After the Lionesses it’s time to be bold and create real cultural change | Cath Bishop
Few sporting occasions come more inspirational than the England Lionesses’ historic victory at the European Championship. There is again uplifting talk of a legacy, a cultural shift and positive social change that can come from this. But we need to admit that we have had nights like this and talked like this before. Super Saturday at London 2012 springs to mind.
There was lofty talk of legacies and inspiring a nation then, too. But as recent reviews of London 2012 have shown, from Tony Blair to UK Sport performance architect Peter Keen to the National Audit Office, we didn’t create the lasting legacy promised. It takes more than joy, elite success and a trophy to trigger an active nation – but this is the bigger goal we must keep in mind, long after the Wembley memories fade.
We have form in ambitious talk about nationwide transformation and world-leading high performance. We have become good at delivering the latter but have yet to deliver the former. Recent reviews of London 2012 10 years on have reminded us of the promises made but not kept.
Reviews highlight is the loose planning at government level around boosting participation, the lack of understanding of what’s required on the ground which is so different from what’s required to succeed at elite level, and the political and social commitment to focus on building the grassroots when it’s not fashionable or in the latest headlines.
While it can seem masterminding a tournament victory is nigh on impossible – after all, it’s taken England since 1966 to achieve it in football – it’s actually even harder to mastermind reaping the benefits of sport for all across a nation. The real challenge goes way beyond identifying the next generation of Lionesses. It’s about how to ensure we reach the millions of girls and women who weren’t watching on Sunday evening but deserve access to the benefits of a healthy, active life.
Throughout my life, no government has realised the potential of sport to improve the nation’s health and education. When looking back on the legacy of London 2012, Blair admitted that despite his commitment and that of his inspirational colleague Dame Tessa Jowell, there wasn’t a full plan to deliver the national benefits properly. Nor has any government since managed to do this – yet.
Government and non-government organisations are good at delivering in silos – sport within education is part of the department of education remit, sport’s health benefits are covered by the department of health, sport’s potential to be part of increasing life opportunities and social mobility sits within the levelling up department, and sport itself sits within the curious mix of the department for culture, media and sport.
Sport has no cabinet position in its own right, and government quangos Sport England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and UK Sport hold key remits. For sport to be successful, it requires an unprecedented level of cross‑government cooperation and collaboration, breaking down the hardened traditional Whitehall silos.
There is no doubt that this time football is in a better place, with experienced and accomplished sports leaders at the helm with the wisdom from past mistakes to start putting in place plans for grassroots participation. Baroness Sue Campbell has been the mastermind behind women’s football at the Football Association and needed all her incredible strength, wit and belief to create a vision and force others to back it.
Campbell’s brilliant successor as chief executive at the Youth Sport Trust (Campbell was both chief executive and chair), Ali Oliver, has been part of the long-term plan to ensure girls’ football is on the curriculum at school. And Tim Hollingsworth, who worked with Campbell when she was transforming Olympic and Paralympic sport at UK Sport, is chief executive at Sport England, which holds arguably the most important responsibility in sport to increase activity levels across the nation and develop sustainable community sport.
But even with these brilliant leaders, there are many others in the ecosystem needed to play their part and create significant change. At grassroots level, local clubs, community sports organisations and schools where football has traditionally been run by men need to go beyond simply offering a girls’ section. They need to ensure that those girls feel welcome, that there is space for everyone whatever their background, that they can play and enjoy the game, and that there are women coaches and volunteers and committee members.
These are the things we should be tracking and measuring and caring about, rather than letting our gaze swing safely back to looking at the latest Premier League transfers and the world rankings of the national teams.
Let’s not think there is purely a gender inequality to address. Access to and opportunities to play sport are a problem across multiple disadvantaged communities in the UK. And before we get too carried away with the beautiful game, this is wider than just football. Girls and women around the country deserve the opportunity to play rugby, take up triathlons or play golf.
In my own sport of rowing we are opening the doors of our wonderful sport wider with a recently established national foundation, Love Rowing, and brilliant regional initiatives from London’s Youth Rowing to Warrington Youth Rowing, but there is much more to do. Participation figures for people with disabilities remain unacceptably low, to the huge mental and physical detriment of a significant but marginalised part of society.
So by all means, let’s be emboldened by Sunday evening’s triumph. Let’s take our ambitions beyond anything we have achieved before, because we know the impossible is now possible. Let’s start following what a legacy really looks like week in week out, with as much rigour as we track the latest league results and world rankings. The cultural change and commitment necessary to turn the Lionesses’ victory into a lasting legacy is colossal – but the prize for the nation will be greater than any trophy or scoreline could ever be.
Cath Bishop is an Olympic medal-winning rower, author of The Long Win, adviser to The True Athlete Project and chair of Love Rowing, British Rowing’s charitable foundation.