Last weekend I visited the London Aquatics Centre – the venue for the 2012 Olympics and the premier training and competition pool in the country. Earlier in the week I attended a meeting organised by Sport England where we discussed, among other things, participation in swimming – and possible barriers to getting more people, especially children, involved. The two events were not related but there are links between them.
Firstly, the London Aquatics Centre. It’s hard not to be impressed. It’s a fantastic pool, relatively easy to get to (if a bit long-winded from West London) and it only costs £4.50 for a swim (£2.50 for children). When I went (early on a Sunday morning) there were only about two or three people per lane so there was plenty of space to swim. Most of the lanes were marked fast, medium or slow with a few un-designated, presumably for people who want to swim with their friends in mixed-speed groups. The water is clear, a pleasant temperature for training and there are two massive clocks on the wall so you can check your pace. It feels fast. They have the flags up for backstroke swimming (why some pools remove these on health and safety grounds is beyond me) and it seems they allow the use of paddles, snorkels and other training tools (I didn’t actually check the rules on this, but saw people using them).
The minor complaint I have is that I wasn’t allowed to use the starting blocks! It’s hard to see what harm could be done from practising a few dives (especially when they allow diving from the side) so that was a little frustrating.
The thing that struck me as really odd is that for large parts of Sunday, this amazing swimming facility is given over to Extreme Aqua Splash. The lane ropes are removed and a giant inflatable is dropped into the pool for children and adults alike to scramble over. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun, and maybe this is swimming snobbery, but is that really the best use for this amazing facility?
It does however bring me to my second point – increasing participation in swimming.
One of the reasons I love running H2Open Magazine is that I think sport in general, and swimming in particular, is a great force for the good. I don’t mean the fulfilment of personal ambitions here or chasing Olympic glory but that regular exercise seems to be the closest thing we’ve yet found to Lilly the Pink’s Medicinal Compound – it helps prevent a range of illnesses and makes you feel good. If we can inspire a few people to exercise more then we should be doing something good for the world.
Sport England would also like to see people exercise more and swimming is undoubtedly a great way to do it, but there are many people who can’t swim, despite learning to swim being a national curriculum requirement.
The question for me is: does turning over the country’s best swimming training and competition facility to Extreme Aqua Splash encourage more people to swim and to become life-long swimmers?
I don’t know the answer but I am a little sceptical. I’m not against people having fun in the water (one of the joys of open water swimming is that it is fun) – but is our beautiful Olympic pool the best venue for a giant inflatable? I can see some arguments in favour: it brings people in, it helps them gain confidence in the water, it gets people to move more than sitting on their sofas and playing on their iPads, it associates swimming pools with fun and encourages people to come back – but couldn’t they put this inflatable somewhere else? Even putting it in the training pool would be better.
Getting people into the water is a good start but if you want to encourage life-long swimmers, shouldn’t we be doing more to develop appropriate swimming skills? The majority of people who swim regularly as adults tend to be reasonably competent and can swim continuously for at least several lengths. If all you ever do as a child is Extreme Aqua Splash you won’t develop those skills and therefore will be less likely to swim as an adult.
Our Olympic pool is a fabulous facility specifically designed for competitive swimming – surely it’s best used for that? I’d love to see the local council providing free swimming lessons and coaching to the local community and inspiring a generation of swimmers. Extreme Aqua Splash may be good short-term fun, but there’s real joy and satisfaction to be had from learning how to swim properly – and there are no Olympic medals in Extreme Aqua Splashing. People do become life-long swimmers; they don’t become life-long Extreme Aqua Splashers.
The London Aquatics Centre is our Olympic legacy, not just another leisure centre and fun pool. There’s a time and place for Extreme Aqua Splash. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It just doesn’t seem right to dedicate the best part of Sunday to it at our best competitive pool.
What do H2Open readers think?
You can see the inflatable along the poolside in the picture above.