The School Games National Finals, which starts today, is one of the great legacies of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Just six years on from that incredible summer, it should be a source of national pride that over 20,000 talented young athletes have had the opportunity to compete in a huge multi-sport event at a pivotal stage in their sporting life.
Many of those athletes have gone on to fantastic sporting achievements. 219 competitors at this year’s Commonwealth Games – including 24 gold medal winners – cut their teeth in the School Games. Among the glittering list of the event’s alumni are the likes of Dina Asher-Smith, Jonnie Peacock, Adam Gemili, Hannah Cockroft and Elle Simmonds.
One of the truly special aspects of the School Games is what actually happens outside of competition. The 1,000-plus young athletes who compete at Loughborough University over the four days will leave with so much more than just medals and memories.
With the passion and energy of the Youth Sport Trust, which delivers the event through National Lottery funding from Sport England, every young athlete receives support, advice and training in how to achieve sporting success in the right way.
Competitors will receive mentoring from athletes helping them to balance sport with their studies and other commitments, manage pressure and maintain focus amid distractions like social media. At the centre of that is an ambition to nurture the wellbeing of every young athlete.
While there has been a lot to celebrate in high performance sport over the past 20 years, as Chair of UK Sport and a former athlete myself, I have been clear that medals and success cannot come at the expense of athlete’s wellbeing. This is crucial to sustain long-term success and continued enjoyment of sport.
Transforming the approach to athlete welfare has been one of the greatest challenges facing high performance sport in recent years. So, it is fantastic that an event like the School Games is helping to lead the way and get this right from an early stage.
But this is a challenge which transcends the world of elite sport.
Coming from a family of teachers, I have been dismayed to see the decline of physical activity within schools. Recent research from the Youth Sport Trust showing that almost two-in-five English secondary schools have cut timetabled PE since 2012.
Just as elite sport must not put the pursuit of medals ahead of the welfare of athletes, it would be incredibly short-sighted to put grades ahead of young people’s wellbeing.
In both cases, there isn’t a choice to be made between welfare and performance – the two go hand-in-hand.
During this year’s School Games, we’ll undoubtedly get to see some of the future stars who will be part of the long-term success of British sport.
But its most impressive legacy of all could be playing a crucial role in a culture change which helps sustain the success of British sport for generations to come.