible because the reaction is irrational and could never be discovered by survey evidence: hardly anyone is going to admit that they are feeling more favourably towards the government because they have just seen a heptathlete win a gold medal. A further dimension of irrationality concerns the time lag between policy making and its effects: John Major was long gone from power before “his” medals came on stream and Tony Blair had left office and his party was out of power before the London Games of 2012 he (or his wife, according to Lord Coe) had been instrumental in securing.
The documents stating UK sports policy have oscillated quite markedly over the last half century in their emphasis on elite sport and “sport for all”, but they have always contained statements of their symbiosis and of the benefits of sport. In the current version “Sport is . . . good for us” as David Cameron puts it.(5) The current minister, Tracey Crouch, adds that “physical health, mental health, individual development and economic development . . . will define who we fund and what we fund and where our priorities lie in the future.”(6) The orthodox list of the benefits of higher sporting participation can thus be listed as:
1. Improved physical health with beneficial consequences for the quality of the workforce and the costs of the National Health Service.
2. Improvement in the mental attributes of individuals: lower levels of mental illness and crime and higher levels of self-esteem and “empowerment”.
3. A greater sense of “community” and a stronger “civil society” arising out of sports organisations.
The measurement of elite success is very precise, of course, and the broad benefits it is supposed to inspire can also be measured relatively precisely. However, the benefits of elite success – “wellbeing” and “soft power” and so on – are extremely vague and the causation involved in “inspiration” is also difficult to establish. It starts with a powerful shared intuition: “we all know”, as many ministers have pointed out, that as children when a good cup final was finished on the television we rushed over to the park, put our sweaters down to make goals and began our own game. Equally, an inspiring close encounter at Wimbledon had us rummaging in the cupboard for the tennis racket, hoping it was still in working order. And at the level of comparative culture the high rate of participation in (say) forms of cross-country skiing exists in Norway in a relation of mutual inspiration with national success in the “Nordic” events.
There are two main flaws in this argument, neither acknowledged in the way it has been usually presented. The first is that watching sport and playing it can occur as alternatives, both in the allocation of time and in the quest for gratification. For many hard-working people going for a run or watching the football on television can present a hard choice. Also computer simulation may be a more gratifying direction of inspiration than physical engagement. But it is also the case that no mention is ever made of the possibility of negative inspiration. In terms of a distinction made by several sports historians one can watch the “Corinthian” games and be inspired to emulate. But who wants to emulate the “gladiatorialism” of the Roman Arena? In the United States it is often argued that many of the audience who enjoy watching American Football are positively glad not to be participating and do not want their children to be involved. It is highly likely that contemporary Rugby Union would have this effect, given the sizes of the players, the levels of impact and the rates of injury.
The brute fact is that rates of participation in almost all sports are going down and it will have escaped very few people’s attention if they have any interest in the question that outstanding Olympic success has coincided exactly with a moral panic about obesity. According to figures originating with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and published by the NHS in the UK Britain is the “fat man of Europe” with 24.9% of the population “obese” and 61% “overweight”. The causes of this problem, according to the evidence cited, are as much to do with lack of exercise as with too much or the wrong kind of food intake. Only 21% of boys aged 5-15 and 16% of girls met government recommendations for exercise. The inspiration of London 2012 looks thin: by the following summer games the number of people playing sport or taking exercise at least once a week was down by just under half a percentage point. (7)
It is not within the scope of this article to offer an analysis of all the data on participation in particular sports, but the point must be established that they are subject to complex varieties of interpretation and thus can be “spun” in many different ways. Generally the pattern is of overall decline, but it can be represented differently depending on which dates are chosen and whether figures are broken down by gender and age group. In a number of sports, for example, and including rugby and cricket, junior and female participation has increased but not enough to compensate for the decline in adult male involvement. Some decline in individual sports obviously takes place because a much wider range of sporting opportunities is now available compared with half a century ago. And some decline in sporting participation occurs because there is a wider variety of forms of exercise available. A range of broad and deep forms of social change militates against traditional sporting participation. These include longer work hours, longer journeys to work, different gender relations and, for some, much more extensive holiday opportunities. The same sort of tendencies are visible in all developed countries and have been explored in the case of the USA in Robert Puttnam’s Bowling Alone.(8) One consequence is a boom in gym membership as many people try to fit exercise into a busy schedule: the Leisure Database Company claimed in 2017 that 14.9% of the population were now paying members of a private gym and that the figure was increasing steadily, up 5.1% from the previous year. (9)
I can easily give some anecdotal and autobiographical life to these broad social changes. As a parent of young sportsmen in the 1980s and 1990s I can recall several moments of culture shock as the traditional pattern of local sport came under threat. One involves the look on the face of a football coach as he checked arrangements for an important game the following week only to discover that four of his crucial players would be away. It was half-term and four of his middle-class players were going to be in either France or Spain; going away on holiday in half-term was an unfamiliar practice to him (and, to be fair, it was fairly new for us). Similarly, I recall the look of incredulity on the face of a county cricket coach when my youngest son looked uninterested in the offer of a place on the county under-14 tour of the West Country: he had already arranged to spend the summer holidays on a family trip to the USA. And over the half century of my adult cricketing life (1967-2017) I watched the world change from one in which all clubs had loyal lady tea-makers to one in which they were very rare. Along with a decline in tea-making went a decline in tolerance for men who disappeared for at least half the weekend to play cricket.


