If government and the scientists are right then we have yet to hit the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and so it may seem premature to start talking about lessons learnt from nature’s global assault on our lives. The virus and its impact will surely be the subject of study across many disciplines for years to come, but for sport and the government’s agenda to get the nation active there may already be some interesting insights.
We Need to Feel Connected
For most of us, being ‘stuck at home’ has reinforced that basic human need to feel connected. We are social beings and sport has long meant much more than just physical activity. In wheelchair rugby our mission is to ‘build wheelchair rugby communities’ because we are deeply conscious that social interaction is even more important for those who are disabled and who can often find themselves isolated. Sport brings us all together and not just those who happen to play the game, but the mums and dads, the carers and volunteers, the officials and fans. I was hugely encouraged to read the words of Katherine Grainger, Chair of UK Sport in ‘The Guardian’ where she acknowledged that the pandemic ‘forces you to ask the right questions. Ultimately ‘what is important?’ and ‘how can sport help communities rebuild?‘ This is a far cry from the ‘no compromise’ approach to funding elite sport with its single-minded desire to win more medals, which was the mantra of the previous UK Sport leadership. Reinvigorating sport in all its forms as a catalyst to bring people together to build and support communities will be even more important when the current restrictions are lifted.
Make Space for Activity
We can encourage people to become active if we give them space in their busy lives and make it easy for them. Joe Wicks has become a 9am phenomenon as he delivers his 30 minute a day PE workout. Over a million people a day are tuning in to it, and moreover are enjoying it! Mr Motivator the 90s fitness guru now aged 67 has returned to our screens to offer his fitness routines. You have to ask the question – why is it that all school days cannot begin with a ‘Joe Wicks’ 30 minute work out? For that matter why can’t all workplaces offer the same? We continue to search for innovative ways to get the nation active and we lament the rising tide of obesity which puts the UK on the top rung of Europe’s obesity ladder, but perhaps there is something in the Joe Wicks experience that we can learn from.
This is not just a pointer for sports but for many businesses. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram or the many offerings on sports websites, it’s long been possible to reach out to people in their homes and spaces and to offer them a menu of exercise opportunities. It has taken the impact of COVID-19 for GB Wheelchair Rugby to up its game and exploit these mediums by, amongst other initiatives, creating short exercise videos to support those in wheelchairs to remain active. By using our GB athletes to demonstrate simple chair exercises which require no special equipment we are now providing valuable exercise tools which are being well received by those confined in their chairs and their homes.
Fragility of Sports’ Business Model
The loss of UK Sport funding back in 2016 was an enormous blow for wheelchair rugby and there were times when it looked highly unlikely that the sport could survive, certainly at elite level. The reality of the dependence on Lottery and Government funding was unsettling and the focus of the GBWR Board turned to how the sport could attract other sources of funding. Since then GBWR has been highly effective in generating new sources of philanthropic and commercial income. But what to the future? Ironically GBWR is managing short-term financial risks better than some of the major sports but that position will quickly change, particularly as the majority of its current funding commitments were tied to a 2020 Paralympic Games timeline. COVID-19 has shown us that no matter how big you are – be it rugby, cricket, athletics or swimming, the business model is very fragile. Recovering from the impact of cancelled events and activity is going to be challenging, particularly in a new world where it is reasonable to assume that government, lottery, sponsorship, and philanthropic income will all be less available.
All too often we can focus on the negative aspects of sport whether that be drug induced victories or football hooliganism but there is so much more that is positive about sport and COVID-19 is opening the window to some of that. From Stevenage FC who are working to help deliver groceries to the elderly, Crystal Palace’s ‘Palace for Life Foundation’ who continue to work with young people who have personal difficulties, the Welsh Rugby Union giving over the Principality Stadium to build a temporary hospital and Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese national team giving half their bonuses to support the amateur game – all examples of our common humanity and the sense of community that is inherent in sport.
So, when the doors are flung open again, will sport revert to how it was pre-COVID-19 or will the experience of the virus re-define the role and delivery of sport and activity in our lives? To differing degrees, sport was already starting to move on many of the issues above but perhaps this crisis can be the catalyst for some bold decision making to ensure a much healthier and more sustainable sporting system which benefits all.