Tanni Grey-Thompson shares her views on why now is the time to invest in Welsh sport.
It’s awards season, and next week sees another celebration for sport in Wales, when the high achievers from elite to community sport gather for the annual Wales Sport Awards. Every year we recognise another year of achievement and 2015 has proved that we have real momentum in Wales at both a community and elite level. This time of year is also an opportunity to reflect on some of the significant achievements across sport that has secured Wales’ place at the top table of international sport.
As the final whistle blew at the Cardiff City Stadium in October marking the end of Wales’ qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championships, a nation erupted in an outpouring of emotion only sport can achieve. For the first time since 1958 the Wales football team, led by Ashley Williams, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey had qualified for a major tournament.
For the thousands of fans across the country this was a moment many felt they would never experience. The Together Stronger strapline came alive through the bond between the fans, players and management. The excitement will really begin again this week with Chris Coleman and his squad finding out who and where they will play in next summer’s tournament. I’m sure the nation will grind to a halt in June 2016 to support Chris and the team as they seek to continue to build their reputation.
This follows a Rugby World Cup where Wales defied the odds to escape one of the hardest groups in the history of the competition and came agonisingly close to replicating their 2011 semi-final sport. As the injury list stacked up so our chances seemed to be ebbing away, but the heart and resilience of the side was never in doubt.
Roll the clock back a further 12 months to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow- a record breaking one for Team Wales. The 36 medal haul exceeded the pre games target. Wales sat at the top of the table for medals per head of population, surpassing hosts Scotland, as well as England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This on the back of record medal hauls at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
This is not just about sport though, it’s about Wales’ place on the global stage. This success has taken Wales to the world as not only a proud sporting nation, but one that seeks to innovate and cleverly use resource. We now expect success rather than aspire to it. Though the delivery of medals and success continues, we need to use every ounce of inspiration and positivity this brings in order to create a confident, healthy nation.
We have a positive story to tell in community sport as well with Sport Wales’ latest School Sport Survey citing nearly half of children in Wales (48%) as participating in sport three or more times a week and 71% of all children and young people are taking part in sport at least once a week.
The figures are the result of 10 years of planned and systematic investment which has seen sport in Wales enjoy sustained growth; the hooked on sport numbers have grown from just 27% in 2011 to 40% in 2013 and now 48%. That’s almost double what it was in 2011. Positive figures, but plenty of work to do. I’m delighted to see these figures moving in the right direction as it reflects my passion for ensuring that every child has the opportunity to confidently develop their skills from an early age.
In 2014, I chaired a Welsh Government task and finish group that explored how schools could act as an enabler for increasing physical activity. The view of the group was to recommend an approach based around physical literacy, which enables all children and young people, regardless of their background, to gain the basic skills and confidence to participate in any sport.
This was a conscious choice to enable children from an early age to positively experience physical activity, making it a habit that they retain for life. It also allows us to focus on every child, regardless of their background and investment from Welsh Government, alongside Sport Wales programmes has been crucial in starting to embed this approach within schools in Wales.
Whilst participation is up across the board, there are still some persistent gaps; between girls and boys, numbers of those with a disability participating are still lower than the national average along with pupils from some minority ethnic communities. And those from deprived areas of Wales are still struggling to catch up with the national average.
I cannot accept that this is an inevitable situation, that sport is for the few not the many. I know what sport has given me in my life and feel fortunate to have enjoyed these benefits. I want all children, young people and adults to be able to benefit both physically and mentally by getting active through sport. To achieve this, continued targeted investment will be critical in developing opportunities that enable and encourage these groups to participate in greater numbers and close the participation gap.
There is an increasing body of evidence for the benefits of sport and physical activity not only on improving the mental and physical health of the nation, but also in bringing communities together, building confidence in young and old, providing new skills and training and attracting investment into Wales. In the sport sector we have to get better at demonstrating the wider benefits of sport, the crucial positive contribution it makes to communities the length and breadth of Wales.
Last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review announcement was a timely boost for sport- a 29% increase funding for UK Sport, the agency which looks after Britain’s elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes. It is welcome news, and we await details of how our elite Welsh athletes can continue to benefit from this continued and sustained funding. We have an excellent track record in Wales of delivering talent that inspires not only the Welsh population, but are globally influential within their sports.
Now is the time to build on our success story in Wales and continue to invest. We know public finances are under pressure but sport offers us much more than a chance at future medals – it offers us the chance to make a real dent in childhood obesity and improve the health and wellbeing of everyone. It offers us the chance to up life expectancy in a generation currently projected to die younger than their parents. It’s clear that we have developed a successful formula to drive up participation, but there’s more to be done.
On Monday we will celebrate the coaches, volunteers and elite athletes that make such a valuable contribution to Welsh life. We need to be ensuring that their legacy is secure.