By Steven Downes
Perhaps we ought not be surprised that a Government which took the nation to war on a false premise should now be trying to invest the 2012 Olympics with a status it is unlikely ever to fulfil.
No one has ever suggested that Gordon Brown is a naif, so the only construction that can be placed on his call for the London Games to become some sort of panacea for the health and fitness ills of the country’s future generations is that he was being archly cynical when he made his recent policy statement, in the pages of the Daily Mail, to overhaul school sport.
“2012 is a great opportunity for our country; it can make us both a greater sporting nation and a fitter nation,” the Chancellor wrote in the latest step in his progress from No11 to No10 Downing Street.
Yet there is no evidence whatsoever that staging an Olympic Games contributes in any lasting way to the improved fitness of the host nation.
There’s been no significant drop off in the sales of burgers or fizzy pop in America since they staged the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Spain revolutionised their elite sport structure to great effect prior to the Barcelona Games, but there is nothing to show a legacy of citizen sporting participation.
And in Seoul, the multi-million dollar Olympic swimming pool had armed guards placed outside it once the 1988 Games were over to ensure that none of the riffraff from the Korean public dared go inside to paddle a few lengths.
In fact, in trying to merge the twin ambitions of elite medal-winning performance and mass sport-for-all fitness, Brown, his Government and the various funding agencies involved run a serious risk of compromising both laudable, but distinctly separate, goals.
While Gordon and his mates might well have enjoyed the occasional Sunday morning kickaround after watching Raith play on Saturday afternoon, there has never been any true link between watching elite sport and participation for health and fitness.
By peddling the myth that, somehow, the nation’s couch potatoes are all going to get off their bottoms if we win few gold medals in 2012, Brown did something quite insidious: he passed the buck for improving the nation’s fitness, or lack of it, from the people who are really responsible – the electorate and their own families – and on to the country’s already over-loaded schools.
In his Mail article, the Chancellor spoke fondly of a long-lost, sepia-tinged era, a sort of Gord Brown’s Schooldays, when all pupils happily took part in endless hours of school sport. The Chancellor ordained that a return to at least four hours a week of school sport and reintroduction of competitive games would improve a situation where obesity among 5- to 14-year-olds has increased by 50 per cent in 10 years.
Yet simple commonsense suggests that it will not. Set aside the politically volatile aspects about competitive games and current health and safety issues: even when Gordon was a wee lad, sport in school for most was just one game of football a week more like the scene from Kes, with Brian Glover as the bombastic PE master, than any romantic vision from the playing fields of Eton.
Competitive sport is not the panacea, as argued simplistically by the Tories, either. The already sporty and fit will play in the school team each week with little encouragement needed. But what happens to the fitness of the other 100-or-so kids in the year group at each school that do not make it into the first XI or XV? It is this lumpen mass of non-sporting types where the greatest health problems are to be found.
Sources in Westminster are suggesting that when Brown delivers his Pre-Budget Report later this month, school sports measures will be prominent, including perhaps the addition of health and fitness on every child’s end of term report and the introduction of school nurses to supervise this aspect.
This is despite the fact that our children spend only 30 hours of each week actually at school, and that is only in term. The rest of the time, what they eat and drink and what exercise they take ought to be the responsibility of themselves and their parents. If little Johnny or Jenny spends all weekend drinking sugary fizzy drinks while glued to their PS2, an army of fitness nurses in school will not make the slightest difference.
Unfortunately, what Chancellor Brown had to say in his Mail article did not suggest any solutions, but offered just greater demands of teachers within the already tightly structured national curriculum.
Steven Downes has been writing on Olympic sports for 20 years, and has coaching qualifications in athletics and swimming.
The views expressed here are the opinions of the author, and do not represent the policy of the Sport Journalists’ Association
What are your views on Chancellor Brown’s proposals for school sport? Post your Comment in the box below
Time is running out for you to vote for your choice of Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year.