Olympic legacy fails to inspire more BME participation

Tower Hamlets youths protest cuts to sports funding. Pic: Ian Gray

Youths from Tower Hamlets protest cuts to sports funding in 2010. Pic: Ian Gray

The Olympic legacy has failed to increase the numbers of black and Asian people participating in sport in Tower Hamlets. ELL investigates.

Despite their proximity to the heartland of London 2012, not all of Tower Hamlets’ citizens have wholly embraced the Olympic spirit. There has been a clear divergence between those strapping on boots or dusting off hockey sticks and those not even participating in a single session of sport a week.

It is a startling racial divide.

Sport England, the primary body for supporting grassroots sport, indicated in its Active People survey that participation levels among Tower Hamlets’ white community members have soared from 34.6 per cent to over 50 per cent since 2012. 

However, among the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups, who constitute almost half the borough’s population, participation rates have flat-lined – in fact, since the London Olympics, they have dropped four per cent.

Running counterintuitively to the message of unity, cooperation and inclusion underpinning the Games, the gap in participation rates highlights the communication breakdown with many local communities.

A 2009 review of BME communities in Sport highlighted several possible reasons for this lack of engagement including racial discrimination, a lack of cultural understanding and a lack of awareness of the needs of community members.

Sana Akmal, a Bow mother of two, who often walks past the swimming pools of Mile End Leisure Centre, believes that many of her Bangladeshi friends are put off by the requirement to wear certain attire and swim in mixed classes. “Because of this, no-one takes their kids there,” she says.


Many local BME residents feel alienated from local sports facilities. Pic: Geograph.org

Many local BME residents feel alienated from local sports facilities. Pic: geograph.org


However, there are further practical impediments that prevent the borough’s families backstroking and jogging on a sunny weekend afternoon.

 The Monakka Monowar Welfare Foundation, a Tower Hamlets-based charity supporting the integration of BME communities, conducted a small survey of local residents and asked what kind of barriers they encounter when wanting to do sport. The main reasons given by men and women were the cost of sport centres and facilities (79 per cent), the cost of sport equipment or sport attire (74 per cent) and a lack of information about sport facilities (68 per cent). Another main barrier, particularly among women, was the need for childcare.

Sport4Women, a local initiative established three years ago to encourage increased participation by BME women in particular, has seen more than 2900 women take part in local sessions ranging from badminton to swimming lessons. Funding from Sport England for the programme was due to cease on March 31, however it has been salvaged by Tower Hamlets Council. However, the initiative has failed to arrest the slide of overall involvement.

 Significantly, the lack of funding for equipment and the dearth of accessible facilities also extends to their children. Mike Collins from the Institute of Sport and Leisure Policy estimates that 57 per cent of children from BME backgrounds are socially excluded from sport on grounds of poverty.

 Chris Dunne, recently retired head-teacher at Langdon Park Sports College in Poplar, insists that it was the decision to channel funding into the Olympic project and dismantle community sports infrastructure for young people that has led to continued and increased disengagement.

He reflects: “Tower Hamlets hockey teams tend to feature mainly Canary Wharf or city workers rather than local residents. None was interested in developing a youth section to provide opportunities for local children.”

Noting that there “isn’t even a grass cricket pitch in Tower Hamlets”, Dunne explains that coaches are often forced to take budding cricket stars to other boroughs, including the superior facilities of Greenwich, just to develop their talents.


Tower Hamlets Sports Foundation equipment. Pic: Ian Gray

Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation equipment. Pic: Ian Gray


Those youngsters represent a key demographic. According to 2011 census data, Tower Hamlets has one of the youngest populations in the country with the third highest proportion of 20 – 34 year olds in England. The borough’s BME population is far younger than the white population: 79 per cent of all residents aged zero to 19 in the borough are from BME backgrounds with a significant proportion of them Bangladeshi.

As early as 2010, influential representatives of community sport such as Steve Grainger, Youth Sport Trust chief executive, stated that the coalition government’s cutbacks meant that “Lord Coe’s pledge to use the Games to transform sporting opportunities for young people [was] now hanging in the balance.”

In 2005, the School Sport Partnership initiative broadened the range of sports available in schools and formed solid links with sports clubs to nurture the most talented individuals. The Tower Hamlets scheme in particular, looking forward to London 2012, was designed to give underprivileged children the chance to play Olympic sports, as well as connect with role models from their own community.

Dunne, a director in the partnership, said: “We employed a team of development officers who had played sport to a high level, had good connections, and knew what motivated young people needed to get into and stay in their sport.”

Between 2006 and 2009, inter-school competitions increased from one to 37 for primary schools and from five to 35 for secondary schools, while participation rose to above 50 per cent of students.

However, since Michael Gove removed ring-fenced funding as part of the Government spending review in 2010, participation has fallen to 28 per cent. Gove said at the time that the Schools Sports Partnerships were “neither affordable nor likely to be the best way to help schools achieve their potential in improving competitive sport.”


Mile End Stadium has seen few BME athletes. Pic: geograph.org

Mile End Stadium in Tower Hamlets. Pic: Nigel Cox

Since then, all 90 schools and academies in the borough have put some of their Pupil Premium funding towards a Tower Hamlets Youth Sports Foundation. But it is with bitter irony that, coinciding with the summer of the Olympics, the board members of the foundation, including Dunne, begrudgingly made a succession of sports managers and coaches redundant.

 Dunne says, “Most gallingly, some of these were young people who had risen through our sports leadership programmes, under which 250 young people were trained to assist primary school teachers and run 33 neighbourhood sports clubs. These have now joined the young unemployed of Tower Hamlets – the highest proportion in the UK.”

 The correlation between impoverished young communities deprived of facilities and their lack of representation in high-level sport is telling. The proportion of British Olympic medallists who are privately educated has grown steadily over the past three Olympics to about 45 per cent.

 Ed Smith, former England cricketer and critic of the Government’s funding policies, told the BBC: “If we could map social mobility within professional sport, it would show a clear downward trajectory. You would expect sport to be a model of meritocracy. It isn’t.”

In 2012, David Cameron pondered why, “in so many schools sport has been squeezed out” in the face of the Games. However, the deprived BME communities of Tower Hamlets find it difficult to hang onto the Olympic dream when the nightmare of Gove’s cuts means they barely get a game in the first place.

Leave a Reply