Healthier citizens, happier communities and a stronger nation
Earlier this year, while working with Active Mauritius, I visited the beautiful island of Rodrigues with Dr Henry Bernard Baptise, the Mauritian national shot put champion, a fully qualified doctor and somewhat of a local celebrity back on his home island. The purpose of our visit was to check the success of a new programme being run by Dr Baptiste on behalf of Active Mauritius which gives elderly people the opportunity to get active within their local communities.
Across the three centres we visited, I watched on with increasing admiration as around 150 women and men enthusiastically followed their instructor through a sequence of different movements to music. The eldest participant, an 82-year-old woman, was just one of many smiling elders who came up to Dr Baptiste afterwards to thank him for this initiative. They wanted him to hear about the huge positive effects these classes are having on individuals and the local community, “I feel young again… I am sleeping better… I want to drink more water… my walking is easier”. Many of the woman confirmed that their blood pressure had dropped and diabetes improved. Heartening news indeed given that 55% of Mauritians aged 65+ years have diabetes. Equally significant was that all participants reported that they felt less alone, they had made new friends and felt more engaged within their communities. Dr Baptiste was both thrilled and overwhelmed by the positive feedback. For me, it was strong reinforcement of the powerful benefits of grassroots community activity and exercise.
In Mauritius, indeed for all nations, sport has a vital role to play in life going forward, never more so than now after the global ravages of COVID-19. The challenge is how to define and prioritise this sporting development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all 193 UN member states in 2015, provides a collective blueprint for peace, prosperity, people and the planet. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the heart of the Agenda, can provide a relevant and robust roadmap for sport development. As Mauritius is seeking to do, we must look at opportunities to use sport to create global partnerships to end poverty and inequalities, to improve health and education, create sustainable economic growth, while tackling climate change and preserving the earth’s natural resources.
In Mauritius, against a pre-COVID backdrop of 24% youth unemployment (compared to an overall rate of 7%), there are opportunities for coaching and exercise class teachers, such as the ‘animateurs’ I witnessed running Dr Baptiste’s ‘Elderly Fitness’ programme amongst others. One young animateur I spoke to explained how coaching has now become her full-time job, with targeted programmes running throughout the week for various ages. Two one-hour sessions per day can earn an animateur double the current minimum wage – directly addressing SDG 8 and indirectly SDG 1 and SDG 10. At the other end of the age spectrum, I had the opportunity to visit Active Mauritius’ ‘After Schools’ programme for 8 to 13 year olds. The children told me how much fun it was, they had made new friends and learned new skills. They said sport stopped you getting fat when you were older. Football was the favourite and the girls told me that they can play it as well as the boys. Another shining example of a local sporting initiative linking back to SDG 3, 4 & 5.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest lesson learned during my time in Mauritius, was the value of partnerships. Within the sports sector, ministers and policy makers must engage with people on the ground. Local Active Mauritius Partnerships (LAMPs) enable physical activity opportunities by engaging with and empowering local communities and aligning top-down objectives with a bottom-up approach. On a constituency level, a network of government organisations, private sector and NGOs intend to work together ensure a better future for sport and the welfare of individuals. Furthermore, with sport cutting across numerous areas of society, stakeholders must create partnerships outside their sector. The best physical education for children requires cooperation from the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sport & Recreation to work alongside the Ministry of Education. To build safe opportunities for active travel, collaboration with the Ministry of Infrastructure is needed. Getting local women active is best achieved through collaboration with the Ministry of Gender. Each and everyone of these partnerships is contributing to SDG 17.
Given our current “Great Pause” in life, we have a rare opportunity to reflect on how sport can contribute to a sustainable future. Sport policy makers, organisations and individuals need to be asking how they want sport to be used and prioritised within future development goals. In my second article “A targeted framework: Using the Sustainable Development Goals as a guide to a brighter future for sport”, I look at a suggested framework which may provide a valuable universal language to unite stakeholders in a common vision to action change fit for future purpose.
Sophie Spink is a Business Analyst at Portas Consulting, a global strategy consultancy dedicated to maximising the benefits of sport and physical activity for all, and graduated from Oxford University with a BA in Psychology & Philosophy. She has worked in the UK, Asia and Africa, most recently returning from a project in Mauritius supporting national sport policy and working alongside Active Mauritius, the government funded subsidiary body responsible for ‘Sport for All’ in Mauritius.
Mark Abberley is a Partner at Portas Consulting, leading practices around sport policy and sport federations. He has led National Policy work in Mauritius and worked across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Mark has led Olympic federations in boxing and taekwondo and has a long standing interest in sport for development and impact.