British sporting priorities are now dominated by 2012, misplaced pride, dogma and greed, says Paul Stump
Until, for reasons unclear even today, I realised a soccer ability of a decent schoolboy standard, I was always the last to be picked for teams during PE or Games; they were hateful. The 1974 World Cup changed things; I was seven and wanted to be Dutch and suddenly put a lot of effort into becoming a kind of midfield all-rounder, as tough as creative. It seemed to work... Wim Van Hanegem, you've a lot of bruised shins in Newport to answer for.
But even now as a de facto 'athlete' I still hated sports day, as do generations of schoolchildren, bullied into this annual ritual of humiliation - which, we are now informed, is making a late surge on the rails and back into vogue after years of poofy-PC oppression thanks to London landing the Olympics. Quite apart from the emetic effect of the Blairite self-praise in that plainly untruthful suffix, is this altogether a good thing?
It's easy to mock the Islingtonite opposition to competitive sports at school age - everyone gets a prize, yes, you too, Tabetha and Casper! - but it's instructive to note that it took root outside London when Thatcherism denuded education of facilities that might have enabled kids who were rubbish at sport - i.e. most of us - to excel elsewhere. History? Bunk. Art? For 'lasses and queers' as Biffa Bacon would say. Music? Who's seen the school's recorder?
PE was fun, and not because of Diane Gibson's legs - although I wasn't much cop at shinnying up ropes and couldn't turn a cartwheel for toffee, it was exhilarating. There was a graceful, effeminate boy, Howard, in my class with a natural gift for the sport, an odd musculature and a seemingly elasticated body - but he hated all other sports. How to encourage him to fulfil his gifts? Answer - don't even bother. No time, no money, no staff. Sports day was as horrid to him as it was to nearly all of us who couldn't run fast. A sports academy? In 1976? Not a chance. What's changed? Nowt; and despite an avalanche of rapid-rebuttal stats from Whitehall, it's not likely to, because lads like Howard won't even get the chance to show off their skills in normal school time.
Opposition to 'competitiveness' helped camouflage and, no doubt in some places excuse, the wholesale destruction of school sports facilities; fields redeveloped, gyms gutted. Of course it could be argued that the British have always been diminished by their devotion to flannelled foolery and muddied oafishness at the expense of higher pursuits; generations of leaders, Etonians and Harrovians were measured more for their rugger and cricket prowess than their familiarity with, say, Pascal or Schopenhauer or Donne. The problem we have now, of course, is that despite the said 19th century oafs and fools devising definitive codes for many competitive sports played in the world today - and for which the British are revered in France and Germany - we're not, at the moment, very good at many of those sports, which kicks away one of the most singular particularities of British identity.
So what? Do we want ourselves to be so defined? Leaving aside the aesthetic and cultural properties of sport, and sporting success, to a healthy society, there's another angle.
The former England goalkeeper David James wrote in The Guardian that combating child obesity through sport and exercise and good coaching is a major issue facing this country. I agree, and who wouldn't (but I wouldn't fancy you telling me how to cut out a cross, David), and if those criteria were the sole issue of the token governmental attemps to regenerate sport and childhood exercise cynicism might be easier to hold down in the gorge.
Keeping one's lunch down when encountering New Labour hollowness and vanity is now a daily endeavour under Blairism, but today's announcement that sports days are directly attributable to London's securing of the 2012 Olympics requires a larger than usual diurnal dose of bicarb. This briefing, apparently unsupported by even the tiniest molecule of evidence save for an unspecified 'government survey', features in most broadsheets, and is so preposterous that it can surely only be understood by examining the motives in releasing it in the first place.
