Sports Minister, Tracy Crouch, this week announced the government’s new sport strategy: Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation, which aims to redefine what sport success is with a focus on physical and mental wellbeing.

Mike Weed, Professor of Applied Policy Sciences and Head of the School of Human and Life Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University, questions the potential success of the new strategy.

Sport is the answer!  That is the premise of the government’s new strategy for sport, “Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation”, published on 17th December.

Government’s goals for sport have shifted from sport being the outcome, measured by the number of people who participate and the number of medals won, to sport being the process by which five wider outcomes – physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, social and community development and economic development – are achieved. But by starting from the premise that sport is the answer, it is not clear whether government has fully considered the question: what is the best way to deliver enhanced physical and mental wellbeing and individual, social, community and economic development?

There is evidence, of varying strength in different areas, that sport can deliver some of the wider outcomes being sought. But in comparison to what? Does watching sport make us feel happier than watching movies? Do sport events and facilities contribute more to the economy than theme parks and concerts? And, perhaps most importantly, is sport more or less successful than other options to deliver physical wellbeing

The new strategy claims to break down artificial barriers between sport and physical activity, but in practice the strategy conflates and confuses sport and physical activity. Sport and physical activity are not the same – not all sports are particularly active, and not all physical activities are sport. And for those who are inactive and not interested in sport, this is not an artificial barrier, it is a meaningful distinction. Sport is least relevant to the least active, and delivering physical activities under the auspices of sport will not help in this respect, it is more likely to hinder.

To “meet the needs of the customer”, the strategy suggests sport needs to become more demand-led and reach out to those who do not get involved in sport. But if physical wellbeing is the sought outcome, why start from the premise that those who do not get involved in sport, often because they actively dislike it, specifically need to do sport to enhance their physical wellbeing. This is akin to trying to persuade a vegetarian that meat is the only option when they are hungry.

In his introduction, David Cameron suggests that through the strategy “we can secure our sporting future and in doing so make our country stronger for generations to come”. The Prime Minister has clearly decided that sport is the answer, he just hasn’t thought about the question!

Professor Mike Weed’s research for the Department of Health, Sport England and the Economic & Social Research Council has helped inform policy for sport, physical activity and the Olympic Games.