The rollerskating route to national sporting failure

Park Life
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TO THE non-sporting schoolboy, compulsory football - or worse still, compulsory rugby - must be a terrible experience; a sort of officially sanctioned bullying with no chance of escape. Thankfully, enforced team sport is now usually bracketed with corporal punishment as one of the unacceptable faces of traditional education, whereas other pedagogical techniques from the same mould - chanting times tables, learning to spell by rote - are mourned as lost skills from a golden age.

I see nothing wrong with schools at least introducing pupils to our traditional team sports, if only for the comic potential of the experience. A large but essentially pacific 11-year-old of my acquaintance arrived home from his new school earlier this term and told his mother how he had been required to put his head between boy's legs and somehow push against some other boys' bottoms. She was convinced her poor son was being subjected to an arcane initiation rite until the penny dropped that he was describing his first rugby scrum (so perhaps his mother was right, after all).

But if the worst excesses of compulsory team games are no longer acceptable, most of us are still convinced that some form of regular physical exertion is healthy for all children - even if, like spelling and tables, it needs to be dressed up more attractively than in the past. And so continues the search for an appropriate sport for my own refusenik 11-year-old, Tom...

His flirtation with tennis came to an unfortunate end a few weeks back when he returned from the courts with a glancing cut above his left eye - the sort of wound one associates more readily with Prince Naseem Hamed than Tim Henman. It is customary to blame the poor behaviour of young competitors on the bad example set by the pampered superstars of each sport, but no tennis pro has, as far as I know, assaulted a prospective opponent around the head with his racket - and before the game has even started.

In-line skating and skateboarding have had their turns - the perfect outdoor activities, one might have thought, for a boy who won't kick a football and wants to appear cool. Like thousands of other families, we have invested small fortunes at successive birthdays and Christmases on the blades, boards, and accompanying knee-, elbow- and wrist-pads, which now tumble out of various cupboards and chests if we risk opening them.

Hating the idea of being a mere spectator to all this fun - what could be more depressingly middle-aged than sitting on a park bench with a newspaper while your children whizz past on their wheels? - I even requested a pair of blades myself (I think it was for my 39th birthday) so I could join them as an honorary, over-age and under-cool teenager.

My experience on in-line skates was very similar to the boys': initial spills and enthusiasm, followed by a small degree of accomplishment then a distinctive flagging of interest. The problem is that blading and skateboarding are essentially fads rather than sports, which sweep through parks, classes or schools, drawing every boy in for a few weeks then just as quickly becoming passe.

They are also marketing-led, and provoke the worst sort of equipment snobbery. Whenever I have suggested a spot of blading to Tom in recent months, he has refused point- blank. I ask him why. "Because my wheels are such crap," he complains. "They can't be cleaned or oiled because of the poor quality," he adds in explanation, having learned his script well from the guys in the specialist shop, who clearly think a boy of his age should wear blades costing as much as a small car. Well, my car's not a Ferrari, but I still manage to drive it around.

And if I'm not convinced by the merits of the alternatives to the traditional games, there is another regrettable consequence to the phasing out of compulsory sport at school. As organised team games become voluntary, only the naturally talented will be encouraged - or even allowed - to take part, and pretty soon Britain will lose one of its sporting specialities; to whit, the ability to play sport badly. For it is not in a national football team that struggles to beat Luxembourg, in a rugby team that cannot keep pace with the Southern Hemisphere nations, in would-be Wimbledon champions, or in a frankly second-rate Test cricket team that you will find Britain's sporting glory. For that, look to our clumsy Sunday morning park football, our enthusiastic but slow-motion club rugby, or barely skilled village green cricket and our long evenings of pat-ball at the tennis club.