More comparable data on EU sports participation urgently needed, says German sports studies lecturer

Dr Katrin Petry from the German Sports University in Cologne tells EURACTIV that gathering accurate data about why people stop particular kinds of physical activity would help the EU determine where it can add value to national sports policies.

Dr Petry, the head of European sport studies at the German Sport University Cologne, was a guest at a major meeting between the sports movement and the Commission on (see EURACTIV 16 June 2005).

In March 2005, Health Commissioner Kyprianou launched a platform for action on diet, physical activity and health, saying that he was “particularly alarmed at the continued rise of overweight and obesity among school children”. 

COMPASS is a jointly funded initiative of the Italian National Olympic Committee, UK Sport and Sport England. Its aim is to examine collection and analysis systems for sports participation data in European countries to ensure greater comparability. So far eight countries – Finland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK and Portugal have contributed data.

Read the shorter version of this interview

Dr Maarten van Bottenburg from the WJH Mulier Institute says there is need not for more statistical data but for comparable data on sports participation. He suggests using COMPASS, HETUS and IPAQ questionnaires. What is the particular advantage of these questionnaires? And what is the first priority in terms of the question that needs to be resolved as regards sports participation?

I agree with Dr van Bottenburg. Most of the existing figures are not reliable and they are of little or no use for policy recommendations. The advantage of the COMPASS questionnaire is that it is an instrument for a comparable survey with exact definitions. Take the item ‘to practise sport’ – in the Eurobarometer, citizens may have interpreted this as meaning competitive sport or as meaning walking in the park for example.

This questionnaire is a well elaborated tool, which has already demonstrated its capacity to gather participation data in cross-cultural studies. Such studies are needed, because until now we don´t look beyond the surface. With regard to all EU Member States we have mere participation figures (which are not even comparable and reliable) and there is little knowledge about what encourages or prevents people from practising sport and physical activity. 

Much more knowledge about the social conditions in which Sport and Physical Activity take place is needed to intervene efficiently. Further information is especially needed in the ten new member. The first priority would be to gather accurate data about dropout reasons (why do people stop particular kinds of physical activity) and about the obstacles, which prevent those who are not active at all from practising sport.

Given the different meanings within member states, is there a need for a tighter EU definition of ‘sport’? Do the terms ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ need to be clarified?

I would encourage the Commission to find a tighter definition of sport to ensure that surveys carried out in EU countries are comparable. Finding a common definition of ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ – for example – could be one of the tasks – but all in all we need more transparency within the sporting world in Europe.

Currently EU sports policy as regards participation appears to be mostly about stakeholders from the sporting world working hard to avoid restrictions in terms of participation. Does the Commission need to consult the sporting world more frequently than has been the case in the past and does it need to develop a more positive EU sports policy?

Yes, I agree! The Commission should do more consulting in advance to avoid problems later as has happened with the proposed revision of the bathing waters directive. The Commission’s draft would have led to higher costs with water sports enthusiasts potentially losing the option to use some waters as a consequence. A more “positive” EU sports policy means also to help to solve for example the problem of under representation of women in the media. For example the media exposure of women football: Even though the women’s European soccer championship is being televised, there is not much pressure on UEFA to promote the event and the women’s game continues to be underrepresented by comparison with the men’s game. 

The ‘sports-minded schools label’, which stemmed from the European Year of Education through Sport 2004, is an idea that EU sports ministries are keen on. In this context, the UK is driving through efforts to promote a minimum amount (2 hours per week) of quality physical education time in schools using links between sports clubs and the schools. Is this the right approach across the EU?

Yes and no! I agree with the UK’s policy there needs to be a fixed minimum amount of time devoted to physical education. If you leave it up to schools and/or national ministries, physical education will not be sufficiently promoted. But it is very essential that the EU and the sports ministries should make for example a minimum of three hours PE per week as a cardinal rule – otherwise this approach has no use! 

Do you agree with Doris Pack, the MEP who was the driving force behind EYES (the European Year of Education through Sport – link), that the transnational initiative (Germany, German-speaking part of Belgium, Lothringen and Luxembourg) was a major EYES project. Would you agree that this was a flagship project or would you draw attention to another particular EYES project?

The name of the Project is “Einrichtung eines Schule-Leistungssport-Verbundsystems in der Großregion Belgien, Lothringen, Luxemburg, Rheinland Pfalz und Saarland” in French  it´s “Systèmes  de coopération entre écoles et sport de haut niveau dans la grande région”.

The goal of this project was to enable, for example, a young German track-and-field athlete to train and to educate in a Luxembourg training centre and school. During the EYES first steps were taken to enable the cooperation between the different partners, it was a starting process, which now should be developed into a systematic approach. 

Another very nice example for a successful EYES initiative was the ‘Final after 30 years’ [referring to the Germany vs Netherlands European Cup final in 1974] project where socially disadvantaged boys and girls played in street soccer matches just before the real European Championship games. The idea was also to counter stereotypes following years of antagonism and physical violence between German and Dutch fans. Special newspapers countering the scourge of racism and football were produced too.

As for how to promote exercise and sport, Van Bottenburg argues that “promoting exercise and sport among children and the elderly because it is good for them and placing the emphasis on the avoidance of (health) risks in sport may indeed diminish the attractiveness of sport to young people”. Is this a good argument? Should member states and the EU avoid stressing this link between avoiding health risks and sport?

It would be a mistake for member states to argue in public that not doing physical exercise is unhealthy and practising sport is healthy – sport is only one aspect in relation to health! But it is necessary to promote a healthy lifestyle and the emphasis should lie on physical exercise for young people meaning ‘fun, competition and friends’ without pushing the moral line of argument too much. Along with the Bundesliga football club FC Cologne, Cologne University is running a project ‘Fit am Ball’ [Fit on the ball] for children with problems with their weight. Our emphasis is on giving them support in terms of eating less, eating better plus showing how physical exercise can help them make feel good about their bodies.

There is an argument that many thriving sports and health business are mainly profit-motivated and do not look after the interests of their users. What can be done to ensure that the EU does not end up effectively lining the pockets of these fitness centres and other business sports clubs?

That has happened in some instances, such as some fitness chains, which provide very cheap but poor facilities. What is needed is quality assurance. The Commission could develop an EU quality assurance scheme and label for health and fitness clubs.

However, in general the private market is very important for the sports sector and these profit-motivated sports clubs are rare. So this is not a problem I fear as the positives currently outweigh the negatives.

Would you agree that, in the long term, member states have an interest in keeping their citizens healthy by doing plenty of physical exercise as this keeps costs to their health systems down? If so, should member states and the EU focus their efforts and limited resources on young people as was indicated by Luxembourg’s Sports Minister Jeannot Krecké following the latest informal meeting of EU sports ministers?

I am against taking a ‘children first´ approach and don’t promote the elderly. There needs to be a division between age groups (say up to 20 years old, 20 to 30 and 30 upwards) and between how people are motivated to do sport. What I mean by that is that older people tend to play sport to keep healthy while younger people tend to play sport for fun and to compete. There need to be target-specific measures and policies based on such categories.

However, developing a kind of ‘lifelong sporting personality’ is a good idea. This means that the early years are extremely important in helping young people to develop the reflex to be physically active. But, of course, it’s never too late to start…


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