Of couch potatoes and the legacy of big sporting events | Matthew Muscat Inglott

Why do we continue to under-perform in international sport? Why are we among the most inactive people in Europe? Many claim to have the answers, so why has the situation still not improved?

The Games of the Small States of Europe will held in Malta later this year
The Games of the Small States of Europe will held in Malta later this year

Malta will host two major sporting events this year - the Games for the Small States of Europe (GSSE), and the UEFA under-19 football championships.

But what legacy, if any, will result from these two major sporting events?

This was the question discussed during a symposium held recently at the Malta College of Arts Science, and Technology (MCAST) with the participation of sports administrators, coaches, athletes, parents, exercise and fitness professionals, health care professionals, Physical Education (PE) teachers, sports journalists, entrepreneurs, and politicians.

Those who attended heard presentations on educational initiatives currently underway at the UEFA academy, general approaches to sports development in Luxembourg, the ongoing programmes organised by SportMalta, research findings, and various statistics from the local scene, the 2022 Commonwealth Games and their legacy for Birmingham, as well as a new forthcoming legal framework for improving regulation of the sport, exercise, and fitness sectors.

The panel discussions stimulated much debate. Why do we continue to under-perform in international sport, even when compared with other small nations? Why are we among the most inactive people in Europe? Many claim to have the answers, so why has the situation still not improved? Panellists from major Maltese national governing bodies compared and contrasted their situations, but mostly agreed that the difficulties of squaring off against most foreign competitors were universal. Statistics on general physical activity levels are similarly uninspiring.

So, what was different about the potential solutions offered at this latest symposium?

A new legal framework for tighter regulation of professional standards seems promising, as does evident commitment to the creation of new knowledge through applied research.

The MCAST Journal of Applied Research and Practice special issue for sport, exercise, and health, released for the first-time late last year, was presented. As was acknowledged repeatedly throughout the symposium, the question is not about the availability of highly qualified people on the islands, it is about how they are being used.

The journal aims to incentivise local sports scientists and academics, for instance, to turn their much-needed attention to local issues. Instead of tailoring their work to whatever editors of international scientific and academic journals decide is relevant, a lasting local platform may help encourage our local experts to engage with, and report their findings on, unique locally-contextualised problems that matter the most to Maltese stakeholders.

Trained in the design of experiments and statistical analysis of data, it is hoped that graduates from MCAST’s new Master’s programme in sport and exercise science will take up this mantle, and drive progress through applied research and subsequent evidence-based practice.

For instance, we now know from recent studies that a correlation exists between perceived corruption, according to the index maintained by Transparency International, and international sports performance, particularly in small nations. This finding enables prioritisation of initiatives designed specifically to increase transparency, openness, and trustworthiness in the running of local sports and physical activity organisations. This is a clear example of practical application of applied research.

Matthew Muscat Inglott from MCAST's Institute of Community Services
Matthew Muscat Inglott from MCAST's Institute of Community Services

Data also suggests there is a correlation between socioeconomic status and degree of participation in organised sport. If nothing changes, we risk high-quality sport provision eventually becoming the sole preserve of children whose parents can afford the privilege.

Malta’s population and prospective talent pool are already small enough, without unnecessarily slashing numbers down yet further. Socioeconomic status was a recurring theme throughout the event. While some athletes have challenged the status quo, and made themselves the exception to the rule at international level, parental involvement has been a conspicuously central factor.

What happens to highly talented athletes whose parents are unable or unwilling to support financially and in every other way that matters?

The importance of inclusive practice in sport was aptly punctuated by a panel discussion on the Special Olympics movement in Malta. Sport and physical activity provide enough benefits in their own right and for their own sake, with imposing additional questionable utilitarian demands on them.

In educational philosophy, a distinction is typically made, between education as either a route to work, or as a means of development in a broader personal, social and cultural sense. On the one hand, education should be practical, and equip learners to survive and thrive in the real world. Perfectly reasonable, if the existing system is really all it can be. Learners trained to operate strictly within the confines of a system, are unlikely to step outside and change it.

Sport education in Malta, in this sense, remains unconstrained, according to the panelists on sport-related further and higher education. Passion for sport was deemed a valid motivation for studying sport, exercise and physical activity, particularly given that such passion appears otherwise to be in such short supply locally.

Similarly, lack of priority or value assigned to PE in schools was a common concern, although care should be taken not to conflate PE with physical activity. While PE is a subject among others, increasing physical activity simply means being more active. PE lessons are not the only opportunity children should get to move around, learn through activities and games, or go outside.

Nevertheless, pilot projects are in place to address the electoral promise for more PE in schools, and these also appear promising. When schoolchildren go home, they are exposed to disparate influences in regard to healthy living. State schools can be the ‘great equaliser’ for most Maltese children, helping them meet minimum recommended physical activity guidelines at school, regardless of existing home environments, hopefully initiating a lifelong commitment to healthier and more active living for reproduction in their own family homes in the future.

Director General of Curriculum, Lifelong Learning and Employability at the Education Ministry, Jude Zammit, and shadow minister for sport Graham Bencini closed the symposium with a final debate. While sport and physical activity were acknowledged as one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement, we call on our leaders to back genuine initiatives aimed at a culture change in the way sport and physical activity are valued in Maltese society, to maximise local expertise, and act on the theory and science that is currently serving to rejuvenate attitudes and assumptions surrounding Maltese sport.

Dr Matthew Muscat Inglott is senior lecturer at MCAST’s Institute of Community Services.