Off the phones and onto the field

JACKSON HEWETT, THE AUSTRALIAN

A health “time bomb” is looming in Australia as a generation of school kids miss out on creating lifelong habits around physical activity, according to Patrick Walker, chief executive of the Australian Sports Foundation.

To address the problem, the ASF is setting ambitious targets of raising $300 million a year by 2025 to direct into grassroots sports, in a bid to get young people off the couch, away from their screens, and onto sporting fields.

Mr Walker quoted alarming statistics that 81 per cent of children do not get enough physical activity, 25 per cent are obese or overweight, and the average child today would finish 250m behind the average child from 15 years ago in a 1.5km race.

“We’ve just got more obese, more sedentary, less fit children. What is that going to do for the nation’s health bill in 10, 15, 20 years time?” Mr Walker said.

“The health of the nation is deteriorating and we’ve got a health time bomb here.”

Funding sports at the grass roots was particularly important, he said, as only 35 per cent of primary schools and 57 per cent of secondary schools have a PE teacher: “If kids aren’t accessing sports in school, then the lifelong behaviours aren’t embedded and we’re going to struggle when they come out of school. They are not going to pick it up at the age of 20.”

The ASF is the only body that can provide a tax donation for sporting activities and last year raised almost $45m, half of which came via fundraising for community and grassroots clubs. Donors can either direct money to a club or project, or, via the Prime Ministers Sporting Oration, raise money that the foundation can hand out as grants, provided the recipient sporting group can demonstrate a projected return on investment. Mr Walker says small sums of between $5000 and $10,000 can do more to encourage participation than large sums invested at the elite level.

Beyond the health benefits, the ASF is extolling sport as a powerful actor for social inclusion by targeting funding towards marginalised members of society.

Mr Walker points to the Sunshine Heights Cricket Club, located in an area of Melbourne with a large cricket-loving migrant and refugee population, but where the prospective players couldn’t get transport to training or games.

The ASF provided $5000 for the hire of a minibus for a season that enabled the coach to pick up children in the community.

Mr Walker says small investments like these can have a powerful impact on the community, quoting ASF research that shows people who play team sports are 44 per cent more likely to have an ethnically diverse friendship group than the average Australian.

“How are you going to embed (migrants) into Australian society if you don’t talk to them?” he said.

“You have to talk in a common language and sport is a common language. So instead of having a silo mentality, you’re playing cricket with someone from Asia, you’re playing basketball with someone from Sudan. They’re not monsters, they’re people just like us. You play sport together, you have a laugh together, and you build that cultural inclusion.”

Via the PMSO, Mr Walker hopes to raise the profile of the ASF, encouraging more community clubs to take advantage of the tax-deductible status, as well as to demonstrate the power of sport to corporate Australia.

“Corporates donate about $6 billion a year but they don’t donate to sport because sport hasn’t asked them to donate,” he said. “Sport is part of what makes a healthy society both physically and mentally. It’s as good a way to invest in the strength of your community as anything. Sport hasn’t really sold that story and we’re trying to help it do that.”

NewsAnna Poulos