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London must offer 'sport for all'

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Kurt Barling | 09:43 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Sporting legacies are a hot topic with the Olympics coming to town. Once upon a time each of the 32 London Boroughs took great pride in their sporting facilities. School sporting champions were paraded and celebrated civically.

I recall joining my local athletics club around the age of 10. It was in my local park and we trained on a cinder track. For those who don't remember them, they were very dirty and hard work but they were everywhere.

As sporting expectations grew and sport was elevated beyond just another leisure activity the demand for improved facilities grew.

Initially in the 1970s when local authorities still saw the provision of this type of public service and public space as a core activity investment continued to flow.

A children's playground in London
New surfaces, like tartan running tracks, sports halls with expensive equipment were paid for out of public funds. Some old tracks were ripped up, like the one in my local park, because of the expense. My old club Southgate Harriers merged with Haringey and the facilities were spanking new.

Some of those cinder tracks lingered on as a memory of those times when top athletes brought a trowel to a race to dig their own blocks. Mostly because the local authority didn't care.

We all know what happened in the 1980s. The investment stopped with the economic slump. Ironically sport became altogether more businesslike, more money flowed into the professional games. People's attitudes seemed to shift too. Rather than my 'child's great at sport', you'd hear parents say 'my child's going to earn a fortune as a professional sportsman'.

Meanwhile local authorities under the financial cosh decided, whilst worthy, public sporting facilities would have to wait in line behind housing, social services and crime expenditure.

Local parks all over the capital deteriorated. Park keepers the bane of our lives when we were kids, were given the heave-ho and people slowly stopped using their local parks because many of these public spaces came to resemble public toilets, waste repositories and a drug users paradise.

It was easy to see how far things had gone, because every time you visited a Corporation of London Public Park it was like entering a parallel universe. Clean toilets, proper play areas, carefully manicured lawns; oh and park keepers who made sure you respected the place.

Meanwhile sport and leisure became increasingly separated. National sporting bodies emerged and demanded national strategies. This meant a call on the national purse, with national policies and national political intervention. You can begin to see where this is going.

Local politicians saw provision as less their priority and more that of sporting bodies funded by central government unless schools were involved. Even in education local London boroughs were finding national priorities taking precedence.

School sports fields were sold off to raise funds for "core" educational activities, like investment in school buildings. School sports days became more irregular and sports became less of a badge of honour for students in their school meritocracy.

All of this is somewhat ironic given the rise and rise of sporting icons across the sporting spectrum. National sportsmen win something big and before you know it they are presented with a gong, once upon a time reserved for individuals who'd developed an outstanding body of work over a lifetime.

I think in medical circles this is known as schizophrenia.

So where are we now with public parks and investment in sporting facilities? It's hard to be really precise because there is so much inconsistency across London boroughs. There are some fantastic facilities around, but most of those require children to travel large distances to.

Of course every public official has adopted the Olympic mantra. The Olympics is coming and we have to leave a legacy. But now the reality is, what speaks is hard cash. Local authorities will only rarely stump up the cost of a sporting facility. Usually there is some partnership deal to draw in private funding.

A BBC London viewer wrote to me this week complaining about the use of his local park at Hurlingham in Hammersmith and Fulham for polo playing. That's polo with horses in a London public park. Seems strange that you'd put animals with hooves, that churn up the grass, on a public space used by local rugby and football clubs. Of course, neither rugby nor football can be played after such an event.

I certainly don't recall seeing polo on the sports curriculum in any publically funded school in London. I've no idea if there is money involved, but unless the polo folk are going to replenish the sports ground after use it seems a mighty strange arrangement with the local authority.

Only two years ago that authority had promised to reinstate athletics facilities for local people including a running track.

What's interesting is that in common with other local authorities Hammersmith and Fulham now have hourly charging rates for schools if they want to use the public park space. Does anyone see the logic in a publically funded school having to pay for its children to use a publically funded park? That's like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It would be fair to say that many local authorities have in the last five years recognised the need to re-invest in their local public spaces like the local park. I know of one park in Haringey where a local users' forum has harnessed the energies of dozens of interested groups from football players, to kite flyers, to allotment diggers to resurrect their local public space at Lordship Lane. They now stand to get millions from the national coffers, via the local authority, to make further improvements.

Of course we have elections coming up and these are the type of questions that can be put to local politicians. How are you going to invest my council tax in my local park? What happened to the sports facility that you promised to deliver a few years ago? Why is my local public space being turned over to a sport that few people play and then wrecks it for the rest of us?

Sporting legacies are created from making sport accessible for all. If you don't catch sporting talent young and nurture it, you won't create champions.

British tennis facing Moldova in the lowest tier of international tennis speaks volumes. It is a legacy of our sporting schizophrenia. We only have ourselves to blame.

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