Swimming got some bad press last week. Despite still being the UK’s most popular sport in terms of participation, the latest figures from Sport England showed numbers had plunged by 245,000 between October 2013 and the same month last year.
These figures measure how many times a person has swum for 30 minutes or more within the last 28 days. Sport England’s numbers also show a decline for outdoor swimming of almost 70,000.
For those of us involved in swimming, these numbers are disappointing, but also a little strange as they don’t match our experience. Certainly the lanes during the public sessions that I go to are as crowded as ever, if not more so, and my local club has expanded hugely over the past few years. We also know there are plenty of swimming events that are expanding their numbers – witness last weekend’s Big Chill Swim and the Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Bec Lido from the week before.
The Telegraph highlighted woman’s concerns about body image as one of the factors behind the decline as more women have quit than men. The paper then went on to quote from Nick Bitel, Chairman of Sport England, who said: “The market hasn’t developed in any way in swimming. It’s still the same as it always was. You go to the swimming pool, you swim up and down. There’s no sense of enjoyment, of joie de vivre. They’ve got to get their act together. This is a last-ditch call to them. They’ve got understand what people want and they’ve got to act upon it.”
I think he may have missed something!
If you’re looking for joie de vivre in swimming, spend some time with open water swimmers, go along to a cold water swimming event or spend some time browsing the various open and wild swimming groups on Facebook. Is that not joie de vivre that you see there? Maybe Mr Bitel could also look at the participation ratios in events like the Great North Swim, where the gender ratio is almost exactly 50:50. In most of the events at last week’s Big Chill Swim, women outnumbered men. Our sport is not off-putting to women. Moreover, body image concerns are somewhat secondary to staying warm. In open water, carrying a little extra weight can be something of an advantage. Besides, we all look pretty similar under a Dryrobe.
Open water, in my view, is a gateway into swimming that the ASA and Sport England could really get behind and support. Open water swimmers, in general, are relaxed about both body image and ability and the sport caters for a wide range of interests and activities. You don’t need any special equipment to get started and you can keep learning all your life. Open water swimmers will often turn to the pool (where it’s easier to count us) when we need to practise technique or train in a controlled environment.
That the Sport England figures also show a decline in outdoor swimming is, I suspect, because the category includes outdoor pools and so reflects the broader decline in pool swimming. Outdoor winter swimming in most cases won’t count because it’s usually done for less than 30 minutes.
Even if we dispute and quibble about the numbers, they are important to us as they help determine funding and investment. Much as it’s nice to have a lane to yourself for training the likelihood is that if you’re the only one there the pool will be losing money, and pools that lose money will close. As swimmers we can all be ambassadors for our sport. Tell people how much you love the water. Don’t let your work colleagues think you’re crazy; instead, take them with you so they can experience swimming for themselves. If you’ve got children in a swimming club, encourage the coaches to introduce youngsters to open water. Let’s take responsibility for swimming and keep it the country’s most popular sport.