Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Interview with Tom McNab

Just after the London Olympics, I interviewed Tom McNab, Olympic coach, novelist and playwright. The interview was for Phenomenal Healthstyle, and captured a pivotal point in the transition back from Olympic euphoria, to business as usual.

Sloetry: With the London Olympics in mind, what does the word “legacy” mean to you?

Tom: I hate the word. It’s used by politicians as a buzz word, but it’s never really defined. It’s what we call in Scotland “blethers” (editors note - an internet guided translation: foolish talk/nonsense!!) I was on a regional bid committee and I brought up with Seb Coe 2 years before the bid, how could we differentiate ourselves from the French bid. Like us, they could put on a good games, build a fantastic stadium and regenerate perhaps a part of Paris. While I’m not saying I was the first to ever mention it, I suggested to Seb Coe that we could increase sports participation. It’s never been done before in the Olympics, and that could be a key difference in our bid. That concept was picked up by Seb and was expanded upon. That may or may not have been a deciding factor, but we did win the bid.

Legacy means…leaving something behind. That’s all it means. But legacy could be good, bad or indifferent. It could be anything. Legacy can work in different tiers: What’s the legacy in top level sport. What’s the legacy for the East end of London, it’s regeneration. What’s a better way for people who are already participating in sport (not at elite level) to have a better experience. What is the impact on the way the world sees London and the UK and tourism.

The Barcelona Olympics in 1992 was seen as successful, and the Spanish were successful in competition which carried over to Atlanta ’96 but petered out after that, and are probably down to their pre-1980’s levels now, so no long term legacy there.  The Atlanta games had very little legacy and are not widely viewed as successful. The 2000 Sydney games was great for Australia but the stadium was in receivership a year later and there was no increase in tourism for Australia (partially due to 9/11 a year later). Athens 2004 simply added to Greek debt. So there are various levels of legacy or otherwise, but not a great track record for those holding the games.

I think we’ve done better in London than any other games has done and possibly could do in the future.

As for increasing participation…that won’t happen. We perhaps promised something that we couldn’t deliver. Seeing elite athletes at the Olympics won’t make an inactive youngster like sport. The reason they’re inactive is because they don’t/didn’t like sport at school and the way it’s presented to them. Studies show up to the age of 12, children are pretty enthusiastic about sport. At Secondary School that changes. They may not like how they look, they may not make the teams or there’s a bigger guy playing. They feel inferior. The PE teacher is probably good at sport and doesn’t have a lot of time for them too and focuses on those who are good at sport and doesn’t know how to include everyone. In fact Physical Education has been a failure in terms of including those who don’t like sport or exercise. It’s great at dealing with those who are already gifted.

Sloetry: The Olympics has been and gone. The media is back to the X Factor and Premier League football. Is there a demand for an Olympic Legacy?

Tom: There’s no demand for it anymore. It’s forgotten and politicians briefly used it in party conferences and moved on. People have moved on. It’s a very short term society with short attention spans. Everyone is onto the next thing. Not a blame thing, but that’s the nature of modern society.

Sloetry: How much should the legacy be about Team GB’s success, and how much is about social change in terms of participation and fitness?

Tom: It will make a big impact for Team GB and we’ll retain the funding for high level sport and it will keep us going for Rio and beyond. I think we’ll not tail off like other countries do after hosting. We’ve probably got the best performance programme in the world through UK Sport.
Social change and participation not so much.

Sloetry: How important is funding in achieving a legacy? How far can we go on a limited budget with volunteers in sports?

