Taking active measures: sport’s grassroots strategy
A new plan, Sport2030, reveals a change in the federal government’s thinking on sport. Yes, the rising-star athletes we love to watch will still be well funded, but a new grassroots approach will encourage more physical activity for Australians of all ages and abilities… because we need it.
On a spring night in Sydney, 18 years ago, Cathy Freeman steadied herself at the start of the 400-metre final at the 2000 Olympic Games. The 27-year-old’s hooded running suit was in Australia’s official colours of green and gold, and her running shoes sported the red, yellow and black of the Aboriginal flag.
A nation’s expectations weighed heavy, but as she crossed the line to take first place, the roar from more than 110,000 spectators in the Olympic Stadium was deafening. An ecstatic Freeman ran a victory lap carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags. It became the iconic image of the Sydney Games. She was a hero for all Australians and a symbol of hope after 200 years of contested history.
‘It was always a dream of mine to not only win an Olympic gold medal but to do the victory lap with both flags,’ she explained in the official Sydney Olympics documentary. ‘I hold the Aboriginal community in such a high place in my heart so I’m very proud of my Indigenous roots.’
Inspiring whole nations
Freeman’s victory endures in Australia’s collective conscious, and shows how elite sports can resonate far beyond the field of play. But there remains a stubborn question. What serves the nation best: targeted investment in elite athletes or widespread funding for more physical activity at a grassroots level? Should the focus be on high performance or community participation?
In its Physical Activity Strategy 2018-2023, VicHealth set out a plan for getting more Victorians more active every day.
‘We can do a lot to get Victorians more active if we just start thinking in terms of how to make it easier for them to take part,’ says CEO Jerril Rechter. ‘It can be as simple as scheduling things at the right time or in the right place. Whoever it is we’re looking to support – whether it’s primary school children, teenagers or women – we together with our partners focus on crafting the opportunities that will make it easy for them to get out there and give it a go.’
What serves the nation best: targeted investment in elite athletes or widespread funding for more physical activity at a grassroots level?
It’s widely agreed that grassroots participation has the greatest potential to improve community health and wellbeing outcomes, across the board.
‘But our elite athletes and our elite events have an important role in supporting community pride, providing inspiration and aspiration, supporting social change on key issues and enabling the economic returns that come from major events as well,’ agrees Rayoni Nelson, VicHealth’s manager for physical activity, sport and healthy eating, who represented Australia in badminton at the Sydney Olympics.
‘I’m not quite sure that there is a clear, direct link between our sporting success at the elite level and its impact on increasing participation at the community level – certainly in the longer term. But elite sport and grassroots participation both have important roles to play in the Australian sporting landscape.’
Kate Palmer, chief executive officer of Sport Australia (formerly the Australian Sports Commission) and the former head of Netball Australia, says it’s not a case of investing exclusively in either high-performance sport or community sport. ‘I don’t think it’s an either/or – it’s both. It’s a little like the argument between investing in health and education – we need to invest in both, and we need delivery of quality services in both.’
She says that while it’s easy to measure the return on investment for initiatives that get the community active – such as reduced health costs and increased community connectedness and wellbeing – that’s much harder to do with elite sports.
‘If you hear about high-performance sports, everyone talks about how many medals we’ve won. The focus is so much on winning that we lose sight of the value of high-performance sport,’ Palmer says.
Some of that value comes in elite athletes being used as role models to inspire better social behaviour, or to simply attract schoolchildren to take up a sport. Importantly, stars such as Kurt Fearnley and Dylan Alcott continue to pierce preconceptions about what people living with disability can achieve. Then there are the developments in sports medicine that can be used in the wider community. And, of course, there is that simple pride and joy in our athletes’ success.
‘Elite sport, community participation and, in fact, physical activity are all part of a continuum,’ says Palmer. ‘While we continue to see them separately, we won’t ever solve the problems of a system that is so fragmented.’
