Britain’s sports clubs have been battered by the pandemic, but Alex Yee is hopeful that his two Olympic triathlon medals will help rekindle desire to take part in sport. “I’ve seen so many people saying that they want to be a triathlete, and they want to go to the Olympics now – that’s amazing to see,” he said. “And I guess now the issue is: where do they go?”
It’s a good question. Many sports clubs are in a precarious position, including Crystal Palace Triathletes in south London, where Yee took up triathlon as a nine-year-old – the start of a career that has led to a gold medal in the mixed relay at the Tokyo 2020 games and silver in the men’s event.
Wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympics usually translates into a huge boost for grassroots sports, as children inspired by their new athletic heroes take up sports. This time, however, the anticipated post-Olympics boost is taking time to filter through.
Crystal Palace Triathletes had 60 members in its juniors section before Covid. That fell to 30 during the depths of lockdown and has only recovered to 43, according to Audrey Livingston, the club’s chair who was one of Yee’s coaches in his early years.
“It’s not a quick process,” she said. “There is always an uplift after the Olympics but it might not be till the new year. It takes a lot of groundwork.”
Grassroots sports clubs lost 60% of their members during the lockdowns, according to a survey for the Sport and Recreation Alliance by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University, and although clubs reported they expected to recover to about three quarters of their pre-pandemic membership, that will require a vast amount of effort and substantial funding.
“Despite financially surviving the pandemic, the challenge of re-engaging all young people remains,” said Nicola Walker, the chief executive of Sported, a charity that promotes grassroots sport. “Anecdotally we know that those who have struggled most through Covid – those living in areas of poverty, young people with a disability or those struggling with their mental health – are proving the hardest to reconnect with the benefits of sport and physical activity.”
Crystal Palace Triathletes relies on memberships and its annual triathlon event to raise money, but the event had to be called off last year. Without funding, the club would have had to “drastically reduce” sessions, Livingston said.
“We probably could have gone on for another year,” she said. “But membership dwindles because people don’t think it’s worth their while.”
The club launched a campaign on the Crowdfunder platform with Yee and raised £8,000, which was matched by Sport England as part of its Active Together fund, which itself was topped up by a further £5m last week – similar initiatives are under way between Crowdfunder and the other home nations. The campaign kept Crystal Palace Triathletes afloat and has also helped cover increased costs – the club has had to hire the whole of their local pool to train, rather than half, because of anti-Covid measures, Livingston said. “I’m optimistic that we can get back up to 100 juniors and for our adult membership to grow.”
Murry Toms, campaigns director at Crowdfunder, said: “The pandemic created a number of big challenges for grassroots sports clubs but we responded quickly, supporting more than 100 each month and counting. Sadly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Translating inspiration into participation is hard, Tim Hollingsworth, Sport England’s chief executive, said.
“This cannot be done without good local opportunities for people to get active that are inclusive, accessible and the right cost,” he said. “We want grassroots sport to not just survive the pandemic but thrive as we start to adjust to a different way of living.”
Facilities are a major issue, according to David Barrett at Sheffield Hallam’s Sport Industry Research Centre, particularly for clubs that do not own their own grounds – a common feature for sports such as football, swimming, badminton and volleyball. Last week, Swim England said as many as 2,000 pools – about 40% in England – could shut by the end of the decade if they do not receive investment. Making facilities Covid-safe has also had an impact.
Indiajane Cox, the founder of Just Row Gloucestershire, a charity aiming to make rowing accessible for people with mental or physical difficulties, said there were still restrictions post-lockdowns. “If I wanted to rent a hall, some would say yes, others would say no – they haven’t got the staff.”
In August, the Observer reported on how promising BMX riders and skateboarders suffered a major blow when Rush Skatepark in Stroud, Gloucestershire, closed to make way for a housing development.
Lisa Wainwright, the chief executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, said a report by the Local Government Association last week showed nearly two thirds of leisure facilities faced problems from ageing.
“Returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity will take time and targeted support,” she said. “With the chancellor set to present the spending review this autumn, we hope to see a package of support set aside for sport and recreation that will drive tangible improvements in health and wellbeing for everyone as we know the huge positive impact this can have both for individuals and communities.”