Sir Mo Farah, one of Britain’s most successful ever athletes, has joined The Telegraph’s Keep Kids Active campaign and a cause that he says “is much bigger than elite sport”.
The quadruple Olympic gold medallist, who is also a six-time world champion in the 10,000 metres and 5,000m, credits sport at school and in his local Hounslow community for transforming his life after he arrived in England at the age of eight.
The Telegraph has called on the Government to make children’s sport and activity an urgent national priority to mitigate the impact of prolonged Covid-19 lockdowns and Farah, who has four children, outlined the vast physical and mental benefits of exercise.
“It is obvious the impact that sport has had on my life and the many opportunities that it has given me,” he said. “However, the importance of what we are pushing for here is much bigger than elite sport. We are talking about ingraining life skills for children so they can implement the fundamentals of an active lifestyle and teach them both the physical and mental benefits of exercise.
“It’s hard to see children, my own included, already missing out on so much and so I am hoping the Government can strongly consider the proposals being put forward.”
The number of children meeting recommended daily activity levels fell from 47 per cent to just 19 per cent during the first lockdown and, with most children now again facing a prolonged period out of school, The Telegraph is calling for the Government to act.
The campaign has won the backing of numerous other leading athletes, politicians, sports administrators and governing bodies, including Lord Coe, Laura Kenny, the British Olympic Association and the Youth Sports Trust.
Farah, who was born in Somalia, attended Feltham Community College in Hounslow and experienced first-hand the life-changing benefits of inspiring PE in schools and then access to volunteer-led recreational sport.
“The first years of childhood are what shapes you,” Farah said. “I was a very active child – out of the house, no distractions, no TV. All you had to do was play, run around. That helped me.
“Coming to the UK at eight, I still walked to school every day. It was almost two miles – across the park and jump over the gate.”
And his advice to parents? “You have to find out what makes them happy. Each child is different. I just want to give them variety.”
Farah’s four children – Rihanna, Aisha, Amani and Hussein – enjoy a combination of rowing, football, gymnastics and swimming but, like millions of other children, have found their options severely limited following the closure of schools and sports clubs.
Alan Watkinson, Farah’s former PE teacher at Feltham, is also supporting our campaign and stressed both the immediate importance of “damage limitation” during lockdown and then the need for a national plan.
“It’s a holding operation at the moment to keep kids as active as possible,” Watkinson said. “The biggest thing now is holding a high line in terms of advocacy of physical activity – we need the message to go out from schools, the Government and the media that kids need to be active. The Telegraph is a shining beacon in this.”
Watkinson has been encouraged that schools are now increasingly providing virtual PE lessons, but says that it would be hugely beneficial if the wider proliferation of online activities could be expertly organised into an accessible online hub for parents, teachers and children.
When measures allow, he also stressed how PE should be on a par with core subjects and the need to nationally recognise that “alongside being literate, being physically active and healthy is just as important”.
Watkinson also said that the opening up of schools as community facilities during holidays, and extending the school day to offer more sport in state schools, as is the case in private schools, would represent a critical “levelling up” of society.
Of the experience of teaching Farah, Watkinson added: “He was having a tough time when he arrived – sport and PE were his only language because he couldn’t speak English. He absolutely loved PE and sport. He was able to communicate and relate to other kids through that. Community sport also became a place where he could communicate and integrate into society.
“Mo also taught me so much. He showed what can be achieved by a love of something and a willingness to really apply yourself to it. To hear him talk recently on I’m A Celebrity about how sport had transformed his life, and how doing sport at school had made it possible to be in the position he is now, was fantastic.
“He’s an extreme example in a way because of what he has gone on to achieve, but I see it regularly: sport and activity changes children’s lives.”