The €30m pledged by the Government in support of the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaíomh is money badly spent. To understand why this is the case, take even a cursory look at the recent results of a survey of sports participation in Ireland.
The raw facts of this survey (the Irish Sports Monitor 2015 Mid-Year Report completed for Sport Ireland) reveal as more than a little hollow the depiction of Ireland as a sport-loving nation.
It is true, on one level, there is huge interest in sport. In this respect, the report shows what it calls ‘social participation in sport’ is strong, through club membership, volunteering, and attending sporting events. In passing, it should be noted the Irish are also world-class talents at watching sport on television and superb at downing sport-related pints and buying sporting merchandise.
But, when it comes to actually doing something actively sporting, the reality does not meet the image we hold of ourselves.
In essence, only one-in-three adults are meeting the (very basic) National Physical Activity Guidelines through sport and recreational walking.
These guidelines say adults should be active for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate activity across five days of every week (or for 150 minutes a week).
Worse than that, the engagement of children with sport and physical activity is atrocious. In fact, what the Sports Monitor report shows is the participation of children in sport is actually in decline – just as is the case with adults. The decline is slight, but it is undeniable.
This is a picture of sedentary behaviour repeated time and again in survey after survey. Studies on childhood behaviour, for example, show only 19% of primary and 12% of post-primary school children meet basic physical activity recommendations and these proportions have not improved since 2004.
It will come as no surprise modern technology is partly to blame here. A total of 74% of boys and 54% of girls spent some time each day playing video games. Indeed, some 30% of boys and 12% of girls spend at least one hour or more in front of a video game every day. Bemoaning the amount of time that children spend in front of screens on any given day is almost a sport in itself – and it misses the point. This is not a matter of making an either-or choice. There is room for children to play video games and to play sport – it’s the second part of that equation is currently being poorly tended.
The answer lies in creating a culture whereby physical exercise is part of everyday life. That is, of course, a straightforward statement to make, but not straightforward to deliver on.
Nonetheless, a start is being made on delivery and it is a start worthy of support.
In January this year, the Government launched a National Physical Activity Plan. The key target in the plan is to increase the number of people taking regular exercise by 1% a year over 10 years.
If that ambition is met, it would mean an additional 50,000 people engaging in recreational physical activity every year, amounting to some half-a-million people within a decade. Among the initiatives planned are the support of 500 new community walking groups, and the extension of the Active School Flag Programme to another 500 schools. Other campaigns will attempt to get employers to encourage Healthy Workplace initiatives. There are also plans to remake the PE curriculum in secondary schools. And the list goes on.
Ultimately, the scale of the challenge means no single institution working on its own can make Irish people become more physically active. Instead, it will require communities, businesses, sports clubs and individuals – as well as the state – to find new ways to draw people to exercise.
The great shame of the National Physical Activity Plan is its unveiling was lost in the clamour of those pre-election weeks when the focus of politics was on personalities and pledges and publicity stunts, rather than on policy.
And policy is central to what needs to happen here. The great thing about the plan is that there are clear and identifiable targets and milestones laid out, beginning this year.
Basically, it will be easy to see if it is working or not – and where everything is falling down.
The importance of this endeavour extends way beyond the notion of enjoyment or pleasure (although that would be virtue in itself). Ireland’s incidence of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and colonic cancer (to name just three) is way above the European and global average. The claimed link between the contraction of these illnesses and physical inactivity cannot be ignored or wished away.
Nor can the expanding waistline of Ireland’s burgeoning obesity issue.
Bill Shankly’s overused (and usually misused) quote about football being much, much more important then a mere matter of life and death is entirely relevant here.
This is not just a matter of life and death – it is also a matter of living.
The health benefits of engaging in lifelong sport and recreation are proven and undeniable.
It is difficult – in the context of the imperative of getting more people playing sport – to see the justification for spending €30m on a stadium that will be filled once (maybe twice?) a year for sporting events.
Presumably, it will rely on concerts to make it sustainable and, of course, it is needed also to buttress Ireland’s campaign to secure the Rugby World Cup in 2023.
The thing is that the National Physical Activity Plan is being funded to the tune of €5.5m in 2016.
This is a substantial sum of money, but how much might be achieved if the state continues to shift its focus further from supporting so-called elite athletes to ‘Sport for all’?
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Good point? Bad point? How can Ireland capitalise on their draw against Sweden and who should start against Belgium?
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