by Duncan Truswell
Strategic lead for talent and performance, Sport England
As the final weekend of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games approaches it’s worth reflecting on the role and impact of national teams and major sporting events.
Put simply, does this all matter? And if so, why?
Well, the truth is that some (of course not all of us) relate to, watch and consume ‘sport’ in a way that’s incomparable to anything else.
It has a profile and visibility that any brand would crave. So, what could or should this profile say about us and our ‘brand’ as a nation?
Therefore, it matters. And most importantly, ‘HOW’ matters.
I believe sport is a medium through which people can develop themselves and their identity.
At a national and international level, sport can be a unifier – a vehicle for people, communities and even nations to celebrate who they are, what they represent and what they value.
Shared global sporting successes can promote a sense of national identity and pride, be a catalyst for challenging perceptions, and even inspire some young people to seek to emulate the successes of their heroes.
Often, when the discussion in the media focusses on inequality, equality, diversity and inclusion, the debate gets somewhat clumsily boiled down to the demography or educational background of athletes, or the diversity (or lack of) in talent development pathways and national teams.
It matters whether our young people recognise themselves and their own background and circumstances within the athletes and teams that represent them and enjoy this remarkable profile – it matters, whether the athletes and teams appear to highlight the possibilities and potential available to them, or the structural inequalities that will inhibit them.
This isn’t about potential, it’s about opportunity, experience and exposure – all too often these ingredients of future success aren’t accessible to all our young people.
The key to success
So, let’s assume for a minute that you agree – you’ll appreciate that we’ve been concerned with how, as an arm’s length funding body, we can support Team England, the participating sports, teams and athletes to achieve success?
Particularly, when success can be regarded so narrowly as a position on the medal table or so expansively as I’ve described above.
Even once it’s been defined, there’s a misconception in sport that the keys to success – that magical formula for getting the most out of people or teams – are held by one or two experts.
This isn’t my experience.
Don’t get me wrong, people and leadership are critically important and Team England has amassed the brightest, best and most diverse team around the team, to have ever been assembled.
No doubt the pressures of a home Games, a multi-village Games and the fact this is the biggest and most diverse team to ever represent the nation, anywhere in the world, will test even them.
It’s maybe not fashionable to say it but we do have a super-power that will, I suspect, define why we as Team England have been successful, but also perhaps what success is – more on that later…
The Games themselves
Leaving aside the “challenging history linked to colonial roots”, as the Commonwealth Games Federation describe it on their website, I’m a fan of the Commonwealth Games.
It’s integrated, with able-bodied and para-sport athletes competing on the same sports programme.
And in the context of ‘One Team England’, these are not uncomfortable bedfellows.
Birmingham 2022 is the first ever major multi-sport event to award more medals to women than men.
These are all elite athletes, all of whom are remarkably committed to the mastery of their sport, and have much more in common with one another than the physical differences preventing them competing on equal terms.
I’m a fan of the relatively accessible and diverse sporting programme which, for the most part, are sports played in community sports facilities right across England, by people of all backgrounds and circumstances.
Those sports where this isn’t currently the case, are working hard, with our support and challenge, to increase their appeal and accessibility.
I’m also a fan of the innovation and modernisation of the Games, particularly and most recently in the way it’s sought to embrace the concept of athlete advocacy and activism – embracing athletes as “inspiration leaders, agents of change, advocates and ambassadors” and empowering them to use their voice and profile for social impact.
Of the 432 Team England athletes competing at Birmingham 2022, 65% have received support from Sport England-backed charity SportsAid at some point in their sporting journey.
And I’m a fan of the fact many athletes and their support personnel, across all four of the home nations, will get their first experience in Birmingham, of the unique environment, pressures and distractions of a major multi-sport Games.
They’ll go on to use that formative experience to fulfil their potential in Paris 2024, Victoria 2026 and beyond.
The ‘friendly Games’ tag is based in reality, too, with athletes across sports, teams and disciplines supporting and celebrating together.
It’s a shop window for the ‘diversity dividend’ referred to in those often-bland reports encouraging businesses to embrace equality, diversity and inclusion more fully.
Team England strives to set new standards in all these respects – the PRIDE values (Perform, Respect, Inspire, Diversity and Excel) form the foundations, but it’s the focus on environment and culture that really brings it to life.