Fat chance for the new degeneration

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The Independent Online
Yet another sports revolution zoomed off the Government's launch pad on Friday when the Prime Minister announced a pounds 30m scheme to create an army of community sports coaches who will tour schools and centres in search of the talented youngsters who will become tomorrow's stars. I hope they'll be able to spot them among all those fat kids.

A report from the National Study of Health and Growth issued three days earlier had carried the far more significant revelation that our schoolchildren are getting chubbier by the year. In a survey of more than 10,000 primary pupils over the past 20 years it was discovered that English boys aged 10 had become 17 per cent fatter and girls 7 per cent. In Scotland, the ballooning was worse; 24 per cent in boys and 22 per cent in girls.

Junk food and a slobbish lifestyle have probably played their part but lack of exercise was the principal reason put forward by doctors at St Thomas's Hospital, London, from where the study was conducted. Comparison with research carried out in Sweden and the United States suggests that children in those countries were not following this fatness trend. Part of the inactivity is due to parents being less inclined to let their children walk or cycle to school - the average child walks 200 miles a year compared to 250 a decade ago - and this is understandable in these violent times but this shortfall is by no means compensated for once they reach school.

These statistics, alarming as they are, should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the slow but remorseless decline of school sport during the last 20 or so years. The tendency to let loose upon the nation a growing number of flabby, feckless and unfit youngsters has been proceeding unchecked for too long. But if we can ignore the fact that a distressing proportion are not very well educated either, we are capable of ignoring anything.

Sport is just one in a queue of neglected priorities in education but, as last week's report proves, it has an additional importance to the health and well-being of the nation. While we should welcome any initiative from the Government that assists the development of sport, the fundamental problem is not going to be solved merely by hand-picking an elite for special treatment.

In 1989, the National Council for School Sports launched a campaign to draw attention to the decline. It was a situation made worse through the Eighties by the teachers' strike, the looniness of certain education authorities in decrying competitiveness in school games and the Government's introduction of contracts that did not include supervising sport after hours.

At a stroke, the age-old willingness of teachers to provide the voluntary coaching and supervision necessary to keep school teams flourishing was destroyed. There are loyal souls who still maintain the tradition but many more are justifiably reluctant to give up their free time to running teams; so they don't get run.

The simultaneous, and largely unchecked, sale of playing fields plus the cost of transporting teams to away fixtures helped to diminish the physical side of school life. It also became fashionable among some influential folk who despised the imposition of sport during their school-days - it is amazing how many of the unathletic manage to clamber to the top of the ladder - to dismiss the necessity of physical education. It all created a climate in which PE could be substantially downgraded in importance without too much outcry.

Statistics like those above, or that more than 20 per cent of school- leavers can't swim a stroke, bring the realisation of the price that has been paid. But it would be wrong to think that nothing is being done to redress the balance. Private initiative has resulted in one or two promising developments; none better than the recently introduced Panathlon Challenge, sponsored by Royal SunAlliance, which aims at encouraging inter-school team games among schools which lack facilities.

Games that can be played in a gymnasium or a playground - such as basketball, netball, cycling, chess, table-tennis, five-a-side football and sports hall athletics - are included in the events which can involve up to 100 pupils from each school. The challenge has so far enabled 32 secondary schools, one from each borough of London, to compete against each other in a tournament that has been praised by heads and PE teachers for team-building qualities within their schools.

The Government is involved through the Heritage Department's Sportsmatch scheme which has donated pounds 50,000 to match Royal SunAlliance's input. Brighton University has embarked on a study of the scheme which, it is hoped, will eventually spread across Britain.

The funding this would require is small beer compared with the millions Mr Major has been allocating to the pursuit of excellence since our medal tally at last year's Olympics did not not reach national expectations. The latest coaching venture will undoubtedly help the most promising kids, concentrating as it will on producing likely young people for the national academy when it is built.

But there is far more to be done in restoring sporting facilities and motivation to all schools and, beyond them, to youth clubs and leisure centres open to all. This requires a more systematic allocation of Lottery funds via the sporting bodies and not dependent on the whim of whatever prime minister happens to be in office. Attempts are being made even now to get Parliament to agree before Easter a change in the distribution of Lottery funds that will enable sport to get 40 per cent of the proceeds and for 75 per cent of that total to be declared charitable so that inner- city projects can go ahead without the almost impossible problem of finding matching funds.

Almost every governing body has prepared an endowment scheme for developing their sport from school-level upwards and can start making immediate and constructive use of the pounds 2.6bn of Lottery money the Government is happily sitting on. If you think they are being greedy, sport needs another pounds 2bn annually to match what New Zealand spends on sport per head.

There's more point to our sporting life than gold medals and we should endeavour to ensure that our schools start living off the fat of the land and stop producing it.

THE GOLD CUP winner Mr Mulligan would be forgiven a neigh of satisfaction at the news that the great American thoroughbred Cigar has returned from stud as a total failure. In racing's social strata, Cigar is many levels higher but Mr Mulligan, I am sure, would have given him a length start in the mating game. Alas, Mr M is a victim of that barbaric practice of gelding which at least makes them equal in the fatherhood stakes.

There's always cloning, of course, and Cigar's owner is applying for permission to take advantage of this modern miracle to open a Cigar factory. He'd get a flat refusal over here. A Jockey Club spokesman said: "If we allowed cloning, you could have 15 Red Rums in the same race but their value would be nothing."

Yes, but we'd soon find out who were the best trainers and jockeys.