Green, M.  (2004) ‘Changing policy priorities for sport in England: the emergence of elite sport development as a key policy concern’, in Leisure Studies, 23 (4): 365-85.

[This is an interesting account of how the central ambiguity in sport development policy, between widening participation and encouraging elite athletes, has been introduced initially, and then how one possibility has become prioritised.  The main focus is on seeing policy as a discourse.  Green uses this term to examine how various policies emerge to meet different interests, but also wants to see it as a kind of hegemony in action, permitting the emergence of the real agenda, so to speak, by making alternatives unthinkable.  He uses interviews with some insiders, but also analyses documents himself, including some from parallel policy developments – curiously, not the analyses of Thatcherism, which this particular approach strongly resembles.]

The first point is that since the 1970s, both conservative and labour governments have adopted increasingly interventionist policies towards sport.  One strand emphasized mass participation, sport for all, but there was also a trend towards wanting to improve international performance.  This latter strand has quietly become dominant, although much analysis assumes that sport development still focuses on the former.  Although the examples are about England, Green thinks this shift has affected all the regions of the UK, despite regionalization.  There also are parallels in the work on school sport and physical education.  The idea is to emphasise ‘a discursive construction of sport policy’ (336).

14 semi structured interviews with key personnel were pursued, especially those interested in investigating sport policy.  Green describes the research strategy as ‘iterative or recursive; that is, the data collection and analysis proceeded concurrently, that is repeatedly referring back to and informing each other’ (367) [the dangers of circularity and self confirmation are obvious].  The main finding is that there have been struggles over policy, but that ‘those actors and organisations involved with elite sport development’ have benefited, to the extent that it is almost impossible to think of sport in any other way (367).

Green then charts the emergence of various policy initiatives, mostly government acts and the establishment of various bodies.  Some useful tables are found in the piece summarising these developments, the funding implications, and the implications for elite sport development.  Funding implications are important because they strengthen or weaken various organisations, some of which, like NGBs, tend to promote elite sport more than others which emphasize social objectives (like social inclusion) or mass participation, sometimes for health reasons.  Sometimes, the two were reconciled by arguing that both policy strands were united in requesting more facilities and funding, and later by suggesting that participation would deepen the pool of talent from which elite athletes could be drawn.  At other times, priorities were disguised under general slogans – the example given is that Sport for All was actually about social inclusion (369).  It is clear that sports policy was developed in the middle of discussions about the welfare state, social democracy, and the management of an increasing sports bureaucracy.

Throughout, substantial funds were committed to elite sport.  There was also emerging competition between the various bodies responsible for sport development, such as the government’s Sports Council and the powerful voluntary bodies, such as the Central Council for Physical Recreation, which was then the forum for NGBs, medical professions and the British Olympic Association.  There was some discussion about rationalising and centralising, which various governments picked up and used to introduce other themes, including the conservative government’s attempts to combine sport with national heritage, and most importantly, the establishment of the national lottery.  There was also an attempt to link funding to ‘the explicit support for government objectives’ (371).  It was in the late 1980s and nineties that the idea of a continuum was introduced, between participation and excellence, with a gradual drift away from social objectives towards more familiar objectives of creating elite sport performance. 

Although there has been policy continuity, there have been distinctive shifts towards elite sport as well, and specific legislation from both conservative and labour governments are cited.  The real impact arose with the issue of administering lottery funding.  Under the aegis of the UK Sports Institute, especially sports colleges were established to identify potential and pathways to elite competition, for example, relying on lottery funds.  Game Plan in 2002 reintroduced connections between sports, physical activity, education and health policy, and featured a move towards regionalisation as part of the devolution strategy.  Regional plans for sport had to address issues of ‘health, education, crime reduction, community cohesion and social inclusion’ (374), but even here, the pathway idea was also developing.  This produced a certain tension between the objectives of NGBs and the broader social agenda.

The same tensions can be identified with the policy linking school PE and sporting clubs (PESSCL).  Considerable investment was directed towards this policy.  However actually increasing participation prove to be far more difficult in practice [implying that the idea that pathways or pipelines towards elite competition was much easier to implement and thus tended to dominate?].  Thus while there is no coherent mechanism to develop elite sport, ‘an organisational, administrative and funding framework is clearly emerging’ (375), based on the Sports Institute and its professional coaching and sports medicine programmes, lottery funding, talent identification schemes, the establishment of specialist sports colleges.

Green goes on to investigate three specific NGBs and their reactions to these policies.  The idea is to see how sport policy is ‘discursively constructed…  [permitting]…  the privileging of certain interests’ (376), and closing off alternatives.  In particular, the dilemma was how NGBs should produce planning documents of a specific kind in order to get funded.  One commentator has argued that this emphasises high performance sport.  This is confirmed by one respondent who describes his priorities as finding talent and hot-housing it at the expense of intrinsic worth of the activity.  The relation between NGBs and other sports organisations becomes increasingly ‘hierarchical, contractual, resource – contingent and, perhaps most surprisingly in many cases, positive – sum’ (377), partly driven by a need to modernise and allocate lottery money rationally.  ‘Pathways to the podium’ became dominant – for example, athletic competition is now calendared in order to permit peak performance at the Olympic games or world championships (377).

Alternative emphases on sports intrinsic qualities – ‘fun, playing and... enjoyment’ ( 378), or, later, ‘erotic lyrical expression in which the participant is the subject of his or her activity’ (380) are now minimised, for example in swimming which is now judged by Olympic performance.  There is particular attention and swimming between elite focused organisations and grassroots ones, with funding diverted towards the former.  Sailing, by contrast has been relatively compliant with little resistance and a more pragmatic attitude towards government directives.  There is an agreement that Olympic and world championship medals are the criterion of success.  In exchange for this compliance, the RYA has been cited by UK sport as a good example of a suitably modern organisation – one that is not nostalgic for ‘autonomy, voluntarism and independence’ (379).  School sport and PE has been also narrowed, focusing on preparation for elite performance and sporting excellence, to such an extent that even those who wish to do something broader still have to conform to this emphasis, such as the power of the dominant discourse [LTAD?].  In Canada, this is being encouraged by sport science and human kinetics, designed to increase athletic performance at the expense of matters such as gender equity and regional access.  It is possible the UK policy will develop along the same lines, and influence the whole notion of sport development as such.  Those voices which are likely to be excluded are young people who do not like traditional sports and other activities.  Alternative activities are likely to be minimised by links with sports clubs, for example [leisure has long been squeezed by this sort of the development].  It becomes necessary to see how these dominant discourses emerge in both sport development and education policy, have a construction validate particular kinds of truth and knowledge, and how discourses supported by networks of power.

There are still possibilities in existing policies, even in Game Plan, and in the possibilities still left open to individual schools and regions.  However the Canadian example is important, and an organized challenge to defend alternatives is what is required.