Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Olympic success is great but it will not change society

I love it when British sports teams do well. We all love it when British teams do well. But it does not change society.

Winning the 2003 rugby union world cup and regaining the Ashes did not change society. In fact they have barely changed rugby or cricket.

So while I have been enjoying our extraordinary success in Beijing, I do not have much time for arguments like this:

The Olympics ... provoke children, and adults, into running, swimming, cycling, jumping and rowing. They give the ordinary heroes, and draw us a little way after them. They remind us what hard work, dedication and skill can do. They provide stories about heartache and bravery - Paula Radcliffe - and giving something back - Kelly Holmes. And by doing that, they change millions of people's lives far away from grand stadiums.

Take, for instance, the ludicrous and offensive suggestion that overweight children should be taken into care because obesity is a form of "child abuse". (If it is, then removing children from their parents is a worse one.) The real way to fight child obesity is through food education, yes, but also sport.

Looking around at all the lean kids in coloured shirts, even I can see that Manchester United or Liverpool do more to stop British boys being too fat than any government programme.

What the glamour of football does for millions of boys needs to be matched for other boys, and for girls.

It comes from an article in the Guardian by Jackie Ashley: "The Olympian feats can inspire our obese nation."

Let's take the author back in a time machine to the mid 1980s. It is a land where Ian Botham and David Gower are bigger names than any footballer. The Premiership is years away and far fewer kids wear football shirts. Yet there are many more lean kids around than in 2008.

Which suggests that whatever regulates how many obese children there are, it is not the popularity of our leading football clubs.

Sport these days is big business - it is hard not to agree with David Mitchell observation (on Mock the Week a few days ago) that we are very good at sports that African men are too poor to enter. If current trends continue, in 10 years' time the Premiership will by played out entirely by African youths for the benefit of obese British crowds.

What used to make British kids lean was not organised team games but unsupervised play. So it is alarming to read that Newark and Sherwood District Council is planning to fine children who play football in the street £100, it is profoundly depressing.

This may be a function of the breakdown of informal policing of children - people no longer feel entitled to tell them to go and play somewhere else, so they phone the police instead - but it is profoundly depressing.


Alasdair W said...

It's certainly true. People are always talking about how these things should inspire many people. I remember after we won the Rugby World Cup sports commentators talked of how it could inspire young people to take up rugby. I haven't seen young people in huge numbers inspired.

Of course that isn't to rule it out. I think a minority of the population is inspired by these athletes. Some even decide to take action and try to get fitter. And we do need that inspiration, because we do need a healthier country.

Anonymous said...

"So it is alarming to read that Newark and Sherwood District Council is planning to fine children who play football in the street £100, it is profoundly depressing."

You know, something I've always thought the party should campaign on is an end the 'No Ball Games' signs.

I bet you could correlate the rise in obesity to the rise in 'No Ball Games' signs.