UK sport minister visits AIS

At first glance, Hugh Robertson is not the man you’d expect to be leading the revival of Britain’s sporting empire. Short in stature and with a keen eye for detail (as his slick suits attest) the UK Minister of State for Sport and Tourism is less in the mould of a burly Steven Redgrave and more a refined businessman. But perhaps that’s the secret to his success.

Minister Robertson can claim credit for overseeing London’s outstanding Olympics last year and paving the way for the Brits to nab 29 gold medals — and 65 medals overall. It was a result that had our athletes reeling (and, it should be said, determined to close the gap) as Australia’s Minister for Sport, Senator Kate Lundy, was forced to row Eton Dorney lake in Team GB colours after losing a bet on which country would top the medal tally.

Not to be a sore loser, this dressing down didn’t stop Senator Lundy from extending an invitation for Minister Robertson to visit the AIS during his recent trip to Australia — and in the process share his thoughts on British sport post-London 2012.

‘We’re in a fascinating period at the moment post-Olympics’, said Minister Robertson, who credits the success of last year’s games to the Sydney 2000 blueprint they adopted.

‘There’s a huge temptation after a successful Olympics to sit back and think, “Actually we got this right”. And I am absolutely convinced that the moment that complacency takes over in high performance sport, you have absolutely had it. You’ve really got to keep pushing against the bar.’

To that end, Minister Robertson, who has been in the job since 2010, has been fighting to maintain funding levels for high performance sport. It’s not an easy feat, particularly with a massive talent pool to support and Europe’s economic woes, but one he has succeeded with to date. But despite most of the focus being on the success his country has been enjoying in high performance sport, Minister Robertson believes the key to avoiding a post-Olympics slump is investing in participation.

‘There are very few nations around the world that have really cracked this participation piece — how you get increasing numbers of people playing sport year on year’, he says. ‘We have made an unmitigated mess of [participation] in the UK until quite recently. Successive governments came in [and] changed the policies. We tried doing it through local authority facilities. We tried all sorts of curious schemes. We tried funding people who had a great idea for increasing participation at various levels. None of these really shifted the dial.’

The solution, it seems, came four years ago when sports governing bodies were given financial incentive to boost participation in their sports and reach set targets. There has also been a focus on ensuring sports are responding to a new participation environment.

‘The quite interesting dynamic that is occurring in the UK is that fewer and fewer people are now playing sport in the traditional way that people of my generation did by joining a club and playing on a Saturday afternoon.

‘If you look at the sports that have had the biggest increases in participation, [they] are those where people are able to do them at a time of their own choosing, often with people after work.’

All this, it is hoped, will maintain Britain’s Olympic supremacy over their rivals Down Under. Not that Minister Robertson is unaware of Australia’s competitive spirit — or thinks we are a spent force. ‘Absolutely not. Not for a moment.’

It’s an opinion Senator Lundy clearly shares, having placed a new wager with Minister Robertson on who will win the British Lions Tour and the Ashes. The Minister of the defeated country will have to hang a photograph of the winning team in their office for a fortnight after the final game. Here’s hoping that she fares better than last time.

From the AIS:

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