PARTICIPATION numbers in this year's Tasmanian All Schools Cross Country held over the past two weeks reveal much about the future of school sport in Tasmania and indeed its longer term heath prospects.
On the surface more than 3000 school children taking part in the 20 events contested looks like a great outcome for Athletics Tasmania, sports in schools and physical activity generally.
However, nearly two thirds of those taking part were in the primary events, with almost all of those races each attracting more than 200 participants. Anecdotal evidence suggest those numbers could have even been higher.
Primary parents have taken to direct contact and social media to express their concern that their child's school either did not promote participation at all or left it to parents to organise entries, transport and management of the runners on race-day.
Nonetheless this looks like encouraging stuff with the kids, whatever their level of ability, appearing to enjoy the day year after year and for most of them exerting themselves for the full journey of the race.
New technology has been implemented to ensure greater accuracy of placing and run time for each of the participants.
Even in the under-14 and under- 15 age group at the secondary event, the trends are similar - but with the exception that numbers in each year group begin to drop off, to the point where in the oldest age categories the participation numbers are tiny by comparison.
A few years ago teachers petitioned Athletics Tasmania to reduce the distances offered in the under-20 age group from the nationally recommended 8km for boys and 6km for girls to 6km and 4km respectively, claiming that the races were too far to get students to take part in them.
Since then, entry numbers in those age groups have declined even further. The problem seems not to be the distance, but more that older students either lack the motivation or encouragement to take part, or are simply not physically fit enough to run for 20 to 30 minutes.
Of course this coincides with the continuing decline of emphasis on sport and physical activity in Tasmanian schools, with a greater dependence on state sporting organisations to pick up the cudgel to ensure that even a semblance of physical education as we once knew it remains on the curriculum.
Schools are invited to input on dates for inter-school carnivals and do so. But then are equally quick to offer excuses as to why they did not participate such as a clash with year 10 exams. Clearly those decision makers don't rate options for physical activity high enough.
Meanwhile, every report that comes out on the physical health of the nation, reveals increasing obesity levels and reduced engagement in exercise of all types. While we wait to see whether the newly installed state government rates these issues more seriously than its predecessors and places the physical health of its youngest citizens on a similar level to their intellectual well-being, there is a glimmer of hope federally.
Canberra's Sporting Schools initiative has the potential to make a breakthrough, but it must be driven by sporting organisations, as has been indicated by the Australian Sports Commission.
If it is left to schools to initiate, as suggested recently by the Federal Member for Bass, then it runs the risk of being both token, and then a failure.