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Youth sport programmes take a knock

Could footballers of tomorrow be a thing of the past? Federal Sports Office

Efforts to promote increased physical fitness among Switzerland’s youth are facing a serious setback.

This content was published on February 17, 2004 - 13:44

Planned government cutbacks could mean Bern’s contribution to youth sport programmes is reduced by SFr5 million ($4 million).

Swiss people lead increasingly sedentary lives. One citizen in every three is overweight; one in 20 is obese.

And this isn’t just a problem for elderly couch potatoes or flabby desk-workers; it affects all age groups, including children.

Youth obesity

In 2003, a survey conducted by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich concluded that 16.7 per cent of young people aged between six and 12 needed to lose some weight, while 3.8 per cent were actually obese. And the percentages are growing.

The reason may be unhealthy eating or high stress levels. Or it may be that children’s excessive use of electronic games during their leisure time is pushing out more traditional physical activities.

In Switzerland, the direct social costs of obesity-related health problems are put at SFr1-2 billion.

And now, paradoxically, the federal government could be making the situation worse by reducing its funding of sporting activities for young people.

Army of 500,000

Synchronised swimming, football, snowboarding and karate – the national “Youth and Sport” (Y+S) programme promotes more than 60 sporting disciplines for young people aged between ten and 20.

And it is highly successful. Of 900,000 Swiss adolescents, more than half are active in at least one of the disciplines supported by the Y+S programme.

The most talented will become champions, boosting the country’s sporting reputation at the highest level. Others will learn simply to keep fit.

But this could all change: as part of the 2003 cost-cutting plan approved in December, parliament has reduced the federal contribution to the Y+S programme by SFr5.2 million a year.

Some observers, such as Christian Democrat politician Christophe Darbellay, say this is an absurdity: why spend millions on preventive health initiatives then cut down on sports activities for young people?

In some areas, philanthropists have stepped in to make up the shortfall. A benefactor recently donated a large sum to the youth section of the Swiss skiing association.

The withdrawal of central government subsidies has, in certain cases, led to facilities being downsized. Will this be the fate of the Y+S programme?

More cantonal money

“Let us make one thing clear: the Youth and Sport programme will be maintained and preserved,” said Maximilian Reimann, right-wing Swiss People’s Party senator and chairman of the parliamentary sports committee.

“However, it is appropriate to discuss who should fund it.

“Under the new financial arrangements, more resources and competences will be allocated to the cantons, enabling them to increase their share of the funding of Y+S,” said Reimann.

“They will be able to take over from central government and continue to promote sport among young people.”

However, greater decentralisation, which was provided for in the 1972 law setting up the Y+S programme, could lead to discrepancies in the extent to which different regions support their young people.

Rich and poor

The fear is that, while wealthier cantons will have no difficulty in shouldering a greater share of the burden and providing the full Y+S service, the less well off will not have the means to do so.

So they will have to scale down the activities they organise for young people, or ask participants in Y+S programmes to contribute more from their own pockets.

Considering that most cantons are having difficulty balancing their budgets, it is likely that many of them will not be able to sustain the commitment previously undertaken by the federal government.

“So far we have managed to modify our programmes without jeopardising the training of young people excessively,” concluded a cantonal Y+S manager, who preferred not to be identified.

“But soon, especially if Bern continues to withdraw from this field of activity, we could be forced to make savings at their expense.”

swissinfo, Marzio Pescia

Key facts

500,000 young people are active in Y+S programmes in one form or another.
The federal government is planning to make spending cuts of SFr6 billion over the next three years (2004-2006).
Consequently, from 2005, Y+S will have the federal contribution to its budget cut by SFr5.2 million a year.

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In brief

The Youth and Sport programme is currently allocated an annual budget of around SFr60 million of which SFr54 million goes to sports clubs in the form of direct grants.

The remaining SFr6 million is used to train teachers and coaches. The federal government underwrites the entire budget.

At present, the cantons contribute an additional SFr12 million, which is spent on infrastructure and the running of local Youth and Sport offices.

The funding reduction, planned for 2005, could be just the first step in the federal government’s withdrawal from this field of activity.

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