Australia faces a fatter, more sedentary future after the pandemic, with concerns that a generation of COVID kids will not return to their local sports clubs once restrictions are lifted.
Sport Australia chief executive Rob Dalton says sport needs to “get people moving” after months in lockdown, while Australian Olympic Committee chief Matt Carroll is pushing for ground and venue hire fees to be waived to reduce the cost of local sport.
“The biggest issue is going to be re-engagement,’’ Mr Dalton told The Sunday Age. “We are creatures of habit. We are concerned that the longer this goes, we are going to lose a cohort of people who won’t come back to sport and will find something else to fill the void.”
“We are already 194 out of 197 on the global obesity index. There isn’t a lot of margin for error.”
The impact of the pandemic on community sport has gone largely unreported amid the financial plight of professional competitions, postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and debate about when AFL and NRL matches will resume.
Yet, the COVID crisis can be readily measured in the closure of more than 900 public swimming pools, 2400 soccer clubs and 608 gymnastics centres, the mass standing down of suburban and country coaches and the cessation of training, competition and club life.
According to the latest AusPlay survey published by Sport Australia, swimming, soccer and gymnastics are the three most popular participation sports for children under the age of 15, with 3.1 million kids taking part in at least one of them last financial year.
The federal government’s health advice to sport is that community sport is likely to be one of the last activities to resume after the pandemic.
Swimming Australia chief executive Leigh Russell said the viability of local swimming was already a finely balanced proposition heading into the COVID crisis, with squads often subsidised by learn-to-swim businesses.
She fears that, if enough kids don’t go back to the pool, some of those businesses and the clubs they support will collapse.
“Community sport is essential for communities to re-engage and get back into normal life,’’ Ms Russell said.
“We don’t want to be doing anything that precipitates a COVID situation. We have also got a whole generation of kids stuck inside, bewildered.’’
Mr Carroll said the AOC and Sports Australia have held discussions with Sports Minister Richard Colbeck about how sport can be used to “reactivate” the community after the pandemic.
He said the temporary waiving of ground fees and venue hire charges levied on sports clubs by local councils was one way to reduce the cost of playing sport to families.
Kitty Chiller, Australia’s chef de mission from the Rio Olympics, said when the Tokyo Games were postponed, she barely gave the news a second thought. A more pressing concern is the survival of local gymnastics clubs and businesses.
“It is a very serious situation,’’ she said. “Clubs are at the centre of what we do. A lot of these are not-for-profits. You just wonder how they are going to survive.”
For Lucy Fyfield, the owner of Melbourne Gymnastics Centre, survival has meant a reimagining of how her 21-year-old business can run and keep people involved.
Sport Australia chief executive Rob Dalton says sport needs to “get people moving” after months
The government’s social distancing decrees issued a month ago forced Fyfield to close the doors of four gymnastics centres and stand down 80 staff. Since then, she has developed online coaching sessions, webcast on Zoom, so that all gymnasts, from aspiring Olympians to kinder gym pre-schoolers, can keep training.
“It is about keeping engagement going but also, giving some structure to households,’’ she said. “If you know you have got a kinder gym class on a Wednesday at 9.30am, that begins your day positively.
“Community sport brings so much – not just kids being active but friendships and mental health. I look at my own children and they are paler because, normally, they are outside at lunchtime and playtime. It is difficult to watch.’’
All sport businesses and organisations will find it difficult to survive if the lockdown extends beyond the federal government’s current six-month time frame. It remains unclear whether casually employed coaches and National Sports Organisations which draw most of their revenue from government grants can access the JobKeeper scheme.
Professor Jo Salmon, the co-director of Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, begins a national survey this week to gauge the short and longer term impact of the pandemic on the health and activity of COVID kids. In the meantime, she warns of potentially “huge” ramifications for family and community life.
Story: The Sydney Morning Herald