Coalter, F. (1999) 'Sport and recreation in the United Kingdom: flow with the flow or buck the trends?', in Managing Leisure, 4: 24 - 39.
There have been recent debates about the political importance of sport in the UK. There has been a supposed decline in sporting participation, and a lack of international sporting success. To some extent, this has been the result of changes in school-based sport, which has been marginalised. One result apparently has been an increase in obesity. A number of initiatives have taken place to try and solve these problems: a new emphasis on school sport, various development programmes aimed at children, a drive to increase participation.
However, it is possible to question these assumptions, especially that there has been a decline in sports participation levels. Certainly, study seems to show that between the Seventies and the Nineties there has been an increase in participation, and greater participation in school-based sport. What seems to have happened is that 'participation in traditional sports may have declined, [but] participation in physical recreations has expanded and diversified' (25). This leads to the main argument examined in the paper, that it may be best to attempt to harness these general changes, instead of trying to oppose them, especially given the limits of policy in reversing 'social economic cultural and educational factors' (25).
Coalter uses General Household Survey (GHS) data to test this argument. The data seem to show an increase in general sports participation of some 34 per cent between 1977 and 1986. However, the greatest increase involved participation in indoor sport, and in the more individualised activities. In fact these figures might underestimate the rates, since the actual questions asked in the GHS survey are now far more specific, inviting comments about 32 specified sports and recreations, whereas before 1987, people would just ask an open-ended question about 'leisure activities'.
Data for the Eighties and Nineties show 'continued if less dramatic growth, with a levelling off between 1990 and 1996' (26). There are significant changes concealed in this general rise, such the emergence of 'winner' and 'loser' sports: 'Overall there has been a shift from team and "partner" sports to non-competitive, individual, flexible, fitness and lifestyle oriented activities' (26). Specifically, snooker and darts have declined, as have badminton and squash, soccer has remained stable, but the real winners are the individual fitness-oriented activities. These are more individual, offer flexible timing, non-competitive, and are 'related to a general concern with fitness and health' (27). In absolute terms, 27 per cent of young women participate in aerobics and 26 per cent of young men in multi-gym/weight training (in 1995).
A number of theoretical explanations might be used to explain the drift towards individualisation. For example, the decline of collective activity and increased obsession with body maintenance and surface appearances seem to match the shift towards postmodernism. The material base might be supplied by ideas of postfordism, with a shift away from traditional team sports to more flexible specialist forms of activity. However, the most likely explanations involve changes in amount and distribution of free time: about a third of those surveyed in 1990 wanted more time for sport or exercise. The UK in particular seems to show a pattern towards choosing to work longer hours, even though there maybe a more general trend towards a reduction. The time of professional and managerial groups seems to have been squeezed most in the UK. Even where there is less working time, there are more things competing for time to do them, including 'more commitments and unpaid (domestic) labour... new "essential" tasks' (28) so that sport tends to be maintained only if it returns more value than alternative activities.
Within the general pattern provided by social class and gender, there are interesting variations: the professional managerial groups tend to have higher participation rates, but persistence remains the same in both classes, and those in a skilled manual occupation have high levels of participation in 'hall and pitch' sports (29). Demographic changes have also affected the picture, with a substantial decline in manufacturing jobs in the UK, and an increase in participation in higher education and then work for women. However, 'broad, class related differences in participation rates remain... [but]... the greatest increases were among the intermediate and junior non-manual occupations and the unskilled occupations... [while the most dramatic decrease was found in] social class E' (29). It is likely that different rates of participation for the genders are also being measured here as well, given the gendering of occupations.
Turning to women, there was a 19 per cent increase in women's sports participation by 1986, especially in indoor sports. Again changes in form of the questions in the GHS indicate that there may have been an earlier underestimation. During the Eighties and Nineties, female participation rate increased by a further 12 per cent, catching up with a more static rate for men. Nevertheless, overall, 'women's aggregate participation rate (excluding walking) is only 70 per cent that of men' (30). However, it seems that younger women are increasing their participation rates, but on the other hand, such participation is still concentrated into a narrow band of activities -- largely four activities (walking, keep-fit/yoga/aerobics/dance exercise, swimming and cycling). These are activities which are cheap, flexible and can be fitted in around family requirements.
Turning to the increase in activities in keep fit and so on, these have increased in the 1990s, and currently 17 per cent of women engage in them, a higher proportion of younger women, and a trend noticeable across social class. However, this increase may have been accompanied by decreases in other activities, especially 'jogging, badminton, squash and outdoor sports' (31). Schoolgirls seem particularly likely to enjoy aerobics and 27 per cent of them participated regularly in 1995. Supporters of the activity think this indicates 'empowerment' for women, and see it as a way of exercising in safety, and away from the 'masculine gaze' (32). However, others are less sure, and point to the underlying concern with bodily looks, and consumerism: this is either related to a narcissistic personality, or to a new use of the body as 'a form of corporeal security' (quoting Glassner, page 32). Feminists have also worried that women may be striving to achieve bodies that fit male requirements and new notions of sex appeal: this also discriminates against unfit or fat women --'obesity is often associated in employers' minds with idleness and ill health' (33). The overall benefits are not clear either: some participants may be engaged in balancing aerobics with more indulgent kinds of diet; it is also unlikely that limited participation (less than three times per week) actually does improve health and fitness.
A search for security may also explain the interest in body-building for men, together with an interest in asserting their masculinity in bodily terms --'a "muscular backlash"' (32). Young men also express high levels of dissatisfaction with their bodies, and tend to equate health in terms of physical strength and fitness. There is certainly a substantial increase in participation in multi-gym/weight training in the younger age groups, and, by 1993, about a third of 16 to 19 year-old males participated, 'a participation rate surpassed only by one sport, soccer' (33).
There are also changes in the supply of leisure facilities, especially indoor facilities. There has been a general cultural interest in health and its connection with lifestyles, and some of the participation results from inactive 30 -- 50 year-olds resuming participation, which may again be the results of increased opportunities as well as the influence of early sporting experiences being overcome.
Attendance at higher education seems to be directly connected to participation., across a wide range of sports and among all age groups. This maybe simply a matter of extra opportunities including free time, or perhaps students are able to maintain participation in sport longer because they do not face work and family related demands, especially for women. Women seem to have benefited particularly from the expansion of higher education.
In conclusion, there does not seem to have been a long-term decline in the overall level of participation, but a relative decline in traditional team and partner sports, balanced by increased participation in other activities. Policy-maker should decide if they wish to concentrate on equality of opportunity, improving fitness and health, resourcing traditional team sports, or promoting sporting excellence. It is true that 'the majority of current participants are not participating frequently enough to obtain real fitness or health benefits' (36), so perhaps it would be best to try to encourage the already participating to participate more often. Differences in gender remain, and the variety of opportunities for women might be increased. One option seems to be to try to make sport 'sexy', but this could deliver young women even more into an obsession with their looks.
Policy initiatives can have an effect, for example in increasing the supply of subsidised leisure facilities, or attempting to get schools to promote healthy lifestyles. Nevertheless, a number of factors remain beyond the control of policy makers at the moment, including changes in the occupational system, changes in those undertaking higher education, and consumerist trends affecting bodies and their appearances. '[C]ontinuing time squeeze' (37) might be a major factor. There is also some evidence that those who engage in sport also engage more frequently in 'a broad range of social and cultural activities, of which sport is only one' (37), which could be seen as making the case for the benefits of sport particularly to be emphasised. This indicates a general possibility of changing policy so that it is able to 'move from a product-led to a needs-based or consumer-oriented approach -- to find a way of "flowing with the flow"' (37).
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