Feeling fit to invest in sport


Sport invariably loses out to more immediate priorities in the short term

MINISTER FOR Sport Michael Ring is not one for understatement, but his comments made in the immediate aftermath of the return of Ireland’s Olympic heroes drew particular attention.

In front of a live television audience at Dublin Airport, Mr Ring declared that “money spent on sport is better than putting it into hospitals, into consultants, into doctors – and the more we can get people participating in sport the better”. For that he was excoriated in some quarters by seemingly putting the interests of sports bodies ahead of sick patients.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher said that sport funding “does not and will not ever come above funding for health services”.

For his part the Minister said he was wilfully misunderstood and dismissed the fuss as a “silly season story”.

He did not mean to suggest that in a straight fight for resources, sport would trump health. Instead, he said the future health of the country could be better protected if more money was put into sport.

He said exactly the same thing at the launch of the capital grants for sport in March and nobody paid any attention. By his reckoning he has been saying the same thing for 15 months since becoming Minister.

Given the prominence of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes and the visible benefits of sports facilities in communities, it will come as a surprise to many people to realise how little Government money is spent on sport.

In the Celtic Tiger years, huge money was put into sports infrastructure, in some cases as much as €600 million a year, leaving one of the few tangible legacies from the boom.

The money has dried up significantly since then. The total amount of grants this year is €77.1 million. That’s €47.1 million for the Irish Sports Council, which goes to fund all our elite athletes and general coaching programmes, and €30 million to fund all the capital projects such as swimming pools and gymnasiums.

By contrast the total health budget last year was €13.64 billion, so the sports budget is scarcely half of 1 per cent of that.

The Irish Sports Council reckons the Government grant underpins activity worth €1.8 billion in the economy every year, much of it provided by volunteers. Looked at on a euro-to-euro basis, there is hardly a cent of Government funding which provides a better return for the taxpayer.

The health benefits of an active lifestyle are proven. An Indecon report published two years ago about the benefits of sports funding chronicled an exhaustive list of positive outcomes associated with exercising.

These include preventing type 2 diabetes, halving the risk of coronary heart disease, reducing high blood pressure and also lessening the possibility of contracting illnesses such as osteoporosis, arthritis and lower back pain.

Fit people are also happier, suffer less from depression and have greater self-esteem than those who are not fit.

It also produced a series of graphs which graphically demonstrates the difference in health outcomes between people who exercise before the age of 35 and those who don’t.

At the age of 35 the health outcomes are similar, but after that age the differences are startling. By the age of 65, the average sedentary individual has a positive health score of 39, the average person who had been active before the age of 35 has a score of 49.

The old Latin saying of mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body) is also apparent in active against inactive people. It starts to diverge too after the age of 35.

Faced with such overwhelming evidence, it is little wonder Mr Ring used the occasion to demand more money for sport, however forlorn his pleas might be in the economic climate.

Though the benefits of sports are obvious, no longitudinal study has been done to track how investment in sports facilities impacts on the health of a community long term though nobody doubts that there is a benefit. The nearest equivalent study was done in Canada where it was estimated that 6 per cent of the health budget (equating to €819 million in Irish terms) is spent on treating patients who have a health condition related to physical inactivity.

A lecturer at the school of health and human performance in DCU, Dr Davide Susta, says he agrees with the broad thrust of Mr Ring’s comments about the value of investing in sport.

However, such benefits can only become apparent 15-20 years down the line whereas politicians operate on a five-year cycle, hence sport will invariably lose out to more immediate priorities in the short term, he maintains.

Dr Susta believes the cycle-to-work initiative, which has cost the Government nothing other than tax foregone, has dramatically increased the level of participation in physical activity which will have long-term benefits.

Peter Smyth of the Irish Sports Council says sport is a good way of getting countries fit and healthy and that it would be a “difficult juxtaposition” to compare sports funding to health funding. An unintended positive consequence of the recession has been a decrease in the number of those classified as sedentary. Since 2007 it has declined from 17 per cent of the population to 13 per cent. The definition of sedentarism are those who did not take part in a sporting activity or recreational walking at least once a week.