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Investment at the shallow end of the pool

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Gordon Farquhar | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Government's £140m, 'free' swim initiative might be somewhat over-described, but it seems to be a positive step towards delivering the much talked about participation legacy of the 2012 Olympics.

No, not all councils have warmed to the scheme. Somewhat inconveniently for the government at least, the pools in Mansfield and Northallerton, where British swimming's best current role models Rebecca Adlington and Jo Jackson happen to have taken their first plunges, are not taking part, but 80% of the rest of the local council pools in England will be giving something for nothing.

Jo Jackson, British Swimming Championships, Sheffield

That usually proves to be a popular offer, once people get over their natural scepticism. No, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and of course the swimming scheme is subsidised by the taxpayer, so in fact we're all contributing to it, but it's free at the point of delivery - much like treatment on the National Health Service, which brings us neatly on to Alan Johnson.

The Secretary of State for Health was supposed to be poolside in Eltham, in south-east London, to support his cabinet advocate for Sport, Andy Burnham, but along with the Children, Schools and Families secretary Ed Balls, he didn't show. A shame. I'd hoped for a chance to question him about the relationship between health and sport within government, and ask why successive health secretaries took too long to figure out that they should be grasping sport's hand, and giving every support, if for no other reason than to achieve some of their own long-term objectives.

Some would say our NHS should be re-named the National Illness Service, given that it is treatment and not prevention that takes overwhelming precedence.

I'm not saying healthy lifestyle campaigns haven't had an impact: I'm sure lots of people are, 'talking to Frank', or slapping on nicotine patches and condoms (never confuse the two), but if they really got behind sport and diverted a bit of their vast budget into bigger, better, more ambitious schemes than free swimming, then who knows what might happen?

More people would become active, adopt healthier lifestyles, live longer and need less (costly) medical intervention. Rates of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and strokes would fall, as in turn would the colossal burden of the NHS on the taxpayer... and that would mean still more money in the treasury for sport. Neat, eh?

Now I'm sure Johnson and Balls had very important matters of state, such as the G20 and their expenses to attend to, but leaving sports stalwarts Tessa Jowell and Andy Burnham to perform a duet in favour of free swimming rather than a close harmonised barber's shop quartet of cabinet big hitters left me feeling a bit short changed.

All the more reason then, to big up David Walliams: Little Britain star, cross-channel charity swimmer, and heroic figure at Eltham leisure centre.

He turned up, good as gold, to support the scheme, despite being properly ill with a really nasty virus, and was gracious enough to answer our questions. And let's also make special mention of Jo Jackson, who went out to talk to BBC Radio 5 Live from our radio car dripping wet, and dressed only in a towel and swimsuit , having minutes earlier been posing for photographs in the pool.

A bit like that towel afterwards, I couldn't help feeling that once again in terms of the government's priorities, sport had been rather hung out to dry.


  • Comment number 1.

    It has also had other effects which are not quite so positive.
    I was supposed to be running diving lessons during the school holidays, but these have been scaled right back due the problems that free swimming is likely to cause to programming time in the pool.
    One should also look to the report by London Swimming which stated that they had found that 'free swimming' had only increased the number of times users went, it had NO impact on getting additional people involved.

    Bear in mind that with the increasing loss of facilities, there are less places where you can swim, and less where you can learn to swim, this initiative was designed to stifle that debate which it did very successfully.

  • Comment number 2.

    Gordon, nice blog. Spot on, and what many of us in the industry have been saying for a very long time.
    I hope that we are gradually beginning to win friends in the health sector - we are just starting to see genuine partnerships with Primary Care Trusts which recognise the significance of improving people's activity levels. There is an example in Barking & Dagenhgam where the PCT is investing over £1m to use swimming as a vehicle to improve people's health.
    Sadly, as diverjohn points out, there are some limitations. The industry is very split, as there are significant logistical issues, and I'm afraid that this is a classic example of a political initiative which is all polish, press conferences and presentation, which was dreamt up in isolation with little or no forward planning about how it would be implemented - hence his issues with pool programming (which are commonplace).
    The point about facility stock is also massively significant - there's little value in creating a generation of swimmers if we're not replacing our swimming pools as fast as they close down.

  • Comment number 3.

    Almost the best thing about swimming from a health perspective is that it doesn't damage joints if you're a bit a tubby git. Running really isn't the best starting point for overweight people, as it:
    i. Puts undue pressure on the hips, knees and ankles;
    ii. Requires greater strength of tendons etc to support joints in the absence of strong muscles.
    iii. Can cause lasting damage if undertaken too much too soon.

    Swimming is an integral part of rehab programmes for top athletes and it should be seen as such in an NHS campaign to rid this country of fat bastards.....that's not saying that everyone will become swimming addicts for the rest of their lives, but it's a good place to start.

    Provided that you don't sink at the deep end before you've developed the aerobic stamina to do lengths rather than widths......

  • Comment number 4.

    I think that the link in your blog called "Northallerton" should actually go to the Hambleton Leisure Centre page at

    Not sure why your link goes to a pool in Consett?

  • Comment number 5.

    I'd add another neat little bit of synergy here Gordon, that between sports participation and anti social behaviour.
    Now, my sport has lost in excess of 75% of it's facilities across England in the last 30 years. However, it's a sport which appeals to those kids who like excitement and the adrenaline rush that that gives. Having these kids bored and with nothing to do is not a good thing.

    Diving gives that rush in spades and also has other beneficial benefits too. The people now using the re-opened facilities where I live are this very group - ones that cause trouble in the swimming pool and probably the surrounding area too. BUT, not when there are facilities like this for them to use. They obey the (sensible) safety rules, the have fun, throw themselves around, respect the others in the area and generally behave pretty well, much to the surprise of the staff.

    But, across the country we have been losing facilities like this which keeps kids active and having fun in a managed environment, and instead they are out on their own or in a group with nothing to do except find ways to amuse themselves and get excitement. Add in the huge growth in the availability of alcohol and we find a recipe for anti social behaviour.

    The cost of policing and managing this is far more than the cost of maintaining facilities that would be attractive to these people and keep them off the streets. It doesn't help that people like the ASA are only looking at the elite end and actively discourage public access to diving facilities.

    Sport can deliver huge benefits, if it's allowed to and if joined up thinking is applied.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have a number of views on the free (at the point of delivery) swim service which has recently been introduced, this comes from a variety of positions I hold with regard to the sport of swimming and sport in general.
    Firstly as a swimmer, I think it's great that swimming is finally getting the recognition that it deserves as a serious sport that can be taken up by many people from many backgrounds and walks of life.
    However as a lifeguard I have seen first hand that the vast majority of the under sixteens whom take part in the initiative simply take their swim ticket, don their bathing suits and enter the pool bent on wreaking havoc for staff, each other and more importantly the paying adults who also come to use the pool. Nowhere in their activities do they show an interest for swimming as a sport or as an activity for excercise!
    As a coach therefore, I would prefer to see an initiative in which the under sixteens involved in the scheme were introduced to sporting activities as sports and excercises, rather than oportunities to mess around and (from some cases I've seen) be violent.
    Such schemes could be introduced as summer schools, extra curricula activities and schol classes, this could cover a range of sports and be contained in a controlled and taught/coached environment. I think such an idea would be a more effeciant use of the finances (especially in a down-trodden economy such as the one in which we currently find ourselves). I also think that were such an initiative to be introduced, the department of health would be more willing to accept that sport is a long term investemnt in cutting rates of obesity and increase the health and fitness of our nation.


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