A sick note for the national health

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The Independent Online
GENERATIONS of jolly gym mistresses who would terrify Jonah Lomu, decades of sadistic games masters who would urge frail, goose-pimpled bodies up the wall-bars or into painful collisions on the football field; these are some of the culprits responsible for sending a shudder down the spines of over half the nation whenever the word sport is mentioned and are the reason why we need to enlist the assistance of the Prime Minister himself to prevent sporting activity vanishing from the vision of our schoolchildren.

We cannot lay the entire blame for building up an antipathy for sport on those zealots with whistles around their necks, evil in their hearts and a special disdain for notes from your mother asking if you could be excused the cross-country because of a sore throat. Many others have played a part; a government that has stood by while 5,000 school playing fields have been sold off since 1979; education authorities who overloaded teachers to the extent that the willingness to run school teams after hours was destroyed; unhinged educationalists who drove competitive sport out of their schools on the grounds that it was unfair to the less talented.

Meanwhile, at what we might laughingly call the adult level, we have some splendid examples of how sport regularly demonstrates its suitability to play a contributory role to our enjoyment and understanding of life. Rugby authorities around the world are selling their games to bidders who hitherto have not been the type with whom they would have willingly mixed while simultaneously threatening dire consequences on any players who might fancy the same freedom. Notices advertising our top athletic meetings now carry stickers saying "Subject to Contract". And if the chariots of fire require more oiling these days so, it appears, do several of our football managers.

Despite the distressing evidence that sport's ability to inspire is not always to be trusted, we surely have plenty of other examples of how sporting achievement can lift a nation or encourage people of a certain age or class. And while I would reiterate my wish that there should be some way in which sport could be rescued from the consequences of incompetence by governing bodies, we have seen a purposeful step in the direction of establishing sport's importance to us.

It is 10 days since John Major launched his initiative to restore sports to the centre of school life and to fund the avenues along which the brightest prospects could then proceed towards bringing glory to the nation. It was well received and there is no sign yet of a counter-attack from the academic ranks whose recent priorities in the matter of providing us with healthy minds in healthy bodies have tended to let the bodies look after themselves.

Silence, however, should never be taken as acquiescence. Too often have we heard promising measures from politicians only for the ideas to be quietly elbowed into touch by bureaucrats at some future juncture. The Prime Minister, however, has an ally enjoyed by none of his predecessors: the National Lottery, from which so many bounties can flow. But we are still a long way from grasping the full potential of the opportunities.

One problem is that the distribution of the lottery proceeds has been hemmed in by so many conditions that obtaining genuinely creative investment in the nation's future is far from straightforward, and Mr Major will have to encourage changes in the share-out format. But by already allocating money to begin the process of maximising the time devoted to sport in schools and to encourage the promotion of links between schools and local clubs, his plans should at least gain an early foothold.

The Sports Council is to be empowered to protect playing fields and there will be funds to help schools find private-sector sponsors and to increase the number of sports scholarships in higher education. The provision of facilities is to be stepped up to the extent that by the year 2000 every child in every school will be within reach of adequate sporting facilities. This resurgence of sporting opportunity will apply not only to the talented few but to children and adults, the able-bodied and disabled.

Of course, there will always be the talented few and their paths to glory will proceed via a pounds 100m British Academy of Sport which will provide the elite with top coaching and training facilities. It all amounts to a comprehensive and well- structured system to allow sport to make its contribution to the well- being of the nation. But with the lottery money being concentrated on capital investment there is a marked lack of detailed information on the incentives available to the people who will be responsible for making it all happen - I refer to the gym mistresses and the games masters into whose merciful care our kids are going to be coralled.

I trust that physical education takes a more enlightened approach these days and that the subject now offers a broader choice of healthy activities. But the teachers will only be able to make their essential contribution if they are trained and can be properly recompensed for the extra-curricular involvement that running competitive sports programmes invariably brings.

All the best-laid plans in the world will fail without grass-root human enthusiasm. The statistics to remember should not involve how often we get beaten at football or cricket but that one in three males has a criminal record by the age of 30 and one adult in five has enough exercise to remain healthy. We know that sport can divert the young from crime and drugs and I am sure the Prime Minister will receive the support of all if lottery funding is allowed to get where it will have the most benefit.

The bookmakers William Hill and I have not enjoyed the best week of our long relationship. No sooner had I placed with them via the telephone a modest bet on Bernhard Langer to win the Open at 12-1 than a letter winged in from Graham Sharpe, who is Hill's public relations manager.

"I know you have little time for bookmakers, as your column regularly makes only too clear . . ." was his opening to a denouncement of a recent item in which I berated his fraternity for bleating about big sporting bets. I was referring particularly to the match at Wimbledon between Cedric Pioline and Boris Becker before which large lumps of money were placed on Pioline.

The bookies, as is their wont, told the press and we had headlines like "Monster Plunge on Underdog Pioline". Reports called it the biggest bet in tennis betting history and comments were made on the "betting pattern". My point was that such stories can cast a suspicious shadow.

Sharpe refutes any suggestion that bookies were "squeaking" about the Pioline bets and says that "if any suspicions are ever aroused it is because of the 'slant' put on a story by the media". A couple of sports desks I know, daily besieged by calls and faxes from publicity-seeking bookies, had a good laugh at that one.

Anyhow, bookmakers shouldn't write to clients in that tone and, furthermore, how is it I got only 12-1 about Langer when a colleague in the press tent at St Andrews got 16-1 from another bookmaker? We could be falling out permanently.