Sport England’s announcement that more women than ever are now participating in sport is a welcome one but there is still big room for improvement.

That’s the view of UCFB Wembley’s Desislava Goranova following the publication of Sport England’s Active People Survey (APS), which showed that more than 7.2 million women now take part in sport in England and do regular physical activity – 250,000 more than when the This Girl Can campaign was launched in 2014.

The reported increase means the gender gap is now at 1.55 million, down from a figure which was once over two million.

Desislava, Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Stadium & Event Management degree at UCFB, has studied sport participation, so is apprehensive of the data used by Sport England to gauge its figures now and in recent years.

She said: “It’s impressive to see that campaigns like This Girl Can have had a significant and positive impact on female sport participation, but 7.2 million people is still only a small fraction when you consider the adult population of the UK, so it would be great to see the introduction of more campaigns aimed at encouraging women to play sport.”

Desislava Goranova, Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Stadium & Event Management degree at UCFB

Desislava Goranova, Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Stadium & Event Management degree at UCFB

Sport England, who fund the grassroots levels of sport in the country, report that the number of people aged 16 and above participating in sport on a weekly basis now stands at 15.97 million for the 12 months up to September 2016 – an increase of just under 230,000.

Ahead of the Rio Olympics in August, Desi explained how the data used in the APS wasn’t a true reflection. Previous APS’s have shown small spikes in participation following the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, before tailing off. The data for total participation also doesn’t consider the increase in the UK population.

UK Sport, the body that awards funds to Olympic and Paralympic sport over a four-year period, has also just announced what money is available ahead of Tokyo 2020. In total, £345million has been awarded – the same as the Rio 2016 cycle.

Funding has historically increased for sports that perform heroically on the world stage, and is often seen as necessary to increase participation numbers at grassroots level. Team GB’s gymnastic team exceeded all expectations in Rio winning seven medals – including two golds – smashing its medal target in the process, so a natural increase in participation was expected. Just over 13,000 more people are now involved in the sport compared to this time last year, but overall participation currently stands at a lowly 65,100.

Desi said the figure isn’t acceptable. She added: “Encouragement for the work put in to stimulate participation should be given, but it is far too early for praise. Gymnastics is one of the more successful sports for Team GB on the international stage, so it deserves more funding and better support at both grassroots and elite levels. Investing in grassroots ultimately benefits the talent pool.”

Whereas gymnastics has seen an increase in participation, athletics and cycling have seen a sharp decline. Athletics has lost 108,000 participants, and cycling over 85,000. Sport England say both sports are attracting and retaining fewer people under 25.

On top of this, cycling, of which Team GB enjoyed another glorious medal haul in Rio, has seen its funding drop by nearly £5million for the run up to Tokyo.

Desi said: It is disappointing, but not surprising. Elite level funding and medals are not enough to influence grassroots participation, so perhaps it would be more beneficial for the funding and emphasis to be shifted towards the grassroots levels? Otherwise, there is a risk of losing the momentum and the successful reputation these sports have.”

She added: “The first effects are already there, look at who won the athletics medals in Rio. There were also less gold medals won, and the two Team GB did win were by Mo Farah just like London 2012. Where is new talent going to come from if grassroots participation does not improve?”

If Sport England can continue to improve female participation with further engaging campaigns like This Girl Can, then in the long run we could see increased performances and more medals on the international stage from a growing field of elite athletes.