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The return of community sport will be welcome – when the time is right

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The return of community sport will be welcome – when the time is right

London Sport's Chris Scott examines the arguments for re-starting sport from the bottom up, as proposed by Dr Brian McCloskey this week, and how the grassroots physical activity and sport sector can help Londoners post-lockdown.

In comments made earlier in the week, Dr Brian McCloskey, the Public Health Director for London 2012 and a Public Health Adviser to the World Health Organisation, opened up a new frontier on the debate about the return of sport. 

Until now, most public discourse around the return of sport has focused on larger, elite properties: the Premier League, the domestic cricket season, the Olympic and Paralympic Games. And, in many ways, that makes sense. 

The ability to isolate playing environments and participants, the fact you’re dealing with known-quantities and the direct economic considerations are all illuminating factors in understanding why the return of elite sport would be at the forefront of public debate.

Yet Dr McCloskey’s comments raise an interesting alternative; what if our thinking about a return of sport is beginning from the wrong point?

In normal times, community and grassroots physical activity and sport brings significant and widespread benefits to individuals and to society. 

Its positive public health impacts are well-evidenced, and its contribution to mental wellbeing are substantial. 

With concerns understandably growing about the physical and mental impacts of the current lockdown, the power of physical activity becomes ever more apparent.

Still, understandable concerns remain.

Community transmission of covid-19 remains a real and present threat, and many of the same parts of society that would stand to benefit most from the return of grassroots physical activity are among those most at threat of the impacts of the virus.

Those concerns were perhaps articulated best by Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, who noted the “very difficult” challenges of community sport returning this summer due to the “level and scale of interaction” involved. 

Not, perhaps, the answer that community sport might be seeking – but a valid answer, nevertheless.

None of the issues around the return of sport offer simple answers. 

But what should be encouraging for all of us is that the debate has opened, and a dialogue is underway.

A recently launched DCMS Select Committee inquiry provides a space for these issues to be explored in more depth at parliamentary levels; meanwhile, public appetite for continued outdoor exercise, as permitted under current government guidelines, appears to remain high.

The return of sport – at whatever level – will be an important marker in the country’s progressive recovery from covid-19.

A resumption of elite competition offers economic and (at least in some areas) morale-boosting benefits.

Permission to return to community physical activity will provide people with a real connection to normalcy and a boost to health for people of all backgrounds.

And when that point comes, grassroots sport will have a vital role to play in helping to bring us back together.

It may not mark a return to normal, but it will at least be a step towards a new normal.

Whenever it comes, we should be confident that grassroots sport will be ready.

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London Sport aims to ensure more Londoners live happier, healthier lives through sport and physical activity. Supported by the Mayor of London and Sport England, our target is to get Londoners more physically active.

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