Forecast; the 2012 Olympics will be one of the truest and most resonant legacies of Blairism - a Bacchanalia of profiteering, snout-in-the-trough obscenity and wilfully indulged crappiness and rip-off that will make the grubby fiascos of the railways, the Dome and Wembley look like Calvinist models of propriety. Never mind local objections, thousands of lorries belching out emissions, traffic chaos, second-rate stadia jerry-built on the cheap, local businesses screwed, 21st-century Rachmans and Hyamses and Poulsons will be round Stratford like flies round shit (this writer herewith predicts a 200% overspend). It wouldn't be careless to surmise that London got the Games because the Wen is now an even more corrupt city than Paris. In the French capital, most of the infrastructure and facilities were in place - so how much latitude for a super-rich cabal of mates trousering king's ransom contracts there? Precious little, as those famously squeaky-clean IOC wallahs correctly guessed. But of course, the benefits, the benefits... every time the number of jobs created rises. 12,000. 15,000. I heard recently that 2012 will bring 100,000 new jobs to London. Examine the employment statistics of Sydney, Atlanta, Athens, Barcelona; you may be in for a nasty surprise.
At least in France the gravy train makes a few intermediate stops; here it's not even fitted with brakes. As one commentator told me; 'the gravy train's the only train left in Britain that never gets delayed'. This latest absurdity is simply another little occasional fanfare to keep the moneymen onside, the press interested, and, hopefully, the public agog. In other words, to make more money for a select few, the lucky contractors present in this modern-day financial Salo.
Which leaves sport precisely where? Oh, sport, yes, of course, almost forgot...
Given the failure of not one but TWO schools of excellence set up by the FA (France's Clairefontaine, the state-of-the-art academy of the FFF, continues to flourish), the status of Manchester's facilities for the Commonwealth Games (remember them?) in 2002, and a score of other 'high profile' leisure projects around the country, sport should be very worried. A government who has twice employed a senior minister with 'no problem' about extreme wealth and whose idea of redistribution seems to be handing over large sums of public money to the pornographically wealthy, can hardly be trusted to invest in kit or ideas that might actually improve people's lives.
The most telling subtext of this latest tragic boast was that the increase in school sports days would 'increase the chance of more gold medals in 2012'. Never mind getting kids fit or interested in orienteering or sailing or badminton; oh no - investors won't buy that. That is not an attractive portfolio. Plus it won't look good on telly (another Blairite obsession). We want success! David Coleman once breathlessly yelled in a live TV broadcast;'who cares who's first or second, David Jenkins is third'' Now it's likely to be 'who cares who's second or third', as long as our guy or gal breasts the tape first. And if gal, the more breast the better. Do we want Le Tissiers or Daley Thompsons? Or just relentlessly sculpted athletes that will enrich media magnates through hi-profile exposure?
2012 is not, has never been, and will never be, remotely connected to improving the nation's health or sporting performances, and those who have been saying otherwise are some of the most egregious public dissemblers of our time. Billions of pounds of public money will mean more wallets get fat and fewer kids slim down. This goes further than an empty, and impossible, atavistic yearning for a non-existent Corinthian, amateur past. 2012 is about the naked pursuit of greed and reflected glory - the governmental obsession with gold medals for the host country in its bulletins on the Games is scarcely less the grotesquely kitsch cheerleading of a hubristic regime than that in Hitler's Berlin in 1936, Brezhnev's Moscow in 1980 or Reagan's LA in 1984.
Britain does have a downer on winners, to the detriment of its sporting practitioners - but in Australia, the unsung losers seem to enjoy sport as much as the lionised winners. Here, with the withering of sports facilities and the increasing channelling of funds to the elite few, people have increasingly less choice as to whether taking part of winning is more important. Down under, you can get stuck in, no matter how much of a dag you are (to use the vernacular). In Blair's business-driven Britain, only winners count - any given Sunday, just watch those soccer moms and dads screaming their charges on - so maybe the return of the sports day isn't quite so disengaged from 2012 after all.
Whatever the tone of the Games - Morris dancing or Ali G for the opening ceremony? - a hundred grand to a consultancy firm to unpick that one, oh let's have a Bangladeshi wassailer - 2012 is likely to be a depressingly authentic exposition of modern Britain. Money, money, money. Medals? Oh, well, we can always buy some, can't we? Can't we?