How Sport 2030 hits the reset button
Sport 2030, the much anticipated national sports plan, broadens Australia’s sport policy to include physical activity, as well as organised sport and high-performance competition. Where previously the bulk of Australia’s sport funding went to national sporting bodies and the high-performance Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), it can now extend to sport and physical activity groups across the community, whether they’re involved in walking, yoga or stand-up paddleboarding. Community participation is now as important as elite performance.
It’s perhaps an acknowledgment that after decades of government investment in high- performance sport, there is no discernible trickledown effect. The majority of Australians remain spectators, not sportspeople.
Australia’s physical health problem
A worrying 81 per cent of children don’t meet the recommended activity guidelines of 60 minutes of movement a day. Nearly 70 per cent of adults have a sedentary or low activity lifestyle. And two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children are overweight or obese, according to the Sport 2030 report.
Physical inactivity raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes, dementia, stroke, and some cancers including breast, uterine and bowel, according to the Australian Burden of Disease Study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
On the flipside, exercise can alleviate depression, relieve stress and anxiety, build self-esteem and slow the onset of dementia. In old age, regular activity has major cardiovascular and metabolic benefits.
One of Sport 2030’s priorities is to get more Australians moving more often. Its target of reducing inactivity among Australians by 15 per cent by 2030 is in line with the World Health Organization’s Global Action Plan for Physical Activity 2018–2030, released in June.
Groups and organisations will be supported to create programs that engage with the least active people in society: people living with disability, those with an Indigenous background, the elderly, people in lower socio-economic areas, and residents of rural or regional communities.
The emphasis will be on making sport and physical activity flexible to fit in with people’s lifestyles. Australians will have opportunities to keep moving for all their life, from preschoolers to the elderly.
Building physical literacy in children is important for embedding a habit of being active, says Palmer. ‘Just as they need to understand maths and English, children need to understand what it takes to jump and catch and throw and run.’
“Just as they need to understand maths and English, children need to understand what it takes to jump and catch and throw and run.” Kate Palmer, Chief Executive Officer, Sport Australia
The Sports 2030 plan’s scope is vast. It includes mapping existing activity programs and sporting facilities, safeguarding the integrity of Australian sport against performance-enhancing drugs and spot betting, driving elite sporting success, and strengthening Australia’s sport industry. Yet another aspect is making sure children leave primary school able to swim.
How it will all be funded is still being discussed. Unlike in the UK, there will be no dedicated national lottery to support elite sportspeople. Nor will Australia have a sugar tax to fund physical activities in primary schools – federal sports minister Senator Bridget McKenzie firmly shut down that idea when she launched the sport plan at the National Press Club.
However the Sport 2030 report is only the beginning, not the end. ‘We’re a slice. We’re part of a solution, we’re not the whole solution,’ says Palmer. ‘I think there are lots of different people who contribute, and will need to be at the table to make this a success.’
A positive response
So far, health experts have been very positive about Sport 2030. ‘We’ve had a long time of seeing sport policy as being substantially about elite sport policy, and this is a very strong move into a recognition that sport is a population health benefit,’ says Rosemary Calder, director of the Australian Health Policy Collaboration.
‘We’ve been working on how sport and health policy come together to address the physical activity needs of a very lethargic, sedentary nation, so this is a huge contribution. We can’t applaud loudly enough, really. The intention is fantastic [but] the implementation will be critical.
‘An approach that says let’s make sport an engaging environment for people, for all people, and an engaging environment for improved physical activity, is a great policy initiative.
‘[But] can sport policy enable targeting of those communities that are much more physically inactive, and dealing with more disadvantage than others?’ she asks. ‘The next piece of work is how do we help [Sport 2030] also develop a targeted strategy for using sport to get to those much more disadvantaged groups.’
Rohan Greenland, the Heart Foundation’s general manager, advocacy, and part of the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, is just as upbeat.
‘We’re just delighted that this plan has so firmly embedded the mission of getting more Australians moving more often … That’s a major and even potentially a seismic shift in thinking in this space.’
The Heart Foundation has been running a 10-year campaign to increase Australians’ physical activity, with its Blueprint for an Active Australia.
