So, here we are in Step 3 of the Government Roadmap out of the COVID restrictions and generally, to date, we are making steady and assuring progress back to some sort of normality with 100,000 club athletes and runners registered by 1,300 member clubs across England since 1 April.
More than 800 track and field competitions, most of which are organised by volunteer-led bodies, have been licensed across England since 1 April, and last weekend in Loughborough an England International Track and Field team competed for the first time in more than a year. This, in addition to the staging of a Diamond League meet in Gateshead on the same day, seemed to me to be a seminal moment on our road back from this most challenging of years.
With a home Commonwealth Games on the horizon we all know that our athletes, coaches, team managers and support staff will need a period of stability to best prepare for the opportunities that a home Games presents to us on so many levels.
I write this note in the same week that the Birmingham 2022 organising committee opened its recruitment drive for sport volunteers to help with the delivery of the event. I would encourage as many of the athletics family to get involved where they can.
We can all recount the wonderful contribution the 'Games Makers' and 'Clyde Siders' made in 2012 and 2014, respectively. What an opportunity it is for a new crop of volunteer heroes to emerge in 2022 as we look to an event that surely will inspire and thrill the masses, especially coming out of arguably the most testing period in this nation’s recent history.
Volunteering is the bedrock of communities across the country and is the foundation stone of our sport of athletics and running.
The speed at which our sport has returned since 29 March is largely down to the efforts of volunteers working hard across the country for the benefit of others. It is this selfless and collaborative commitment that has seen our clubs, running groups, competitions and road races return progressively. It is something that makes us all proud and is invaluable.
At England Athletics, we have been inundated with enquiries and bookings onto our coaching, leadership, and officials’ courses during the last few months. We are now able to deliver much of our programme of qualifications online and this has helped to increase access and remove barriers to participation, but we are also now delivering face-to-face courses again. This ‘blended’ approach we hope will meet the different learning needs of many people as we look to increase the depth, diversity, and breadth of our volunteering family. It is so important and something that will sustain our sport for decades to come if we get it right.
To date, we have seen 70% more athletes registered with England Athletics through their clubs compared with this time in 2020 and we know that there are more people running socially in groups, with friends and on their own too.
To harness this interest and enthusiasm we need to boost the number of volunteers available to support them, and to enhance their experience in the sport. This is something that is central to the focus of our recently published Strategic Plan and it is an aspect of our work that will be right at the heart of all that we do as an organisation. More information about our purpose, vision, guiding principles and priorities that we have set ourselves for the next 12 years can be found here. I would encourage all our clubs, member bodies and partners to find out more and perhaps use the guiding principles to aid the development of your own future plans.
There of course remain potential risks ahead of us and I am sure that all of us will hope that the vaccination rollout will continue to negate the potential effects of variants that test the resilience people have shown across the country.
We need to continue to collaborate at all levels of the sport and to “stick together” through thick and thin because I suspect there will remain challenges ahead of us that none of us will be able to truly predict before they arrive.
We know that some of the larger off-track road and cross-country race events are, at present, scheduled to return from the Autumn period onwards and we will need to continue to work with these organisers to support them whenever and however possible.
These are huge undertakings and, as with the non-sporting events sector, there remains some uncertainty as to what the future could bring for these should the effects of the pandemic continue into the coming months. At England Athletics we will do what we can within our powers to support these organisers to make a successful return. These events contribute so much to our athletics family, communities, and the social and economic wellbeing of our nation.
We also need to continue to work to support each other as individuals from a wellbeing perspective. This is something I am extremely passionate about and we have witnessed some fantastic work going on in clubs and groups across the country in providing a safe and secure space for people to talk about their challenges faced during the last year and to seek solace and comfort when dealing with mental health and wellbeing issues.
Wellbeing was a topic covered at our recent virtual club conference and we are also holding a series of “Let’s talk mental health” webinars and panel discussions during 2021 in addition to coordinating our #runandtalk campaign again across England. With over 1,000-member club and group mental health champions, it is leading the way in providing a safe space for people to talk and find comfort.
Athletics and running is a sport that is doing so much in this space and we need to remember that there is more that unites us than just sport. We are all on this journey through life and there are often bumps in the road.
In closing, I wanted to thank all our member clubs and organisations for their continual, and invaluable, support they provide to our athletes and runners of all abilities and backgrounds to achieve their full potential and build a lifelong love of the sport. It really would be impossible to have made such a swift and effective return to activity since 29 March without those efforts and I hope that they serve to inspire more people to get involved and contribute towards making the future of our great sport brighter.
Stay safe, take, and give care.
Photo by Mark Shearman