The Role of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in the Promotion of Youth Athletics and Outdoor Education

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh on the Balcony of Buckingham Palace during the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations

This past week, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh will not accompany his wife, Queen Elizabeth II to the Opening Ceremonies for the Paralympic Games this Wednesday August 29. Instead, he will remain at the royal family’s Balmoral estate in Scotland as he continues to recuperate from a recent bladder infection.

The decision to remain at Balmoral was undoubtedly difficult for the 91 year old Duke as he has devoted much of his sixty-five years as a senior member of the British royal family to the promotion of youth athletics and outdoor activities. From the first years of his marriage to Princess Elizabeth to the present day, Prince Philip has served as a patron of existing organizations that promote youth participation in sport and founded new initiatives that support increased physical activity and outdoor education for young people.

Gordonstoun School in Scotland

Philip first became interested in physical education as a pupil at the Gordonstoun boarding school in Moray, Scotland during the 1930s. The school’s founder, Kurt Hahn, advocated outdoor education and physical fitness as part of a well rounded educational program. While attending Gordonstoun, the young Prince Philip of Greece learned to sail in the Moray Firth. He explained to Gyles Brandreth, “My best schoolmaster is the Moray Firth. I was wet, cold, miserable, probably sick, and often scared stiff, but I would not have missed the experience for anything (Brandreth, Philip And Elizabeth, p. 39).” Philip graduated Gordonstoun with a firm belief that youth athletics and outdoor education were essential components of a well rounded school curriculum.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at the time of the Queen's coronation in 1953.

Upon his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, the newly created Duke of Edinburgh immediately found opportunities to promote physical and outdoor education. His charitable patronage between his marriage and his wife’s ascension to the throne, in 1952, was almost exclusively focused on organizations that promoted amateur athletics, physical education and outdoor activities. In 1947, he became the patron of the London Federation of Boys Clubs (now London Youth).

The following year, he accepted the presidency of the National Playing Fields Association, which he has held to the present day. When the Central Council of Physical Recreation for the United Kingdom appeared close to being disbanded in 1951, Philip assumed the presidency and guided the organization into its president form as the Sport and Recreation Alliance (For a list of Prince Philip’s charitable patronages compiled by Buckingham Palace archivist Anne Griffiths, see Brandreth, Philip And Elizabeth, p. 369-376).

When Princess Elizabeth became Queen of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth in 1952, Philip had the opportunity to develop his own programs to promote physical and outdoor education worldwide. In 1956, he introduced the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to reward youth participation in sports and outdoor activities. The new award was designed to recognize boys (and girls from 1958) who took the initiative to increase their participation in athletics and design their own outdoor expeditions. In its current form, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards are distributed at the bronze, silver and gold level to young people between the ages of 14 and 24 who achieve objectives in volunteering, physical fitness, outdoor expeditions and practical skills.

Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on their first tour of Canada in 1951

During his commonwealth tours with the Queen, Philip was eager to promote the Duke of Edinburgh Award as an opportunity for young people to increase their physical fitness and engagement with the natural world. In the 1950s and 1960s, his message was not always well received. During a cross country tour of Canada in 1959, Philip used his acceptance speech as the first lay President of the Canadian Medical Association as an opportunity to encourage Canadians to improve their physical fitness.

During his speech before more than 900 doctors and their spouses at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, Philip stated, “There is evidence that, despite everything, people in Canada are not as fit as they might be. Four things are necessary to change this state of affairs. Proper physical education in schools, adequate recreation facilities for all ages and sections of the community, an extension of the work of youth organizations in both scope and age, and finally an organization to promote recreational sports and to encourage people to take part in them (Reprinted in Arthur Bousfield et al, Royal Observations: Canadians and Royalty, p. 85).”

The speech provoked a debate in the Canadian media. The Toronto Sun implied that the Prince had committed a gaffe by telling Canadians, “We’re soft” while the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix quoted the Vice Chairman of the Canadian Pan-American Games Committee who defended the speech, stating, “Prince Philip echoes the sentiments of all informed sport people in Canada.”

Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex at the wedding of Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden

In the twenty-first century, Prince Philip’s promotion of youth athletics and outdoor activities is no longer considered controversial as governments, schools and medical organizations worldwide seek to combat the health conditions exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles by encouraging physical education. As the Prince gradually reduces his public engagements in his 90s, his children and grandchildren are continuing to promote his causes. Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex currently distributes the Duke of Edinburgh Awards worldwide and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry promoted youth involvement in sports as Ambassadors for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Prince Philip’s promotion of youth athletics and outdoor education has had a lasting impact in increasingly popular awareness of the benefits of an active lifestyle.

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