‘[Governments are] realising that physical inactivity is a major risk factor for developing a chronic disease and, when coupled with overweight and obesity you have a combined impact as great as smoking is on the community. So it’s really important that we get Australians to move more and sit less,’ Greenland says.
‘This plan, we believe, will potentially be a big departure in thinking in that space nationally. We’re looking forward to working with Sport Australia and the government nationally to see how this all unpacks.’
More active communities
Less traditional sporting groups are also keen on the Sport 2030 direction. Parkrun, for example, organises 5km runs at locations around the country. Entry is free and everyone is welcome to join in, whether they walk, jog or take a wheelchair around a course. Visually impaired runners are urged to participate with trained guides.
To date, close to 500,000 runners have completed over 5 million runs in more than 300 locations around the country, including runs across Victoria, many of which were launched with support from long-time state funding partner, VicHealth.
But it’s not about clocking the fastest time. ‘The number one thing that people get out of Parkrun is a sense of community,’ says Parkrun Australia chief executive Tim Oberg.
‘Because it’s every Saturday, it’s a regular community that they can meet. Our mission is a healthier and happier planet. It’s much less about physical fitness and much more about social connections and just participation.
'We have some [people] who sign up on their own and come and run on their own, and they’re using Parkrun as a means to actually meet new people. But then you’ll have whole families who sign up together – and not just a nuclear family – I’m talking families as in the cousins, the grandparents, the children and so on, and they’ll use Parkrun as a means to connect within their own family. It’s a bit of a mix.’
‘The number one thing that people get out of Parkrun is a sense of community.’ Tim Oberg, Chief Executive, Parkrun Australia
While some lycra-clad regulars take on a Parkrun at full pelt, pushing themselves for a personal best time, there’s also a hefty chunk who rock up in T-shirts and trackpants and complete the course at a walk or sedate jog. They chat, laugh, sweat, puff and occasionally groan as they conquer the kilometres. And, at the end, they get a smile and a time-check from a supportive Parkrun volunteer.
It’s this community participation, by people of all shapes, sizes and incomes, that Oberg finds so satisfying.
‘As much as the pointy end of sport is really very important, Sport 2030 does seem to really highlight the importance of grassroots participation. So we’re excited about the direction that Sport Australia is taking, and certainly we want to be part of it.’
Norway’s sport-for-all ethos
When Norway, a nation of just 5.3 million people, won 39 medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea, there was huge interest in its approach to developing elite sportspeople. The Scandinavian nation had topped the medal count ahead of Germany and Canada.
Norway’s approach starts with a potent sport-for-all ethos. It funds its sport, at both the community and elite levels, with a percentage of proceeds from its government-owned gambling agency, Norsk Tipping.
Norway’s emphasis is on participation. The idea is that children have fun trying out a variety of sports, rather than focusing on winning. Indeed, clubs are not even allowed to record game scores until children are 13. If they do, the club is expelled from the Norwegian Confederation of Sports and loses its government funding.
The idea is that children are happy to continue with sport through their adolescence, and then only at about age 17 do those with the talent and inclination start training to become elite sportspeople. In effect, this maximises the talent pool available for elite sport in this small nation.
‘We like to win and lose, but it shouldn’t follow you and define you as an individual when you are a kid,’ Tore Øvrebø, head of the Norwegian Olympic Committee delegation to PyeongChang, told Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.
‘We like it to be [about] play and having fun. They should learn social skills. Learn to take instructions, and think by themselves … So there is a value system going through the [activity] that is actually about developing people. That’s the main goal of sport, to develop people.’
UK’s inspiring elite athletes
The UK, too, has surprised the world with its athletes’ performance at the elite level. Unlike Norway, its approach has been about picking winners. The aim is to find and nurture future champions, by funding both national sports bodies and also athletes directly, through the Athlete Performance Award.
National Lottery funding for elite sport development in the UK began in 1997, after the UK’s worst-ever Olympic performance at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. That lottery funding comes in addition to government funds. UK Sport strategically invests that income to get the best medal counts in the Olympic and Paralympic Games (the official term is ‘maximise the performance of UK athletes’).
