Trends & Features

Minority report

Why do sports such as table tennis, archery and water polo get overlooked in this country at the expense of higher profile games such as football or cricket? John Bensalhia looks at the issues surrounding these so-called ‘minority’ sports

Think of a sport. Any sport. Now, what are the odds that the sport you’ve thought of is one of the most popular ones around? Yes, that’s right – football, cricket, rugby, tennis, all the usual choices.

But what about the lesser ones, the sports that can sometimes unfairly be deemed as ‘minority sports’?

Branding a particular activity as a minority sport is something of a misnomer since sports such as archery, volleyball and table tennis have their fair share of fans. Sizeable amounts participate in these sports up and down the country. For example, archery has its very own Grand National Archery Society (GNAS), a body that is responsible for the safe conduct and enjoyment of the game in the UK. The GNAS has more than 20,000 members and more than 1,000 registered clubs.

So what of these so-called minority sports, and why do we hear less about them in the media? Initially, sports such as rowing, cycling and sailing may well have got greater coverage. SportsAid’s Tim Lawler put the case forward for these activities. Lawler argued that future Olympic teams should regard these sports as good opportunities for winning formulas. This is because, he argued, that these sports deal with fluctuations in form and talent better than any other sports.

However, this positive coverage was short-lived, especially in the aftermath of an announcement regarding the 2012 Olympics. It was reported early this year that sports such as shooting, water polo and volleyball would have their funding cut by at least half for the Games in London. In total, there were eight sports that were going to be affected. Apart from the aforementioned sports, weightlifting, wrestling, handball, table tennis and fencing were to feel the impact of these investment cuts. Shooting was the biggest casualty, with its budget slashed from £5.5million to £1.2million for London. Water polo also took a pasting, with its budget halved to £1.4million.

The reaction was generally one of disappointment, especially among these sports’ influential figures. Steen Hansen, who runs Britain’s Olympic table tennis programme, branded the loss “Hugely disappointing”. Hansen now faces the loss of his sport’s talent identification programme. He commented further: “I think the whole thing is ridiculous. They talk about a no-compromise approach, but now we’ve got to make every compromise available to us.”

Tessa Sanderson, former British javelin thrower and heptathlete, also expressed dismay at the decision. She said that the country is in danger of losing sight of what the 2012 Games is all about. She argued that too much money was being directed into elite sports simply because the chances of winning medals in these fields were greater.

The media coverage of lesser-known sports could hold a clue as to why they are not as highly regarded as the more obvious choices. Television coverage in particular is on the slide, and may only be available to view over the internet rather than on TV. The argument is that smaller sports bodies may find it a futile exercise trying to spend vast amounts of time, energy and money on pursuing TV deals that may fail to materialise. David Zeffman, a partner at Olswang law firm, claimed that it was getting harder for minority sports to sell their rights because there were no large audiences to attract advertising or lots of subscribers. Says Zeffman: “Unless they come up with new solutions, smaller sports that cannot bring in large audiences will face serious challenges.”

It’s a chicken and egg situation. Smaller sports desperately need a higher profile in order to generate more money, but just cannot get a foot in the VIP door of the media tower.
Especially when other sports rule the roost in the media.

Darius Knight is a burgeoning table tennis talent who became the ambassador for the Fred Perry Urban Cup. Knight, along with another young player, Paul Drinkhall, are looking to raise the profile of table tennis when they compete in the 2012 Olympics. Knight agrees that the game needs to be promoted a lot more in this country, and gave a damning indictment when comparing the UK with China: “In China…in every city, they have table tennis clubs, badminton clubs, athletics clubs, even sports they’re not good at, but are trying to improve at. In England, we have a national centre in Sheffield and London, but in China they have a national centre in every city.”

Archery is another sport that could stand to gain more from greater exposure at the 2012 Olympics. The sport has started to receive a greater amount of press, such as in the UK Sports Newsletter, the Press Association and BBC Online. For a sport that dates right back to the ancient Egyptians, such coverage is surely overdue.

However, a factor in archery’s relative lack of coverage is a concern for safety. The bow and arrow, in the wrong hands, is a deadly weapon, and especially in today’s mollycoddled society, may be frowned upon in certain quarters. The irony is, though, that, statistically, archery players are 10 times more likely to receive an injury while playing football, according to a recent survey (the most common injuries received in archery are blisters and strained muscles).

GNAS-affiliated clubs are run under very strict safety rules. These stringent laws have resulted in one of the lowest injury rates in the UK for sport. Compare this with the findings from the Product Safety Commission in 2005 – 409,799 injuries were recorded for basketball and 376,115 for football.

Whether or not the 2012 Olympics will provide a needed shot in the arm for ‘minority’ sports remains to be seen. It’s now up to the media and the authorities to provide more exposure and investment for the Games, which can potentially bring great enjoyment and fitness to millions of people in the country.

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