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Britain is losing miserably in the global race for sporting success

Struggling to keep up. Tim Ireland/PA Wire

Whether people like it or not, Qatar is seeking to position itself as the world capital of sport. A central tenet in the country’s 2030 National Vision, sport is seen by the Gulf nation as being a driver of economic activity, social change and political influence.

China too has recently announced its plan to create a sports industry worth more than US$800 billion (the biggest in the world). It is envisaged that the industry will incorporate infrastructural developments, health and participation initiatives, grassroots projects and success in elite professional sports.

Alongside these powerful statements of intent, one can add the likes of Azerbaijan, Brazil, Russia and Singapore. Each of these countries is spending heavily on sport as a means of achieving both domestic and international goals. Sport nowadays is not only about big business, but also about global politics, strategic influence, social well-being, and economic performance.

Even the EU recognises the importance of sport and is developing a strategy to capitalise on the potential of the sport industry. Recognising that European sport plays a powerful role both within and outside the continent, the Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship is intent on taking advantage of its strategic assets such as football.

And let us not forget the granddaddy of them all – the US. Sport in most of the countries noted above is driven along by hefty state investment. In the US the story is rather different, with private sector revenues from activities such as media rights sales and sponsorship underpinning the business. This has served the country incredibly well: the US sports industry is the biggest in the world, accounting for US$50 billion of a total global market worth US$145 billion.

Sporting arms race

While some commentators decry the emergence of something akin to a 21st century sporting arms race, the reality is that many countries have realised how powerful sport is. Indeed, just as Silicon Valley is synonymous with IT and Hollywood with films, so Beijing, Doha and Rio are fast becoming the contemporary faces of global sport.

Trundling along behind them in the slow lane of this sporting super highway, we have the UK and Sajid Javid. Already, many readers will be asking: “who?” – a question that is as worrying as it is justified. The Right Honourable Sajid Javid MP is the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the person charged with ensuring the nation’s sporting health.

There’s a lot for Javid to be proud of and plenty of outstanding resources for him to work with: for example, the UK is home to one of the biggest and most successful sports leagues in the world – the Premier League. It is also home to most of Formula 1’s brightest and best teams, engineers and managers; and to a team that has revolutionised professional cycling, Sky. Pride though is neither a recipe for future sporting success nor a guarantee that the resources at one’s disposal will be appropriately utilised.

Home grown talent: Lewis Hamilton. David Davies/PA Wire.

The underwhelming approach

Last week, Javid gave a speech at the Centre for Social Justice about his vision for UK sport. At best, the speech was vague. More accurately, it can be described as frighteningly underwhelming. Worse still, it potentially represents a naïve betrayal of a once great sporting nation that will surely condemn the UK to decades of underachievement and potentially terminal decline.

As if further evidence was needed of Javid’s assumed role as the UK’s sporting executioner, the opening of his speech was a celebration of sporting failure during his time in office. No doubt intended as an example of self-deprecating English humour, the defeatist tone nevertheless jarred and more significantly signalled how little that he and the current government understands about 21st century sport.

The speech wasn’t visionary in any way, it wasn’t strategic either. Rather, it was a collection of random observations about how sport is a force for good, accompanied by a brief anecdote about Redhill Archery Club in the minister’s constituency, from which Javid presumably thinks strategists everywhere can learn something about the global sport industry.

Otherwise, Javid’s address was a drab monologue largely populated by a patronising political polemic that emphasised how the economically disadvantaged, people with a special need or disability and those with health problems can all somehow find solace by playing sport.

Glaring omissions

Very worryingly though, the speech was a litany of glaring omissions; there was no mention of how the UK government will help preserve the competitive advantage its motorsport industry currently holds, of how it will follow through on its desire for greater fan democracy in football, or what the UK’s strategy will be in bidding for global sporting mega-events.

Some members of the UK’s government would no doubt have us believe that state intervention in sport is unnecessary. Yet banging the drum of free market ideology is a spurious defence when politicians like Javid seem to have no alternative vision in mind.

The other popular defence of the current UK government against taking a proactive stance on sport would no doubt be the need for economic austerity. Surely though, a strategic government commitment to enabling the further growth and development of the country’s sport industry would help create jobs, drive output and build export earnings? The failure of ministers to recognise this may be borne of ignorance, or perhaps it’s just recklessly negligent.

Who’s sticking up for the fans? Jon Candy, CC BY-SA

UK sport’s slow death

The UK obviously doesn’t possess the wealth from natural resources that some of the emerging global sporting powerhouses have, and the country should not expect conspicuous sporting consumption on the scale of Azerbaijan or Qatar. But this is no excuse for a government doing nothing. Javid’s speech showed an absence both of creative thinking and of guile.

If Sajid Javid’s vision really is the extent of the UK government’s ambitions for sport, then he might as well walk away now from the dying body of the country’s sporting heritage. The UK can then remember him and his fellow members of government as the people who lit the funeral pyre which will burn on the memories of the 2012 Olympic Games and previous decades of UK sporting success.

But Javid and his cabinet colleagues must be clear that no amount of self-deprecating English humour will be sufficient to mask their neglect and its accompanying stench of abject sporting failure.

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