The science of sport will take centre stage this month with the Observatory for Sport in Scotland’s (OSS) national summit in Edinburgh, and it is to be welcomed, writes Dr Catherine Calderwood.
We love sport for its highs and lows. We watched the final of the Rugby World Cup with South Africa making history again. Captain Siya Kolisi spoke of how this sporting success would resonate far beyond sports fields and deep into all communities of South Africa.
It also finished a tournament in which the wonder of Japan and the Japanese people was savoured by a global audience.
Closer to home we witnessed the Glasgow City women’s football team progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals. It is a reminder that the development which led to Shelley Kerr’s national side delighting us in the summer’s World Cup finals was no flash in the plan, and that women’s football remains on a positive trajectory in Scotland.
Can there be negatives? Recently we had Dr Willie Stewart’s and Glasgow University’s research around head injuries in sport. This and previous research led to the campaign by Scottish and world rugby to change how concussion was managed and has led to new protocols, changing how players were tackled in this World Cup, reducing the incidence of head injuries.
The latest research was into footballers born before 1976. While the weight of footballs has changed, it was alarming to see the high incidence of dementia and neurodegenerative illnesses in nearly 8,000 ex-footballers compared with non-footballers. Already, the Scottish Football Association has moved to consider banning heading by players under 12.
I welcome the science. Dr Stewart also reported that the footballers suffered less heart disease, were less likely to develop lung cancer and lived, on average, three years longer.
Sport must be open to all
I have children who love playing sport and as a parent I have worried about the levels of danger, but I recognise that sport has many physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits, and I would worry for a society where we did not have access to sport.
I have written many times about Scotland’s levels of inactivity – almost 1-in-5 Scots do not walk for 20 minutes or more even once a month – and about the value of prevention in tackling health problems. In September, the UK Chief Medical Officers issued new guidance on the amount and type of physical activity people should be doing to improve their health. Sport for all ages from pre-school to older generations plays a significant role in drawing people off couches and away from phones or computers, and into social environments where they can expend physical energy with short and long-term health benefits.
Risk comes with that, just as when your child takes their first steps to school without you holding their hand or you watch them wobble on their first solo bike ride – which is a necessary level of risk to allow people to grow and develop. What is vital, however, is that we pay attention to the science to help us understand sport better and how we can maximise its benefits. That is a key focus for the OSS at its first National Sport Summit at Tynecastle Stadium on 25 November, when people from across government, local authorities, sport bodies and communities will discuss and debate the future of Scottish sport and research. Why? To help us to keep sport at the heart of our communities, accessible to all and improving the physical and mental health and wellbeing of everyone.
Dr Catherine Calderwood is Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer and she is grateful to David Ferguson, executive director, Observatory for Sport in Scotland, for his contribution.