Monday 13 August 2012

Olympics - sport, politics, schools

I really love many kinds of sport. What I don't want or need, though is to be told that the people I must admire and support belong to this or that nation or this or that team. I want that to be my choice and for me to flex my own biases and leanings. So sport for me is not about me being willing to be recruited for this or that cause that is greater than this or that sportsperson or greater than this or that team.

And the person or team I follow for that particular event doesn't have to be the best or the one that someone else says is culturally nearest to me. I want to enjoy sport so I want to bring to it my own feelings, not something being engineered as part of a national effort, say. 

Some of the things I like about sport are: the intensity of the effort that precedes the event; the skill and cunning and thinking involved in doing it; the co-ordination and synthesis involved in partnerships and teams; the ultimate unpredictability of the drama of the event; the fact that there are three stages of a sporting event - the event, the commentary and the report - and that there is so much room for debate in between.

In truth, these Olympics weren't better than any other. They were an Olympics. There is absolutely no need to pretend that they were better. As one would expect, some of the sports and events were world best, others weren't. 

Then again, there is really no cause or need for some kind of massive examination of significance here. If you sink a lot of time, money and effort into elite sport, you will produce some performers who perform at world class level. The two areas of the world that did that in previous games were the Communist countries and the USA. The Communist countries did it through state funding, the USA primarily through the Universities. Both methods showed quite simply that given the time, money and effort then human beings will perform better, faster, further etc than before. Alternatively, in combat sports and the like, they will mostly but not entirely outperform those who have had less time, money and effort put in.

The significance of the UK earning itself more medals per capita of population than other places needs to be traced back through the relative levels of funding between different countries, and, very importantly, what particular sports were targeted. So, is it likely that you will get more medals for your buck if you train up a group of cyclists than it is if you train up a group of sprinters? 

So, this is about economics and politics. Decisions are made to back elite sport for political reasons. It's deemed politically desirable or expedient for the UK to be at a particular position on the medal table. 

That doesn't have very much to do with whether everyone in the UK has access to a pool, a pitch, an indoor space for games and exercise. It has very little to do with what actually goes on in schools. 

Again, that is economic and political. What needs to be spent to give everyone in UK access to these things? What kind of exercise should go on in schools?

On this last matter, we had the disgusting spectacle of rather unfit Tory ministers and representatives lecturing us on what should take place in schools: it should be competitive, it should be two hours a week etc etc. And even worse, we had that casual piece of racism about 'Indian dancing or whatever' as if schools were prisoners of a crazed multiculturalism instead of fostering a love of competitive sport. It was nasty and it was crude, trying to ride the crest of national sentiment by throwing in a bit of sneering at the 'other'...not 'ours'. Well, Indian dancing is 'ours' as much as Morris dancing, running, jumping, climbing or anything else. And, ironically, various forms of  dance were on display at both the Opening and Closing ceremonies with Asian dancing commemorating 7/7 and 'interrupting' Eric Idle singing 'Always look on the bright side..'

Some people loathe and hate competitive sport. They are afraid of it, they are humiliated by it. Some people who feel like that may love other kinds of physical activity. It is crazy and illogical for such people to be prevented from expressing themselves physically. Some people who love competitive sport, also love certain kinds of non-competitive activity. Again it's crazy and illogical for such people to be prevented from doing it. There is also a crazy illogic to thinking that great competitors at the elite level are produced by putting children through competitive sport at a very young level. There is a body of thought which argues that the acquiring of skills is at least as important as doing the sport. People who acquire physical skills may well be ones who find it easiest to carry on using the skills later in life - for fun whether that's playing beach cricket with their family, table tennis or whatever. 

However, having to listen to unfit Old Etonians lecture us about such things was painful in the extreme and another reason to loathe the fact that the Olympics gave them the platform to do it. I'm quite happy to listen to Steve Cram or Pele or even Sebastian Coe talk about sport and what it means to them. I'm extremely happy to listen to anyone far removed from elite sport who is enthusiastic about exercise and moving of the body  because that person is nearer to me in sporting culture ie like that person I've never been an elite sportsperson. And I'm extremely happy to listen to someone who has worked out how to engage all children in a school (I mean all) in various kinds of physical activity which every child enjoys and looks forward to. 

To tell the truth, no matter how much I enjoyed Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and others, I don't see the connection between what I saw on the track and this last point. Bolt - like hundreds of other runners before him - has had the effect of small boys saying in the playground, 'I'm Usain Bolt' and running like hell for forty yards. Great. I was like that about Roger Bannister. The serious question is how to get everyone enthusiastic about something physical and from that base elite sportspeople can and will be found. What happens after that depends on how a society juggles its public money. Ironic of course that at this very time the government is trumpeting the Olympians, it is cutting at the very notion that public finance should exist at all.