UK Sport’s ‘no compromise’ approach to only funding sports most likely to gain medals has been brutal, controversial, but effective. In the 2012 London Olympics, Team GB finished third in the medal count. Four years later in Rio de Janeiro, the UK finished second in the medal tally, behind the US but ahead of China.
The UK’s Olympic heroes have been inspiring. Mo Farah fell during his 10,000-metre final in Rio, but got up and went on to win gold. Top tennis player Andy Murray earned praise when he corrected an interviewer who said Murray was the first tennis player to win two Olympic golds. ‘Venus and Serena have won four each,’ he pointed out.
The impact of this Olympic success has gone beyond elite sport. ‘Sport has huge potential to inspire engagement in physical activity,’ says Dr Justin Varney, National Strategic Adviser on Health and Work at Public Health England.
‘The UK saw the 2012 Olympics not only create new and refreshed facilities and infrastructure, but also a revived energy for sports at local and national levels.
‘It should never be an either/or discussion [for funding elite or community sport]. What’s needed instead is a synergy of sport that flows in both directions, one that grows participation and improves health at every stage of life.’
That’s exactly the challenge being taken up in Australia’s Sport 2030 national plan, which positions sport and physical activity as important parts in the puzzle of making a healthier Australia.
Find Your 30
Australians are moving less than ever.
In response, Sport Australia has launched #FindYour30, a broad awareness campaign explaining why physical movement is important, with simple, practical tips so everyone can include 30 minutes of activity in their day. That could be anything from a quick lunchtime walk to using a bathroom further away from your desk at work to boost your level of incidental exercise.
‘The #FindYour30 campaign will be something that will be across everything we do. It will be embedded in all our work,’ says Kate Palmer, CEO of Sport Australia. For example, Sport Australia’s Sporting Schools program, which allows children to try out different sports free of charge, will be used to reach out to parents to get active.
‘Twelve of our major sports are joining forces to make sure that the #FindYour30 message is embedded in what they’re doing. We also have a large social media campaign around the consistent message about the importance of getting active,’ Palmer explains.
Through the National Sports Plan and its own internal corporate plan, Sport Australia aims to get another 207,000 Australians aged 15 or over to meet the physical activity guidelines for their age group by the end of 2019─2020: and to reduce overall inactivity levels by 15 percent by 2030.
The organisation looked to lessons learned in Sport England’s Towards An Active Nation campaign, such as keenly understanding the audience being targeted, using data and, most importantly, being able to change a strategy in response to what is being learned along the way.
‘There’s the need to understand that everyone, people, are different. You can’t make assumptions about what they need or want, or how they feel about things – that’s really important,’ says Palmer.
‘Not everyone loves sport like I do. So, how do they get involved, how can they be active? What are the simple things that they can do, and what should their children be doing. This is something that will be a consistent message.’
Running the numbers
The Sport 2030 report skewers the myth that Australia is a fit, active nation.
• Just 19 per cent of Australians aged five to 17 are meeting the recommended physical activity guideline of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day.
• Nearly 70 per cent of Australian adults have a sedentary or low-activity lifestyle, and are not meeting the recommended goal of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity.
• Australia is one of the world’s fattest nations, with two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children either overweight or obese. If nothing is done to curb obesity, Australia will face a predicted $88 billion of extra health and social costs in the next decade.
• In 2008, it was estimated physical inactivity cost Australia more than $13 billion each year in healthcare costs, lost productivity and premature mortality.
So what are some good numbers?
• Australians who play sport are 44 per cent more likely to have mixed ethnic friendships than those who don’t.
• Children who grow up playing sport are 10 per cent more likely to remain active as adults. There is also a correlation between playing sport and achieving better academic results, and higher lifetime earnings.
• Sport creates an estimated $29 billion of net health benefits each year.
• For every dollar invested in sport in Australia, it returns $7. Each year, sport provides about $83 billion in economic, health and education benefits – about 3 per cent of Australia’s GDP.