Collins, M. and Buller, J. (2003) 'Social Exclusion from High - Performance Sport. Are all talented young sports people being given an equal opportunity of reaching the Olympic podium?'in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 27 (4): 420 - 42
There has long been a tension between funding sport for all and support for elite sports. The assumption is that this will provide equality of opportunity to compete in the Olympics. However we know this is a problem at the international level, since many nations find it impossible to have matched Olympic standards. It is also a problem within nations that tend to exclude poorer participants. Despite the efforts of various sports agencies for decades in the UK, 'gaps in provision and lack of co-ordination are continuing problems as are the inequities that result in social background being as much a factor in determining the chances of success as ability, aptitude, and precocious talent' (421, with the English Sports Council 1998 cited in support).
Social class differences are often thought to be relevant in postmodern societies, or to be replaced by a simple differences of income or wealth. Not everyone agrees, however. Poverty has certainly increased in the UK since 1979, and social exclusion has become a focus for policy, meaning the inability to participate effectively in mainstream social life.
Heywood, Kew and Bramham (1989) discuss constraints affecting participation of which participants may not be aware, which leads to Bourdieu and the notion of 'activity choices and lifestyle practices'. These in turn are influenced by habitus ('the person's internalisation of social structures'), and access to various kinds of capital, including social cultural and symbolic (423). In particular, it is necessary that some kind of personal capital is present before participation can take place, and this is strongly influenced by social class. Tastes in particular are linked -- middle-class groups see time spent do as offering social and personal rewards, while working class groups are much more instrumental and are interested in save the career possibilities. Overall, sport is a structured space, and processes of closure are also present to maintain its internal boundaries. However, there are other complications including 'external changes or personal struggles and... ageing' (424). Nevertheless, social class does seem to be important in a number of comparative studies as well as just in Britain.
Youth involvement in sport and leisure specifically is particularly under-researched. There are some exceptions, including the training of young athletes and the development of talent initiatives. The first showed there was a clear social class distribution of those taking part in various sports -- especially in tennis, but less so in gymnastics. The factors identified with the usual ones of financial support, transport facilities, and parental role, especially in encouraging healthy and safe activities. The development of the Olympic talent initiative revealed that the Olympic athletes were still expected to cover their own expenses, resulting in personal debt, limits to the amount of time spent training, and low or partial earnings (427). The most recent study of social class of elite performers, commissioned by the Sports Council 1998 showed an over-representation of those from social groups A and B (38 per cent of the total). Again, the sports themselves varied, with rugby league approaching representativeness, and with swimming as the most privileged.
This article follows a case-study approach using a particular policy in Nottinghamshire, which has long been interested in actively supporting pathways to high levels of participation. [the actual scheme is described on page 428, and includes access to coaches, and subsidised facilities as well as strong encouragement to join clubs. Facilities are organised at county level. Overall, Nottinghamshire has 'set the pace for innovative youth sport development work throughout England' (429). [So this is a pole case not a representative case]. Questionnaires were sent to a sample of participants, some were interviewed by telephone and coaches were interviewed.
Data on social background were gathered by looking at measures of 'social need', itself involving 'low-income, family difficulties, poor housing, educational difficulties, lack of skills, and unemployment' (430) [This notion of social need as a 'surrogate' for social class is of course controversial and does not entirely match the theoretical discussions above]. There are sources of bias, including 'exaggeration by the children, the possibility of under representing children in poor households with no telephone, and children being involved in... [school]... examinations... at the time of the survey' (431). Nevertheless, the authors feel that the data were 'fairly robust and reliable' (431).
The results showed that progressing through the scheme to the higher levels was at an encouraging level, 'with 46 per cent becoming involved in the county sport scene or at a higher level', and a clear improvement after entering the squad (432). At the same time, 16 per cent of respondents had dropped out from competitive sport, largely because of school work and other commitments. The
The coaches felt that lack of appropriate facilities, poor communication with club coaches, and a lack of support mechanisms were the main problems. The lack of a suitable exit route at key stages [additional squads or coaching opportunities], and drop-out moving from junior to senior levels were also mentioned. One coach in particular was not interested in providing pathways for all the young people in his charge, however.
Turning to measures of social need, almost one-third of the population as a whole in Nottinghamshire had some levels of social need, but those from lower levels tended to participate more frequently [with those from moderate, serious and extreme levels of social need participating at levels of 4.1 , 3.8 and 0.3 per cent respectively]. There were some areas of social need that attracted no participants at all. Overall, 'children living in areas of below average social need have a much higher chance of becoming a... participant... a child aged five to 17... had a 1 in 252 likely would have been a participant if they lived in an area below the average social need, falling to 1 in 10,772 if they lived in an area of extreme social need' (435).
Despite the overall success of the scheme, 'there is still room for improvement' (436), especially in attracting children from areas of social need, and in dealing with athletes who do not make the elite teams. At the moment, these participants just seemed to be abandoned or neglected, rather than being encouraged to participate in some other way. Teachers should be encouraged to refer more children. Children in areas of serious and extreme social need should be targeted. The guidance offered by Sport England on equity issues needs to be extended to include social class as well as gender, race and disability. The findings in particular seemed to contradict the view of Roberts that social class now only effects frequency of participation .
The problem is that sports participation policy is contradictory at the moment, 'facing the conflicting objectives of elitism and universality' (438). This problem affects all developed countries, and there are policies that might be borrowed -- such as the National Institute network of Australia.
The study should be repeated in other areas, and other schemes evaluated, particularly to see if they are 'selective by habitus or distribution of capital' (439) using the new data from the Index of Local Conditions which measure deprivation by its small local areas [it would have been nice to see this done here instead of using the 'surrogate'. Collins and Buller suggest that the measures of social need do indicate lower levels of personal social capital].
There can also be a link with work on community renewal, especially to build up social capital in the most deprived working-class areas (for example by offering help to make more effective bids for lottery money). However, the whole issue maybe far more structured and therefore do resistant to such policy. Unless the issues are addressed, however, sport participation may develop even more 'as a site for the reproduction of inequality... and... [as]... a powerful vehicle for social exclusion' (440, quoting Kay (2000)).
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