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Government spending cuts - what price sport?

Supporters cheer on Team GB rowers in Sydney
Britain's Olympic success in 2000 caught the public imagination

By Tim Franks
BBC sports news correspondent

We all know - because the Cabinet are talking of little else - that the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) , on 20 October, will be exceptionally tough.

But as Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street sharpen the knives, how easy will they find it to measure worth?

How, in particular, can you draw neat columns of inputs and outputs when it comes not to waiting times, or the numbers of police officers - but rather things like contentment and a sense of national purpose?

In other words, what price sport?

In the bonfire of public spending that we have been promised, you might imagine that government-backed sport will be no more than kindling.

But then the memories begin to churn among those of us who, 10 years ago, sat past midnight on our sofas, and watched and listened: "Great Britain, reaching for the line, reaching for the line, there's only five metres to go, and Great Britain, YES."

In other words, soon-to-be-Sir Steve Redgrave, in the coxless fours, winning his fifth consecutive Olympic gold, and proving that it is possible to be British and proud and happy.

There are huge instrumental benefits to the government, to society at large, in people communing, getting together and participating in sport
Table tennis chief Richard Yule

How presciently on message that achievement turned out to be.

In his first week as Prime Minister, David Cameron went to Scotland to underline the importance of Britishness. And in his first months as leader of the Conservative Party, he sang the praises of the intangible.

"It's time we admitted that there is more to life than money," Mr Cameron said, back when money appeared a little easier to come by. "And it's time we focused, not just on GDP (Gross Domestic Product), but on something else. GWB - General Well Being."

It is a difficult target for government. The 20th century saw experiments in a Command Economy tried and, often, failed. How now to attempt a Command State of Mind?

The unlikely sight of outdoor ping pong is one small piece of evidence that publicly funded sports projects can spread a little happiness.

In late summer, a large number of table tennis tables were scattered across public spaces in London, a gift, in large part, of Sport England, the publicly funded organisation dedicated to encouraging mass participation in sport.

To widespread surprise, most remained un-vandalised, and bats and balls un-stolen. Richard Yule, the energetic, almost evangelical chief executive of the English Table Tennis Association, says the lesson is clear: "Sport has the ability to transform lives," he says. "There are huge instrumental benefits to the government, to society at large, in people communing, getting together and participating in sport."

The jargon for such a process is "building social capital". By that, proponents mean: do not mistake the department of sport for the department of non-essential expenditure.

At the other end to the gentle pursuit of recreational ping pong is international sprint hurdles.

Andy Turner has just become Commonwealth champion in the 110m hurdles, just months after winning gold at the European Championships.

He knows what it is like to train and compete both with and without financial backing from UK Sport - another publicly funded body.

And a lack of money, he says, translates into a strong head wind.

Andy Turner
Turner leads the way at the Commonwealth Games

"You wouldn't be able to dedicate your life solely to athletics," he says. "You need that extra help to push on to the next level."

UK Sport is quietly, but energetically, lobbying, as the CSR approaches. Their staff realise that they might appear as low-hanging fruit for the treasury mandarins.

The organisation has, after all, quadrupled its funding of elite athletes, even since the terrific medal success at Beijing. It insists that, just as the rest of the world is copying this rather un-British all-out pursuit of excellence, it would be perverse now to hack back.

Putting a value on Britishness and happiness and a sense of national self-worth is indeed tricky territory.

Professor Richard Layard is a Labour peer whose counsel has been sought in Downing Street even by this coalition government.

In January, he is due to launch his own international Movement for Happiness, and he has a word of caution for Treasury officials using the normal model of the Gross National Product, to calculate the effect of spending cuts.

"So many of the things that are important to people are not part of the GNP," he argues.

"How healthy you are, how safe your streets are, how happy your family life is, or how well your children are progressing. These are things which are not part of the GNP, and yet they're incredibly important to people."

When it comes to the CSR, sport will of course pale, when set against school roofs or operating theatres or an independent nuclear deterrent. But that very pallor may not make the calculations any clearer.



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see also
Redgrave's golden glory
23 Sep 00 |  Rowing and Water Sports
Turner cruises to hurdles title
08 Oct 10 |  Commonwealth Games
Key sports organisations to merge
26 Jul 10 |  Sport Homepage
Grass-roots sport receives 480m
16 Dec 08 |  Olympics


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