Ipswich is carrying the London 2012 Olympic torch
- Credit: James Ager
More adults have taken up sport in Ipswich than anywhere else in the country since the London Olympics, figures reveal.
Community sport leaders last night paid tribute to the hard work and dedication of clubs and coaches and insisted the town is leading the way in honouring the London 2012 legacy.
A new analysis by this newspaper of Sport England’s latest Active People Survey, which details participation levels in grassroots sport, found the proportion of adults playing sport for at least 30 minutes once a week rose from 28.7% in 2011/12 to 38% in 2014/15.
The increase of 9.3% was the highest out of 326 towns, cities and districts in England, ahead of Merton in south-west London (9.1%) and South Somerset (9%).
The England average fell from 36.9% in 2011/12 to 35.8% in 2014/15, meaning Ipswich is above the national average for the first-ever time since the survey started a decade ago
Nino Severino, the widower and former coach of Ipswich tennis star Elena Baltacha, who is preserving her legacy through the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis (EBAT) following her tragic death aged 30 from liver cancer in 2014, described the participation figures as “incredible”.
He said: “The London Olympic legacy will only happen if people actually do something. You can’t just say the words, you need action, and in Ipswich we have done that.
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“The legacy will live through coaches, governing bodies, sporting clubs and I’m really glad these figures have come out because we have got a lot of coaches dedicated to Ipswich. It takes a lot of sacrifice.”
Louise Jukes, the Ipswich-born London 2012 handball star who helped relaunch the Ipswich Handball Club, which disbanded in the 1970s, at One in Scrivener Drive, admitted the figures were surprising.
She said: “I’m surprised but both Suffolk Sport and Ipswich Borough Council have worked really hard with their projects to increase participation, while the London Olympics opened up everybody’s eyes to a whole range of new sports.
“We started adult sides for men and women at Ipswich Handball and it is still going strong. We have people aged up to 45 playing every week.”
Only 55 areas in England recorded an increase and it stayed the same for 271 others. The City of London, meanwhile, had the second-worst decrease, dropping by 14.5% to 25.1%.
Emma Millar, captain of Ipswich Hockey’s Women’s first team, said club membership has “definitely increased”, with more than 30 women alone training every week at the Tuddenham Road site.
She said: “We launched a scheme after the Olympics at women aged over 18 who maybe used to play when they were young and maybe stopped playing after having children, and that has been great for our club. It has been a real boost.
“There was a drop-off before 2012 but we are steadily getting back to where we were. Team GB women’s hockey team won bronze at London 2012 and there is a lot more television exposure now.”
Amateur squash player Brian Vella, who has been competing in squash leagues in Ipswich for seven years, said he has noticed a rise in competitors.
Squash is said to be the best sport for losing weight through its constant lunging and acceleration, burning more calories per minute than any other sport – around 500 per 30 minutes.
Mr Vella said: “At first I was playing about once every two months but lately it’s been over once a week.
“It’s easy to play as various sports centres have courts and you can play all year round. Games don’t take all day either, and I think in general we are making more time to play sport.
“But I wish there were more opportunities to actually learn the game and I think squash should be an Olympic sport.”
Clive Bell, head coach of the men’s first team at Ipswich Rugby Club, said: “We are always looking to increase membership and we have had quite a few starters, but I wouldn’t say the 2016 World Cup which England hosted has done any favours.
“England were knocked out in the group stage and maybe if they progressed further we would have seen a bigger boost.
“We have around 50 to 60 players but I think individual sports like cycling have done better than us since the Olympics.”
Meanwhile, former Suffolk Olympian and two-time Commonwealth Games medallist Bill Tancred has challenged sport chiefs to “pass on the torch” to the next generation to further boost the participation figures in the county.
Mr Tancred, a visiting professor of sports and exercise science at University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich, also said people getting fit as part of a New Year’s resolution must not be allowed to give up after “two or three weeks”.
He said: “The figures are incredible and this is wonderful news for Ipswich, but more can still be done. The torch has to be passed on to try to make Suffolk the most active county England.
“Everyone in Suffolk is working extremely hard to make it the most active county in England. They have got a great team and these results reflect the hard work that everyone has put in. We must maintain this and not be complacent, and try to further increase our participation rates.
“After the Christmas period when everyone has probably indulged a lot, people are inspired to get fitter and take part in sport, and this is when you need to capture the ones that haven’t been active and get them fitter, stronger and healthier.
“All age groups aim to get fitter in the New Year and say ‘I am going to get away from the chocolate’. They will work hard for two to three weeks and gym classes will be full and it is the people who are more determined, with more support and willpower, who will carry on.
“So if you are a coach, you have got to give people different activities to keep them going, which is hard to do.”
He added: “Sport helps young people create a sense of team spirit, helps with co-operation, it is morale-boosting and promotes teamwork, which helps shape your destiny in terms of hard-work and fair play. It is also a healthy interest and helps beat the obesity problem which is a concern.
“It is a huge national concern and we have been talking about this for years and years. We have promoted nutrition and exercise and still people don’t do it.”
Sport leaders also said they believe more children are taking up sport, leading to forecasts of further improved participation figures in the future.
Mr Severino said the Elena Baltacha Academy Tennis, based at the Ipswich School Sports Centre in Rushmere St Andrew, is “thriving” with hundreds of youngsters taking up tennis.
He said: “If you look at what we have done in terms of Ipswich, we are number one for tennis and the numbers reflect what we are experiencing and the great work of every sports coach in Ipswich.
“We have 1,200 children through our school network and 250 in the academy. We are thriving and have the massive support of our patron, Judy Murray, and her family including Andy and Jamie.
“I have had meetings with parents of children who attend the academy and there are many great success stories. Overweight children who weren’t doing any sport and are now leading competitors on the tournament scene, and one boy lost two stone.
“And parents of other children who misbehaved at school are saying the focus and discipline of the sport has turned them around.
“That was one of my wife’s big focuses – the camaraderie, the environment, the discipline that sport gives you.
“When Bally came out of the Olympics, she took a torch into schools and did presentations in her Olympic gear, and that was while we were travelling around the world. You have got to have that commitment and drive. You have got to follow it up, otherwise, what will the legacy mean?”
He also heaped praise on Ipswich School for opening up their “world-class” tennis, hockey and other sporting facilities to schools in the region.
Andy Wood MBE, head coach of Pipers Vale Gymnastic Club in Braziers Wood Road, Ipswich said the number of members, aged from three to 15, has increased from 2,320 in 2012 to 3,127 in 2015 – an increase of 35%.
“It has been absolutely amazing,” he said. “Not only are we taking on more children, but they are staying longer as members as well, from the age of three to 15, which was a key part of our legacy project.
“We don’t want them for just one term and then quit, and we are winning that fight.
“2013 was a buoyant year after the Olympics but it dipped off at the start of 2014, but the success of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland and a new out-reach project I started meant 2015 broke all records.
“We have 400 kids on the waiting list which is brilliant, but means that there is no room to teach them, although we are looking to increase the size of our facility.”