Comment: Perils behind the playground politics

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The Independent Online
ONE OF sport's major problems stems from the enmity it creates deep in the flabby hearts of a large number of young people. There are legions whose schooldays are haunted by the shrill summons of a physical education teacher's whistle echoing around the cruel wall-bars of a cavernous gymnasium or across a cold and windswept playing field. Being forced into activities you detest can leave a life-long scar.

From those resentful ranks emerge many who can be properly catalogued among the wimps, the weedy, the greedy and the seedy of our society. Of these, a distressingly high proportion go on to become politicians.

This would partially explain why sport often gets an uncomfortable ride on the few journeys it makes through the House of Commons. When there are successes to celebrate and heroes to be pictured with, the gates of power swing wide and welcoming, but when there are plans to be laid, foundations to be built and investment to be made there is a rapid cooling of enthusiasm.

It is far from reassuring to anyone who recognises the important contribution sport can make to our national well-being that the two most important factors controlling the sporting future of this country, schools and the Lottery, are both under strict governmental control. And we're in danger of getting stitched up in both of them.

On the face of it, sport's place in the revised national curriculum was guaranteed by the Government's proposals last week, but there are considerable doubts about the quality of the PE suggested. By removing the compulsion for the over-14s to play team games, they will sanction the wholesale ignoring of main-line sports by both pupils and teachers, who can elect to partake in more convenient, less costly and far less demanding activity.

It will be an encouragement to the many schools who already offer less sport and health-promoting activity than there has ever been. A recent survey by the National Association of Head Teachers found that school sport had decreased significantly over the past two years. This is a trend that will certainly not be reversed by the latest proposals.

Perhaps it is unfair to see sport in isolation from the general tone of the curriculum proposals, in which emphasis is placed upon producing good citizens who will answer their pagers promptly, but it is dangerous to overlook the part that sport can play in developing self-discipline and in fostering a pride in oneself and one's form, house or school. Team games can be dreadfully humiliating but there are games and levels of competition that can accommodate the lowest skill denominator and still provide a feeling of team spirit and accomplishment.

Neither do the major sports have to dominate the scene. The London Panathlon, which is very much a private initiative, has been highly successful in matching school against school in a variety of sports including cycling, orienteering, badminton and table tennis. The children can play a range of individual sports but still be part of the school team, and it is disappointing that the proposed curriculum contains no encouragement for such activities. Indeed, little about the proposals suggests that they are the result of any constructive thought other than how to appease those who oppose organised and competitive games.

Of course, the basic problems facing school sport are the lack of resources, facilities and staff motivation. These could be more than adequately tackled if the proceeds of the National Lottery were to be directed where they could do most good. As we tire of pointing out, Lottery money has flowed like treacle to those areas of sport where it could be genuinely creative. Sport was one of the most urgent of the original beneficiaries, but is receiving only a trickle from the Treasury's brimful reservoir of unused Lottery funds which, at the last count, stood at a staggering pounds 3.65bn.

Even Sport England, as they now call the English Sports Council, has pounds 197m lying idle at the moment. But help may be on the way. I understand that a pounds 2bn 10-year strategy for distributing Lottery money to sport is to be announced by the Sports Lottery Panel chairman, Des Wilson, on Tuesday, and it is claimed on his behalf that he will emerge as a new major figure in sport.

We'll be the judge of that, and while we are on the subject of major figures; where does our Minister for Sport fit into all this? You would have thought that such a high-profile subject as the future of sport in our schools would have attracted the views of Tony Banks. On most other sporting subjects, from big fights to vital football matters, Banks is the first breathless voice to be heard, seen and quoted. It's as if he sleeps in a tent outside Broadcasting House to create maximum microphone availability. Good luck to him. I hope he is not disturbed by David Mellor snoring in the adjoining bivouac.

However, gaining yourself a reputation for rapid-fire responses to a variety of sporting matters is all very well, but it does create the expectation that nothing happens without old Banksy putting in his fourpenn'orth.

It was only a couple of weeks ago he was regaling the Scots with his views on the need for a united British football team. I'm one of the few who would not disagree, but his timing was unfortunate because Scotland beat Germany a few days later and then it was pointed out that, since he is Sports Minister for England only, it has sod all to do with him anyhow.

He was lucky enough to miss the brunt of the Scottish indignation because he was in Nigeria as part of his globe-trotting crusade to help bring the 2006 World Cup to England. As worthy as that cause may be, surely there are more pressing matters at home. School sport is certainly one of them, particularly as the kids affected by the new proposals could play in the 2006 World Cup - providing they get the right opportunities and support. I trust that Mr Banks and his colleagues are happy that they are doing everything possible in that direction.

NORMALLY RELUCTANT to reveal the thinking behind my wagering - mainly through fear of being being exposed as the nation's worst punter - I am prepared to risk losing face as well as a few quid by predicting that today's great Premiership climax will end in stalemate, which is as good as checkmate as far as Manchester United are concerned.

United, in their match against Tottenham, and Arsenal, who play Aston Villa, are both heavily odds-on to win their final matches this afternoon, but it would be in keeping with the capricious nature of the last days of our domestic season if neither managed to win.

In this, the finest end-show on earth, even the no-hopers are battling away to the final whistle, and although it might be asking too much of Spurs and Villa to expect them to overcome the fires being stoked at Old Trafford and Highbury, both teams are capable of capping their seasons with honourably defiant performances.

Accordingly, I have accepted the challenge of my bookmaker who, in both matches, is offering odds of 9-2 against a draw. Just to prove how daft I am, I've backed a double draw as well; a result which would give United the title by a point, make happier the summers of Spurs and Villa and give me a modest bonus for my perspicacious appraisal. What could be fairer than that?