Is swimming really on the decline? And if so how can we tackle the problem?

laneswimChris Price reports on the latest survey from Sport England which shows that despite remaining the number one participation sport in the UK, swimming is less popular than it has been for decades.

Is swimming on the decline? And if it is what can be done to arrest that decline. That’s the topic that’s been on everyone in the swimming world’s lips ever since Sport England released its Active People survey a few weeks ago.

This survey showed that although 2.5 million people swim weekly for at least half an hour, it was 144,200 fewer in the six months until March 31st 2015 than in the previous period.

However, it’s worth noting that statistics published by Sport England back in December 2013 showed the number of people swimming had increased by 48,800 over the previous six months – a clear indication of an uptake in the sport following the London 2012 Olympics despite our lack of success in the pool (just three medals, a silver from Michael Jamieson and two bronzes from our former golden girl, Rebecca Adlington).

Now that the Olympics is over, interest in swimming seems – on the face of it, at least – to have slumped. Indeed, if you look at the figures over the decade, 729,000 people have stopped swimming altogether which is both very sad and very worrying for the long term physical (and mental) health of the nation.

Adam Paker, chief executive of the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) said this decline is more than just a blip. “Left unchecked, it could become part of a longer trend,” he reckons. “The numbers have been flat to declining over time, since the late noughties.”

Too expensive?

But what are the reasons for this decline? In a recent article in The Daily Telegraph Mark Foster blamed the closure of local pools.

“More and more pools have closed in recent years and logic tells me that the more pools we have, the more likely people are to go swimming,” writes Foster.

“If someone has a half-hour drive to the pool then they might not bother, but if they can walk five minutes then that will make a huge difference. If everyone had a pool on the corner of their street then everyone would go in it every day.”

He also argues that many people find swimming just too expensive. “If you can make swimming free then, again, more people will do it,” writes Foster.

Swim Sophie Allen, who represented Britain in the London 2012 Olympics, echoes Mark Foster’s concerns. She believes swimming pools have become expensive, charging as much as £4.70 for a one-hour session.

“I definitely think the cost of swimming needs to stay nice and low, and I guess we need more swimming pools to be honest,” she told the BBC.

Indeed the problem isn’t that there are less pools than ever (the number of swimming pools continues to grow), it’s just that the new pools are often private – either in the houses of wealthy people (a growing trend) or, more often, attached to private leisure centres.

This often precludes people from modest backgrounds learning to swim – no wonder then that around 50 per cent of children leave primary school unable to even swim a length (see my article here.)

CrystalPalacepoolPoor levels of cleanliness

Generally speaking, councils are only too keen to get rid of old ‘swimming baths’ or at least ensure they are operated privately through organisations such as GLL and Everyone Active. Not only do the pools cost a lot to run, they are usually in a poor state of repair.

This in turn puts people off going there in the first place. As a nation, we seem to have much higher expectations about cleanliness than when I was growing up in the 1970s – when it didn’t seem to matter so much if the changing rooms were shoddy or there were a few chips in the tiles here and there. We just seemed to accept it.

With the growth of private leisure centres (these were virtually unheard of when I was growing up), it seems our expectations have been raised and rightly so. As a result, people don’t want to get in a grubby pool and would probably much rather use state of the art equipment in the gym.

Even Crystal Palace, first opened in 1964 and pictured above, has seen better days. When I was there for a recent Regional Swimming Gala there were smashed windows, missing roof tiles and pigeons flying around the building. The water in the pool looked disgusting and the tiles in the pool were chipped and dirty. And this is supposed to be our national sports centre! Quite frankly it’s a joke.

Adam Paker admits that poor swimming facilities are a part of the problem. “The pool stock in the country is getting older over time,” he recently told the BBC,

Of course shutting these types of facilities down and replacing them with something more suited to the 21st century would be one solution. I’m quite convinced that the money spent would be more than made up from the savings in the NHS from having to deal with problems like obesity.

But all too often councils plump for the easy (ie. less expensive) option. So 50m competition pools, like the one in Coventry which dates from the same era as Crystal Place, are due to be replaced with 25m ‘fun’ pools (often complete with water slides) rather than being updated with state-of-the-art swimming facilities like those at the superb London Aquatic Centre (this comprises a 50m competition pool, a 25m diving pool and a further 50m training pool which can be split into two 25m pools complete with a movable floor.)

Obviously I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t have fun in the water (this is a great introduction to get kids used to the water) or that every town should have the level of facilities of the London Aquatic Centre. That just wouldn’t be practical or affordable. But surely we should at least be ensuring that people have the same opportunities to swim lengths as previous generations did in order to get the exercise they need!…CONTINUE READING