Tim Hollingsworth

Last Sunday (August 15) I was privileged to attend the Team GB homecoming party at Wembley Arena.

Seeing Britain's Olympic heroes in the flesh was special, as was the chance to congratulate many colleagues on a job well done. The preparation and delivery of the team for Tokyo 2020 set tasks and challenges like no other and it was clear - from UK Sport’s support in the background to the preparation camp in Yokohama and the protocols in the Athletes' Village - the team left no stone unturned.

My personal reflections on the Games are very positive. After some doubt, their presence on our television screens and in the media was a welcome uplift from times that remain challenging for all. The standard and range of competition on show - including in several new sports - was incredible and the performance of Team GB, finishing fourth in the medal table and matching up to the medal tally of recent Games, was outstanding. They reminded us of the unifying nature of sport and how it can bring us together - uniquely here as Britain, rather than the home countries of the Union.

These Games also brought important issues to the fore, not least the balance that every one of us must strike in our own lives regardless of circumstances: between striving to achieve and retaining the perspective crucial to our mental health and wellbeing. British athletes were among many who spoke openly about this and in doing so enriched the Games through their honesty and the authenticity of their approach.

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel won five gold medals at Tokyo 2020 and says athletes feeling stress is wrong ©Getty Images
American swimmer Caeleb Dressel won five gold medals at Tokyo 2020 and says athletes feeling stress is wrong ©Getty Images

As the United States multi-gold medal winning swimmer Caeleb Dressel said: "There’s nothing wrong with pressure; there’s something wrong with stress". 

I have taken that away as an important dictum and lesson both for myself and for the professional role that I hold. The message translates into the sort of environment Sport England is seeking to create in community sports clubs and venues up and down the country. 

Lots of factors come in to play when considering what makes it possible and desirable for someone to see playing sport as a part of their everyday lives. For me making sure the place where it happens feels safe and welcome, and is accessible, inclusive and most of all fun is key. 

Whether its location, or those supporting its delivery, the reality is if it doesn’t feel right for the participant, if the enjoyment isn’t there or the environment is unwelcoming, there is little incentive to return.

The success of the Olympics is helpful too in demonstrating what is possible in sport. My colleague Phil Smith, director of sport at Sport England, wrote in iNews about the inspirational impact of elite success and the factors that can determine its impact on participation.

I have long believed that the showcasing effect is significant, and our colleagues in Team GB showed us the way supremely well.

And, with that in mind, there is more to come. The curtain may be down on the Olympics but it is only just the intermission. In less than a week’s time, we will witness the Opening Ceremony of the 16th Paralympic Games - the first to be held twice in the same city.

Again, in ParalympicsGB, I know we have athletes to celebrate. So much work, effort and resource have gone into ensuring medal potential and the success of the team, and we are a proud Paralympic nation - not just its birthplace but among the very best in the world on the field of play.

I have no doubt the coverage will once again inspire that same positive sense of national pride and identity.

Double Olympic champion Jonnie Peacock will hope to inspire the British public at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Double Olympic champion Jonnie Peacock will hope to inspire the British public at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

But for me, the Paralympics does so much more than that. More than any other sporting event, it has the potential not just to excite, but inspire; to show us all not just the individual commitment, ambition and talent of the athletes themselves, but to challenge our perceptions of disability and of what is possible.

That inspiration is much needed. The health and wellbeing benefits of playing sport and being active are central to our strategy at Sport England. Equally, they are increasingly part of the nation’s understanding of how we need not just to recover from the pandemic, but to change our behaviour as a result.

This is especially the case for disabled people, for many of whom the past 18 months has been a hugely difficult time. Although we were seeing positive increases before COVID-19, disabled people were still twice as likely to be inactive as the rest of the population and the restrictions imposed have only re-enforced that existing inequality. 

Equally concerning, recent Office for National Statistics data has shown that 46 per cent of disabled people indicated the pandemic had worsened their mental health, compared to 29 per cent of non-disabled people.

I don’t pretend for a moment that the Games will solve this challenge - and expect nothing more from the likes of Jonnie Peacock and Emma Wiggs than to go out on the field of play in Tokyo and give their best. We will all be cheering. But when that dies down, the spirit of their enterprise and the determination to maximise the opportunity for disabled people in sport will be what lives on. 

Sport England has a major role to play in driving that change and creating the environment needed for activity, and as I am inspired by the performance of a special group of athletes in Tokyo, I will be determined to make this happen for all.