Inclusive Lewisham sports community faced with new task having succeeded in lifting BME participation rates

S-Factor Academy athletes training with Olympic silver medalist Christine Ohuruogu Photo: Ray Miller-Davis

S-Factor Academy athletes training with Olympic silver medalist Christine Ohuruogu. Photo: Ray Miller-Davis

Lewisham appears to have overcome a nationwide problem in achieving high BME sports participation rates, however, the rise has been coupled with a dive in participation for white residents. ELL investigates. 

Black and minority ethnic sports participation figures rocketed in Lewisham following the London 2012 Olympic Games, just as the council had hoped.

The substantial increase in this area is something Lewisham should be shouting about given the notoriously low levels of Black and minority ethnic (BME) participation in sport across the country.

However, the rise in BME participation has been accompanied by an equally significant drop in white British people’s participation in sport throughout the borough.

Having solved one issue, it appears that the council may be faced with a new question: how do we increase white British residents’ sports participation in Lewisham?

In his foreword to the Lewisham Borough Sports Plan, published in April 2010, Mayor Sir Steve Bullock highlighted the importance of Lewisham’s position as one of five Olympic gateway boroughs – boroughs that border those hosting the Olympics – as it could have a huge impact on the future of sport in the area.

He said: “It is critical to capitalise on the opportunities presented through the hosting of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to ensure that the opportunities to inspire and maintain post-Games interest in sporting participation are maximised.”

Data from Sport England’s Active People Survey from between October 2008 and 2009 showed that Lewisham ranked in the bottom 25 per cent nationally for five of Sport England’s six key performance indicators (KPIs):

  • Participation
  • Volunteering
  • Club membership
  • Organised competition
  • Level of satisfaction

The council declared that it would combat these low rankings by targeting greater participation from women, older people, disabled people, people on low income and BME groups. At the time, Lewisham ranked below Croydon, Hackney and Tower Hamlets for BME participation.

Four years on, Sport England’s latest Active People Survey shows that in the year following the Olympics, BME participation in Lewisham increased by 6.8 per cent, from just below 33 to almost 40 per cent – the highest rate in the ELL boroughs.

The rise is in great contrast with the 5.9 per cent fall in ‘white British’ participation from 34.9 to 29 per cent.

Former Commonwealth Games silver medallist and Lewisham native, Lisa Miller, set up the S-Factor Academy in April 2010 – coincidentally at the same time the as the Lewisham sports plan was published. The academy strives to involve young people in sports and athletics in particular.

Having had her professional career curtailed by injury, Miller noticed a lack of opportunities for young people to get involved in athletics in Lewisham. The S-Factor Academy has been a great success and is now also active in Hackney and Lambeth.

She said: “The uptake in sports in Lewisham by BME communities is high just because of the catchment area – there are lots of BME people in our community.”

While the academy does have white and mixed race members, Miller believes the higher number of BME youths at athletics clubs might have something to do with the most popular events being dominated by BME athletes.

“Across the board in athletics you have a strong representation of BMEs, especially in the sprints, which are show on TV more than any other event,” she says.

Miller’s theories on catchment area and event popularity dictating BME participation levels at the academy are strengthened by something else she’s noticed at Catford’s Ladywell Arena, where the academy is based.

S-Factor Academy athletes training Photo: Ray Miller-Davis

S-Factor Academy athletes training. Photo: Ray Miller-Davis

“When we are at the track on a Wednesday evening we share it with a triathlon group from Greenwich and there are hardly any black kids – it could be the sport; it could be the catchment area. I can’t say for sure but I know there aren’t any BME British triathletes competing at a high level.”

The S-Factor Academy has heeded the council’s advice in taking advantage of the London 2012 to build its popularity. Having star Team GB athletes such as Olympic 400m silver medallist Christine Ohuruogu and Triple Jump world champion Phillips Idowu as ambassadors, the academy has undoubtedly drawn in more youngsters.

While a sport such as football is unlikely to have been affected directly by the Olympics, Lewisham Borough Football Club (LBFC) chairman, Ray Simpson, whose club is also based at Catford’s Ladywell Arena, thinks keeping membership affordable is a key factor in maintaining a diverse group.

“I think part of the reason could be to do with cost – because we are aware that there is a higher proportion of single parents from BME communities, and a large BME presence in Lewisham, we’ve tried to minimise costs as much as possible to attract young people and make it as easy as possible for them,” he said.

“That could be a reason why there’s been an increase – I think clubs like ourselves, who are all about community cohesion, will be making similar attempts to keep membership open to as many people as possible.”

:ewisham Borough FC boasts a diverse ethnic membership Photo: Ray Simpson

Lewisham Borough FC boasts a diverse ethnic membership. Photo: Ray Simpson

He continued: “Certainly we have tried and we are regarded as a semi-professional club! So if we can do it I don’t see why others wouldn’t.”

Like Miller, Paul Marzetti, chairman of the Catford based Whitefoot Warriors Rugby Football Club, believes the ethnic diversity of Lewisham is reflected in the membership of its sports clubs.

Marzetti has been involved with the Warriors for the past three years and says he hasn’t noticed any major changes, but believes the club is far more diverse than most rugby teams.

He said: “We are a very ethnically diverse club – I would say probably more than half our members are BME. It is probably down to the fact we are in Lewisham and Lewisham is very diverse that we attract a lot more black and Asian kids than other rugby clubs.”

Ethnically diverse Whitefoot Warriors in action. Photo: Paul Marzetti

Ethnically diverse Whitefoot Warriors in action. Photo: Paul Marzetti

Marzetti accepts that rugby doesn’t have as ethnically diverse an image as some of its rival sports, such as football and athletics, but he and his colleagues at the Warriors are working to change that.

“We’re trying to break that image,” he said. “We just get the boys to invite their friends along – that’s our main recruitment source. We don’t go out and promote rugby as a game certain ethnic groups should be doing.”

Low BME participation levels across the country led Sport England to publish “A systematic review of the literature on black and minority ethnic communities in sport and physical recreation’, in February 2009.

The council has much to be proud of in its work on increasing participation rates among BME populations, but with no blueprint to increasing white British sports participation, the onus is on them to react.

For now, the council has refused to make any comment on the figures – or their future strategy for sports participation.

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