Sport England data shows 2.5 million people swam in pools weekly in 2015-16, down 776,000 from 3.27 million in 2005-06.
This represents a fall of 23.7% despite 564 new swimming pools opening across the country since 2006 (how many have closed in the same period?)
Of these new pools, 73% have been built in London or the south of England which perhaps explains why in some regions such as the North East there has been a such as massive drop in swimming participation of over a third – see regional breakdown below.
Nevertheless, swimming remains England’s most popular mass participation sport, with about one in every 20 people aged over 14 swimming at least once a week.
The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) said more people were choosing activities such as aquacise and wild swimming with Nick Caplin, director of participation at the Amateur Swimming Association, suggesting it is partly a marketing problem.
“We have a real challenge with swimming because it’s not a sport that is continually at the forefront of people’s minds,” he told the BBC.
For Olympic open water silver medallist Keri-Anne Payne, it isn’t so much that we’ve seen a decline in swimming, it’s just we now want different things from the sport.
“There are triathletes who do wild swimming and people who just like a bit more adventure; people who like to go to Lake Windermere and swim there, or Loch Lomond, or down to Dover to swim the Channel. It’s a new element people are looking for.”
David Wilkie, who was Olympic and Commonwealth Games champion in the 1970s, believes the popularity of swimming has declined because of increased competition. He told the BBC: “The choice now in sport is much more varied than it used to be…there are more gyms where you have activities like pilates, zumba classes, weights.”
He added: “I think the most impact though is swimming with children. Schools don’t really offer any swimming because it is expensive, it takes a lot of time to get children to pools, get them changed and get them on and off the bus.
“Also I think obesity is a big problem, we are getting much bigger and I think people are embarrassed about how they look.”
Nevertheless, The ASA reported a “surge” in the number of people searching for details about local swimming pools after the success of the Great Britain swimming team at the Rio Olympics in August.
I echo some of the comments made by Wilkie regarding increased competition from other sports. Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s there generally wasn’t the option of going to a gym because there were very few gyms – either public or private – around.
However, I think another factor is that many people are put off by public pools, many of which are overly chlorinated and not very well maintained, particularly the changing rooms. In short, they have failed to keep up with the standards that many of us now expect when engaging in leisure activities.
Pools in private leisure centres are generally in much better shape but tend to work out much more expensive to run and also to use (some leisure chains such as Pure Gym have closed pools altogether to save money).
At least the picture isn’t all doom and gloom with an increasing number of people abandoning chlorinated pools for the open water phenomenon. And while the overall numbers are still small, it is clearly growing in scale, especially in the summer.
|What is the regional swimming picture?|
|Area||People Swimming 2005-06||People Swimming 2015-16||Number of people||Percentage Change|
|East of England||366,500||275,600||-90,900||-24.8%|
|Yorkshire & Humber||322,700||247,500||-75,200||-23.3%|