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17.02.2021 - Ausgabe: 1/2021

The evolution of sport during a pandemic

By Dr. Stefan Eckl, Institut für Kooperative Planung und Sportentwicklung

© Teodor Lazarev / stock.adobe.com

Closed sports centres, cancelled sports courses, prohibition of team games, sport with social distancing – many of those wishing to be physically active had to review their options in 2020. In the following is a consideration of whether 2020 will prove to be an exception in the way it has influenced sporting activities or whether we will see a permanent change in how sport is perceived in future.

While I was writing this article, I became aware of increasing numbers of reports appearing in the media relating to people flocking to tourist destinations and sports resorts in the German Mittelgebirge region. The closure of sport and leisure facilities, cancelled holidays, the restrictions on outdoor activities, working from home, remote education and families cramped together in their homes had created a desire of a type never seen before among the general public to escape into the great outdoors. This was not simply the case around the Christmas and New Year holiday periods – this was a phenomenon that could be observed throughout 2020. Open air public spaces and freely accessible exercise sites were quite literally overrun.

It is, of course, difficult at present to predict the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will there be a long term change in the attitude of the public towards physical activity? Will sports clubs and commercial sports businesses survive in future in their current form? Will we see increasing digitalisation of sporting activities – not in the sense of e-sports, but in the form of exercise under the supervision of trainers on TV (cf. the various televised work-out programmes), Mady Morrison-like YouTube posts and apps such as YogaEasy?

Various social science organisations are currently studying the effect that lockdown had and is having on sport-related behaviour. Researchers at the University of Innsbruck, for example, are looking at how the second lockdown in the Tyrol and adjacent areas[1] influenced the behaviour of people when it came to sport and exercise. In Germany, the University of Giessen has analysed the impact on sport and exercise of the first lockdown in spring 2020 – some of the findings are quite dramatic[2]: it would seem that 1 in 3 of those questioned over the age of 30 years significantly cut down their quota of what can be described as sporting activities or put a complete stop to them. On the other hand, the survey showed that there had been an increase in stamina-improving exercise in the fresh air, such as cycling and jogging, together with greater uptake of online-based fitness courses.

The explanation for this is obvious: if public, club and commercial sports facilities are closed, those who wish to be active will look for suitable alternatives. What is as yet unclear is whether this adaptation to circumstances will prove to be simply temporary and there will be normalisation with a return to the use of the existing collective structures when the pandemic has subsided, or whether the trend towards individualisation in sport will take a much more pronounced course than in the past.

Irrespective of this, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly demonstrated how relevant public space is that can be used as a venue for exercise and sport. Studies of attitudes towards sport and exercise that have been undertaken since the 1990s have clearly documented the importance of these sites in this connection. Discussed in the following are the results of just one of the surveys relating to this subject.

In January and February 2020 – and thus before the first lockdown – a representative survey of sport and exercise behaviour was initiated by the Lübeck authorities. As in the case of similar surveys, it was found that public spaces provided the setting for most sport and exercise activities. Parks, woods, trails, grassed and natural outdoor areas as well as streets proved to be, by far, the most popular sites used by those seeking somewhere to be physically active. The interesting thing is that those surveyed in the older age groups – 41 years and over – stated these were their preferred venues more frequently than children, young people and adults under the age of 40 years.

In view of the data, a logical conclusion is that public spaces are at least as important in this context as locations for exercise as are other venues. It would thus be advisable to examine parks, piazzas, roads and paths for their potential to provide a basis for healthy activities and exercise just as much as standard sport facilities. The emphasis should not be placed on the promotion of diverse exercise and sport activities as such but should find its expression in urban and community development concepts – proposals for land use, housing development, green space planning and mobility schemes – the opportunities are considerable.

Exercise and sport are themes that extend across a range of issues that are of concern to many departments of a local authority. To date, very few communities have managed to overcome a departmentalised mentality and to take a more interdisciplinary approach to the associated needs. Anyone who is genuinely committed to the topics of sport and exercise will find themselves dealing with the usual planning-related conundrums (have we got too much, too little, are the right facilities in the right place?), questions of social integration (what role do sport and exercise play in integration, what is their relevance to community youth work?), the significance of sport as a location factor likely to attract suitably qualified workers, its function in promoting health (and more healthy lifestyles) down to its capacity for promoting tourism.

These challenges have been around for a long time and have not been generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB) issued a white paper in 2017 drawing attention to the way that sport could contribute to the improvement of local communities.[3] This white paper sets out the problems and outlines the consequences for the decision-makers in local administration and politics. Here too the emphasis is placed on the need for a holistic view of sport and exercise, a cross-sectoral approach and integration in urban planning concepts.

The sport development planning approach provides a methodological tool box that can be utilised by small communities, towns of various sizes and even larger administrative bodies, such as districts and even federal states. What is important here is to ensure public consultation and the inclusion of interest groups, stakeholders and anyone who wants to be involved.

But how can public consultation processes be implemented or be successful against the background of this current pandemic? What happened in 2020 shows that it is possible to achieve the required participation to a large extent using unconventional means. In Holzkirchen in Bavaria, for example, there were 100 views of an online seminar in which we presented the initial results of an analysis of existing status and future requirements. We have also seen positive results with the use of digital workshops. Online elements such as these can actually increase involvement as it becomes easier for those concerned to participate. More difficult is achieving participation in planning processes as these are necessarily ridden with potential conflicts and the process itself requires face-to-face encounters, direct discussion with persons, and the opportunity to perceive non-verbal signals and look each other in the eye.

In summary, it can be concluded that aspects relating to the evolution of sport have not undergone any fundamental transformation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the outcome will be that in 2021 and 2022 we will undoubtedly be dealing with more intense developments in certain areas – we will see increased individualisation within sport, greater focus being placing on open public spaces and probably also a decline in popularity of sports clubs coupled with less willingness to become voluntarily involved and dwindling sport association finances.

[1] https://www.uibk.ac.at

[2] https://doi.org/10.1177/1012690220934335


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