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Sport: Governance — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 4th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat 4:02 pm, 4th December 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for introducing this debate and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, on her maiden speech. I am sure that she has been somewhat dismayed at football’s woes, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, described them, which have been gone into by the noble Lords, Lord Triesman and Lord Birt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Evans. It is a game that is now full of money, foreign players, and middle-aged spectators with an upper income.

I turn with relief to Britain’s premier sport—rowing. I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Rowing Group. I remember rowing in an eight over the Atlanta Olympic course at Lake Lanier in Georgia in the summer of 1997. It was a beautiful day. I was reflecting on the fact that in the previous year Team GB had been 36th in the Olympic medals table, with medallists in just some 16 events. The only gold medals were for Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave in the coxless pair. Otherwise in rowing, the men’s coxless four with the Searle brothers had won bronze. There was a sprinkling of silver and bronze medals in athletics, including for Denise Lewis in the women’s heptathlon and for the men’s 4x400 metres relay team. Ben Ainslie had a silver in sailing and Chris Boardman won bronze. The team’s performance was not great overall.

In the 2012 Olympics, Team GB was third in the medals table, with 29 gold medals. Indeed, 185 medals were achieved across 30 sports in the Olympics and Paralympics. UK Sport is now carrying out a strategic policy review. Should its current investment strategy focus on medal success or should it go beyond Olympic and Paralympic sports and be broadened to consider other UK-level sports or disciplines? I believe that the present approach should be maintained. Olympic medal success is a prime inspiration to young people that encourages them to participate in sport, and from that point on to lead healthy and active lives.

Let us look at British rowing: the GB rowing team sustained its position through the last two Olympic Games in Beijing and in London as a leading Olympic rowing nation. In London’s Olympic and Paralympic Games there were 33 rowing medallists. The men’s coxless won four golds. Six women won gold in three events: the coxless pair, the double sculls and the lightweight pair. It was inspirational. The creation and development of rowing talent’s identification programme, Start, has been so successful that five of the gold medallists have come through it. The result is that British rowing membership increased by 12.2% over six months between June and December 2012, and broke the 30,000 mark. Half of the new members were under 18 and nearly half of the new membership were women.

I believe that one reason for the success is the willingness of our Olympic rowing champions to be personally involved in encouraging clubs and individuals throughout the country. I was delighted to meet Katherine Grainger at the recent Invictus Games for injured servicemen. Her performance in winning gold in London, after a succession of silvers in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, is so memorable. She is a board member of International Inspiration, the charity chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Coe, which promotes access to sport, play and physical exercise for low and middle income families with children around the world. Indeed, I do not suppose anybody else in your Lordships’ House has had the privilege, as I have, of being coached by a gold-medal winner in Beijing and London; namely, Tom James of the coxless four. We may have been “old farts” but he was prepared to give us some time. Perhaps the fact that his father was rowing with us was another inspiration.

These are just two of many whose encouragement to the grassroots of rowing should be fully recognised. It is, indeed, at the grassroots that the Government have a role to play. They should be involved directly in encouraging participation. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, referred to the importance of volunteers. A real restriction to participation and growth is the availability of coaching and the perception that increased bureaucracy discourages volunteers from coming forward. When my son was 17, I started an under-18 rugby union team in my home club and coached it with some success. I do not think that I would do it now because of the bureaucracy involved. The Government could also address a much more supportive approach with volunteers in running sports bodies and giving encouragement to them. I think of the North Wales Crusaders in Wrexham, for example—a rugby league team which weekly provides players to local schools to encourage pupils to participate and learn ball-handling skills, which will enable and encourage them to participate in other sports. Those are the reasons why I wanted to bring to your Lordships’ attention British rowing as Britain’s premier sport.