Is Zumba the key to London's Olympic legacy?
Ballroom dancing, gig racing, hula hooping and Zumba: a fab four when it comes to physical fitness and all were mentioned by callers during a fascinating Radio 4 phone-in on grassroots sport on Tuesday. But are they, you know, actually sports?
The reason I ask is the same reason the venerable "You and Yours" programme was asking. With London 2012 now little more than 200 days away, do we, as a nation, have any chance of reaching our Olympic legacy targets for mass participation?
The short answer to those questions is "no, they're not and no, we don't".
The longer answer, however, is much more complicated and that is what made "What's Your Sport?" such an interesting listen.
Is a group activity, such as ballroom dancing, really a sport? Photo: BBC
Before I get into the meat of the debate I should explain what these targets are all about. Or, more precisely, were all about, as we don't hear about them so much these days.
The first was a general ambition to make the nation slightly less wedged to the sofa and was supposed to be "delivered" by the Department of Health. Doctors and nurses were mobilised to raise the heart rates of Brits of all shapes and sizes for about 30 minutes a week: prevention not cure.
Sadly, the most recent data suggests the early progress made from 2007 has run out of puff.
Fewer than 15 million people fit into this category and any hope of getting that significantly closer to 16 million by 2013 has vanished. Which is what has happened to this target as government policy: not formally dropped, just not talked about.
That is beginning to look like the fate of the other target too, the ambitious goal of getting one million more people to play a lot more sport.
This target - set by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) via Sport England, the agency in charge of "sport for all" - was always going to be trickier as it entails a serious commitment for most in terms of time and money, three sessions a week.
Like the first target, early momentum here is tailing off. What is more worrying is that the numbers for teenagers and women are falling.
There are now about seven million people who play enough sport to meet the criteria, way off the 7.8 million hoped for by this time next year.
Taken together, these two measures of participation add up to nearly 22 million people, aged 16 and older, playing weekly sport. That's 35% of the population.
Put that like, it does not sound so bad, does it? After all, "sport for all" is fine for those who like sport but terrifying for those with memories of frostbitten cross-country runs and the humiliation of being picked last.
But those numbers do not sound so good when you hear that half the population are not doing much exercise at all and nearly three million Brits have diabetes. That last number is up by almost 50% in four years and the vast majority suffer from Type 2 diabetes, which develops in the very overweight. On this trend, there will be 5.45 million cases by 2030.
And it's not just the health time bomb we should be worried about.
Sport, whether you liked it at school or not, can do things other social policy tools cannot. Keeping boys interested in their lessons, giving girls with body image worries some healthy role models, promoting good relations between community groups and giving the nation some feel-good entertainment - sport can help with all of these.
Which brings me back to those activities at the top. None of them would have been picked up by Sport England's researchers because they have used a fairly narrow definition of sport ever since former DCMS minister James Purnell told them in 2007 that the clue is in Sport England's title - no pastimes.
This put the national governing bodies of the respective sports in charge of mass participation. Sport England's role was reduced to dishing out money and collecting results. Those results have been very disappointing but for a handful of sports.
Sport does not have to be competitive, but it must be accessible, fun and inclusive. Photo: Reuters
I kept thinking about this as caller after caller told the "You and Yours" audience about the exercise they do every week that would not "count" as formal sport.
Diana from Norfolk talked about the netball she played for "giggles with the girls" until some of them got too serious and wanted to play actual matches.
Somebody else emailed in to say they swim three times a week but "can't stand sports", whilst a leisure centre owner in London said she had ripped the squash courts out to create more room for Zumba.
I am not listing these examples to mock them. I list them because they provide clues as to how we can improve our overall fitness and, in the long run, perhaps win more medals too.
Sport does not have to be competitive. It does not need pitch markings. It does not even need to be that organised. But it does need to be accessible, fun and inclusive. That means being more attractive to women, the young and the old, being affordable and easier to fit around busy lives.
Staging great sport in this country in the hope that people will be inspired to start doing it themselves is not a dreadful idea provided it is not the only idea. We also need to open up our best facilities - often in private ownership - for greater public use and we need to encourage more people to take up coaching without charging them an arm and a leg to get qualified.
But most of all we have to stop turning people off sport. If somebody wants to get fitter, what is wrong with ballroom dancing? That could get the competitive juices flowing again and lead to a more sporty activity next. Or the buzz of exercising again could tempt them to add some badminton to their weekly routine.
That is the funny thing about exercise: it can be difficult to encourage if you get bogged down in detail but can pop up in the strangest places if you create the right environment.
A good example of this is table tennis, one of the few "regular" sports doing well participation-wise.
It has made a virtue out of a vice in that inner-city schools with no outside space can put half a dozen tables in the dining hall and get a PE lesson going. Put those tables in shopping malls or train stations and you take your sport to the people. Get a coach there with a couple of bats and some balls and you may just spark an Olympic dream.
There is no magic bullet here and those legacy targets will be missed. But they were worth a shot and the same can be said of foxtrots and polkas and probably Zumba too, although you will never catch me trying it.
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