Tom: Funding is critical. Without the lottery, UK Sport could not have done what it did. But how the funding is applied is key. At top level it’s been excellent through UK Sport ensuring excellence has been funded.
Where we have problems is that Local Authorities are not required to fund sports. The Government could have made sport a statutory requirement at Local Authority level, but instead it’s at the bottom of the agenda, particularly at a time like now with pressure on funding.
And there are different levels of participation here. We have Physical Activity, but the government confuses this with sport. Me deciding to go for a jog is not sport. If I choose to be a 5k runner, that is. On one hand there’s health related fitness activity... it’s not organised, you just go out and do it. Other may pay to go to health clubs but it’s personal fitness and lifestyle decisions, not sport. Then there’s joining a club at casual levels and higher still at competitive levels (once a week social sport or dedicated athletes). The government lump all these levels together.
Once the Local Authority funding contracts in size we are dependent on volunteers. The voluntary sports sector tends to feed into the elite sports, but it can be chaotic. A club may not have enough knowledge or resources to deal with sudden demand…. some will, some won’t, but it’s hit and miss. A club is only as good as the coaches within it. Just because someone volunteers, doesn’t mean they have the right knowledge to impart. For example, where is anyone going to find local knowledge and facilities for sports like handball or volleyball. With athletics, some of the field sports are very specialised and need specialist coaching.
Funding the voluntary sector won’t change things in itself. It will simply make it easier for them to do what they already do. The question is if you fund it, how do you make it better quality. Not that there aren’t good and knowledgeable volunteers around, there are. But it’s just not the experience everywhere. You’re dependent on what’s near to you and how good it is. Governing bodies aren’t really able to change this. They can look after the elite but not get really in depth at local club level.

Sloetry: If we need further government funding, what’s the return for the country?

Tom: It’s hard to estimate. But we can’t measure this in sports participation. If we’re talking of a return in health, then we’re talking about diet and fitness not simply sport. Diet is more critical than sport in dealing with say obesity. Health clubs have been a huge success story in encouraging people to be fit. But they’re fine for middle income earners and above. What I would like to see is the private sector tasked by the government to improve health and fitness levels for lower income groups. Get them to present plans to the government for lower income groups to engage in activity. Then there would be a benefit in return for health.

Sloetry: Do you think certain sports are over saturated in the media at the expense of others?

Tom: Public interest is reflected in the coverage. I think the public overall leads the media and not the other way round, so we’re seeing what the majority of the public want to see. There are of course channels on the fringes that cater for more specialist sports.

Sloetry: How can women/girls be encouraged into sports and do we need better coverage of female sports as part of this process?

Tom: Seeing someone like Jess Ennis will mainly motivate other female athletes. The girls who take up sport are already gifted. Female drop off in sport is staggering in the teens, so it comes back to Physical Education having to be better for those who are not gifted. I would love to see a fitness suite in every school in Britain. Not a gym will wall bars etc. A fitness base approach with music and TV’s to get kids in. It could pay for itself if the public could use it afterwards, but it would still require something like lottery funding to help administer it.

Sloetry: What generic skills translate across different sports.

Tom: The biggest thing is passion. That translates across all sports. You generate your interest in sports coaching through curiosity and passion.

Sloetry: As someone who is involved in the arts and sports, which skills cross over both disciplines. 

Tom: Passion and a relentless desire to improve. A writer constantly redrafts their work. You have to have a relentless dissatisfaction with what you are doing and seek to improve it.  Plays are a big team thing with actors, directors, technicians and people putting on the show. If I could start over, I would come back into arts and not sports. Sport would be for fun.

Sloetry: Sport is often referred to as the great equaliser, in terms of breaking down barriers. In the real world, is it superficial and simply on the playing field, or can it reach into society and make real change at a social level.

Tom: In one sense Jessie Owen didn’t change anything. He returned to the USA with a ticker tape reception but that night had to go back into his hotel through the kitchen entrance. Sport is a great piece of social glue. It brings people together but it’s what happens in society that matters. Where Mandela was clever, he used rugby as a social change agent by realising it was a way into white South African hearts.

However, on a social level, I do think the Paralympics has seen a change in terms of peoples attitudes to disability… yet at the same time the government is cutting benefits, so how much social change has there really been?
What the Paralympics can do is inspire on a personal level - make people look at themselves and realise what they can achieve. It put things into perspective. Most of what I’ve written has never been published. Of every 10 articles I write, 2 might be published. But that’s fine. The muscle of your writing is developed by your continued writing. You’re not failing because you haven’t made it, you’re failing because you haven’t tried.

The Olympics transferred sport into a spiritual experience for many people not just by what happened on the field, but by what’s happened around it… the way people treated each other and talked on the tube, the volunteers etc.  People came out of their cocoon. Even if they go back into it, it’s good that people came out for a while. The British public came out of themselves as happens from time to time, and their capacity surprised themselves.

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