The arguments for British sports policy as expressed in such documents as Sporting Future fall into two types. The first relates to the direct benefits of (a limited kind of) sporting success and the nature of these benefits is extremely imprecise: “wellbeing”, “soft power”, “positive image” and so on. It is important to note that since Harold Wilson bemoaned a supposed link between the defeat of the England football team in the quarter final of the 1970 World Cup and his own defeat in the subsequent general election governments have tended to assume that they have an interest in the success or failure of national sports teams. The link is unproven and precise measurement out of the question, but it remains difficult to avoid the intuition that success means “we must be doing something right.” (In a very different context I have interviewed Georgians who, despite being anti-Russian in the post-Soviet context, are prepared to admit that they identified with Soviet sporting success and saw it as a symbol of Soviet success generally.)
The second set of benefits can in principle be measured with reasonable precision as they are concerned with levels of exercise, sporting participation, obesity and crime. But in this case it is the causation which is vague and lacking in procedures for verification. Prima facie there are two major reasons for scepticism. The first is that there is no apparent positive correlation between elite success and the measurable objectives and the second is that if we treat the issue comparatively there appears to be little relation between Olympic success and a rich sporting culture. This is because internationally a great deal of Olympic success, certainly since 1952, has been the consequence of state investment. Certainly, there are countries which would measure high on both counts, such as Germany and the USA and those which would be ranked low, such as Indonesia and the Philippines. But there is also an instructive comparison between China, which was third in the 2016 medal table, winning seventy medals, and Argentina, which was twenty seventh with four. Argentina has a permeating grass roots sports culture which has produced world champions in many of the world’s most popular sports including football, tennis, golf and motor racing; Argentinians also dominate polo and the rugby team has finished as high as third in the World Cup. China’s record in these sports is negligible apart from tennis and research suggests that China is among the more difficult places in the world for people of ordinary levels of ability to play tennis or football. If the Soviet Union had not already proved that it was possible to develop a strong Olympic programme despite a weak sporting culture then China has certainly demonstrated the point.
In February 2018 one of Britain’s most cerebral sports journalisis announced that the current institutions of sports policy should be ripped up and a new start made.(10) He put a strong case, but I am inclined to caution that the value of “wellbeing” and “inspiration” cannot simply be dismissed. If “inspiration” is taking effect it is doing so against a background of broad social change which tends to reduce sporting participation and it may have a counteracting effect. In any case, the cost-benefit comparison must take note of the relative cheapness of Olympic investment by most relevant standards. The cost of the UK’s elite sports programme has been in the region of £250m, the sort of sum easily lost in an educational or social security budget. In 2016 the turnover of the Mercedes team alone in F1 motor racing was greater than this (£289m) and football fans will note that a quarter of a billion pounds will scarcely afford you the transfer fees of three “world class” players. Yet according to the IOC more than 3.6 billion people watched some of the 2016 Summer Olympics whereas according to the FIA only 319 million saw any of the 2016 F1 season. If “wellbeing” and “inspiration” do exist the Olympics may be the most efficient way of buying them. In any case, the practice of success based on subsidy having been established, it is difficult to envisage subsequent governments abandoning it and allowing themselves to be held responsible for the prominent failures which would ensue.


1. Lincoln Allison and Alan Tomlinson, Understanding International Sports Organisations, Principles, Power and Possibilities, Routledge, 2017, pp. 197-214.

2. Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation, HMG, Cabinet Office, December 2015. Available at www.gov.uk/sportingfuture

3. Tim Wigmore, “Britain’s Huge Investment in Summer Olympic Games Pays Off”, New York Times, 20/08/16

4. Sporting Future, p. 43

5. Ibid., p. 7

6. Ibid., p. 9

7. https://www.nhs.uk/ . . . /statistics-and-causes-of-the-obesity-epidemic-in-the-UK.aspx

8. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2001.

9. www.leisuredb.com/blog/2017

10. Matthew Syed, “Sport England has failed and ought to be disbanded, The Times, 28/02/2018, p. 66

Lincoln Allison April 2018