Five years on from the heady days of Euro 2016 and ahead of the delayed 2021 tournament, Garmon Dyfri assesses the disconnect between elite level sport and an inactive society.
Never before had the Welsh footballing dragon roared so triumphantly.
Through Chris Coleman’s leadership, Gareth Bale’s sparkling brilliance and that Hal Robson-Kanu goal, a nation became engrossed in the improbable exploits of its heroes at Euro 2016.
Yet five years later as another European championship beckons, the euphoria of 2016 feels like a lifetime ago with the pandemic continuing to mandate empty stadiums, closed gyms and fixtureless amateur sports clubs.
What better time, therefore, to reassess the state of Welsh sport.
For Wales, sport in all its forms is more than just a game. Rather, it is the heartbeat of the Welsh identity for it represents a rare avenue where Wales can be Wales and not a segment of the UK.
When Alun Wyn Jones or Jess Fishlock don the red shirt, it is not ‘Team GB’ that they represent, but Wales.
Consequently, sport has for a century and more ringfenced and reaffirmed the Welsh identity as other political, economic and cultural forces sought to swallow it into a sea of Britishness.
Indeed, against the constant discursive synonymity of England and the UK in the media – as evidenced by the ‘That’s Devolved’ Twitter page – sport remains Wales’ principal armour in sustaining its own voice.
“Wales has unbounded, but currently untapped, potential to utilise sports as a tool through which to attract Foreign Direct Investment.”
After all, how often do you see the Welsh and English rugby teams being conjugated into one compared to, say, their respective education policies?
Sport emboldens this Welsh identity most prominently when the goals are flowing and the titles are stacking up. And during this lockdown-induced sporting hiatus, it is easy to forget that this is a golden era for Welsh sport at the professional level.
Since Euro 2016, the men’s football team qualified for another European Championship, Geraint Thomas won the Tour de France, and the men’s rugby team marched to a World Cup semi-final and sealed one – and very nearly two – Grand Slams.
For a nation of three million, the sporting achievements of the past five years are astounding.
However, one weakness to Wales’ approach on a governmental level is that it has failed to comprehensively exploit the economic benefits which such sporting achievements can bring.
That is, given the international visibility which it is afforded through its sporting successes, Wales has unbounded, but currently untapped, potential to utilise sports as a tool through which to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
By single-handedly raising Wales’ international profile, its sport teams constitute ideal ‘sport diplomats’; after all, if you were to travel anywhere in the world, it is likely that the first thing someone would associate with Wales would be Gareth Bale!
“Wales’ population is polarised between those who regularly exercise and those who do not participate in sport at all.”
Simply put, sport is Wales’ strongest out-stretched hand to the world and, therefore, it should become central to the Welsh Government’s international strategy.
To illustrate the power of sport as an investment attracting tool, consider the example of Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming.
By signing for one of the US’s top teams and becoming a Sino-US cultural bridge, Ming single-handedly brought the NBA to China and facilitated Visa and Pepsi’s subsequent market entry who brought with them copious amounts of FDI.
Granted, Wales is incomparable to China in market power terms, but this mould of attracting investment undoubtedly suits Wales’ sporting assets.
Indeed, the Welsh Government has already experimented with such ideas through a series of trade-related events in Japan during the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Such efforts must now proliferate so that the golden era victories on the pitch translate to triumphs off the pitch too.
Nonetheless, not all is rosy within Welsh sport. Underneath the golden shine of the men’s professional game, there is plenty of sporting rust lingering which the pandemic only threatens to compound.
Firstly, consider elite female sport. The past five years have been a revolution for female athletes with the 5,000 tickets for the football World Cup qualifier against England in 2018 selling out within 24 hours and Gwenan Davies and Alex Griffiths becoming Wales’ first full-time female professional cricketers.
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However, for all this progress, the pandemic marks a giant step backwards.
Whilst male athletes were back playing last summer, Celtic Dragons netballers only returned this February and, similarly, as the conclusion of the men’s 2020 Six Nations was rearranged for the autumn, the women’s iteration was left unfinished and its 2021 tournament postponed until April.
What both examples highlight is that Welsh sport remains intrinsically dependent on commercial interests which in turn greatly disadvantages women.
Deep gender inequities thus prevail and plenty of work remains to rectify this.
Secondly, and even more alarmingly, Wales’ population is polarised between those who regularly exercise and those who do not participate in sport at all.
A pre-pandemic report by Sport Wales, for example, highlighted that 41% of Welsh adults had not done any sporting activity, a term which encompasses a simple 2-mile walk, in the four weeks prior to being interviewed.
That’s 1.04m inactive adults in Wales, the equivalent of fourteen Principality Stadiums filled to the rafters.
“Government cannot do everything; they cannot come knocking on our door every time we turn to Netflix rather than the treadmill.”
Furthermore, a survey conducted during the October ‘Firebreak’ suggests that lockdowns have only consolidated such patterns with those already active becoming more so and inactive citizens becoming even less likely to strap on their trainers.
Covid-19, a virus which preys on those with underlying health conditions, has highlighted all too clearly the trepidation of such statistics with Wales’ high death toll partly attributable to its unhealthy habits.
Granted, there are other societal issues such as poverty which contribute to this eye-opening portrait of Welsh health, but even so, Welsh sport cannot be said to be thriving when so many of its citizens suffer from preventable illnesses linked to inactivity.
A nation can proudly beat its chest for reaching Euro and World Cup semi-finals all it likes, but if its people are struggling to walk 2 miles once a week to maintain their physical health – without even mentioning their mental health – those achievements are paltry.
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Therefore, there has never been a more urgent time to re-engage the inactive 41%.
Government has a role in incentivising this re-engagement. Classifying the contributions some companies make to discounting gym memberships for their employees as tax-deductible investments – it is an investment in their workers’ health after all – could be one such idea.
However, government cannot do everything; they cannot come knocking on our door every time we turn to Netflix rather than the treadmill.
Consequently, the onus is on Welsh citizens to channel their game-day sporting passions to their own fitness endeavours. In the ringing truism of John F Kennedy, when it comes to sport, the Welsh must ask “what [we] can do for our country”.
As gyms prepare to reopen and amateur sports teams congregate once more, for all the successes at the professional level, the state of Welsh sport is fragile.
To rectify this, Wales must capitalise on its golden era in the male professional game to reap FDI through sports diplomacy and urgently re-engage inactive members of society so as to nurture a healthier Wales.
Sport has always played a prominent role in Welsh life and in 2021, it holds the key to unlocking a healthier, wealthier and more prosperous Wales.
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