First Night: The Panathlona - Mini-Olympics for the have-nots

How school sport can be an exercise in social engineering. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online
THE FRONT page of the Liverpool Echo was awash with the news of the Anfield windfall, a pounds 22 million investment from Granada aimed at putting the colour back into the cheeks of the no longer mighty Reds.

Just across the city - although it might have been 22 million miles away - another slice of Liverpool's sporting life was being enacted. Though never destined to make the headlines, the panathlon might yet play as crucial a role as the Granada shares in the shape of things to come on Merseyside.

The Picton Sports Centre in Wavertree is not over-blessed with grandeur; nor will the event it hosted produce a Fowler or McManaman, or a contender for the Olympic podium or Wimbledon's Centre Court. But as an exercise in introducing the sometimes wayward energies of school kids into sporting competition, it could be as much a winner as any expensive acquisition by Gerard Houllier.

Organisers believe it is the first such project of its kind in the world. The Greeks had a word for it - they usually did. A panathlon means a group of sporting disciplines and for the purpose of this challenge is a sort of mini-Olympics embracing nine sports - badminton, basketball, cycling, five-a-side football, netball, orienteering, indoor athletics, table tennis and, for the less athletically inclined, chess.

It was born out of concern for the alarming decline in competitive sport in schools, beginning in London three years ago as a one-off for selected schools from 32 boroughs. The schools were picked because of their lack of sports facilities or a comprehensive sports programme. Last week eight Liverpool schools competed in their regional final and, next weekend, the same event will be held in Bristol. Three more cities, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, are on line to join the programme and next year will see the first national final, possibly at the Millennium Dome.

Ashley Iceton, a former Sports Council development officer who helped devise and now co-ordinates the panathlon programme, which is sponsored by the insurance company Royal & SunAlliance, believes the event has added a vigorous, positive voice to the contentious debate about school sport. "We are specifically targeting inner-city schools and kids from deprived areas where sport is not always high on the curriculum," he says. "The idea is to recreate what has been largely lost in school sport, - competition and inter-school rivalry. We set out the fixtures, provide the equipment and the officials and all the pupils and staff have to do is turn up."

And they do. Around 1,000 youngsters from eight Liverpool schools competed in the two-day Liverpool finals, a noisy festival of healthy rivalry and athletic endeavour for 12 to 16-year-olds which suggests that the sporting spirit is still there to be nurtured, even if the playing fields are not. So successful has the panathlon proved that UK Sport, the former English Sports Council, have taken it into their active schools programme and agreed to co-fund it over the next three years, which means there will be some half a million pounds annually for further expansion. "It is an exciting project and a perfect vehicle for schools who don't have the best track record in inter-school sport," says Dave Renshaw of Sport England.

What the schools get out of it is an injection of cash, some pounds 1,000 a piece for specialist coaching and pounds 1,500 for equipment. What the kids get is a unique multi-sports involvement, a sense of competition and being part of a team - plus a medal. No competitor goes away empty-handed, whether first or last.

"No one expects to see potential Olympic champions or great international football talent unearthed from these competitions," Iceton says. "If that happened it would be a terrific bonus, but it is not the objective. It is really an exercise in social engineering, giving youngsters the opportunity they might not otherwise have had. It is for the have-nots, rather than the haves. And apart from anything else if we've got kids from these inner- city areas playing sport they're not out breaking windows or nicking cars."

It is a point not lost on the sponsors. Insurance companies go big on sport these days - AXA, Nationwide and CGU all have involvement at a high- profile level. Royal & SunAlliance prefer to dig in at the grass roots. "Sport is a very good vehicle for sponsorship because it is a framework for life," argues the company's marketing services manager, John Hymers. "We've had problems as an insurer in inner-city areas with joy-riding, theft and all sorts of crimes that finance drug taking. So it makes a lot of business sense to try and reinvest in these communities to give the kids something positive like sport to focus on. The teamwork and skills they learn through sport are a blueprint for the future."

These days millions of youngsters miss out on the fun and benefits of school sport, many out of choice because of the couch-potato alternative attractions. As a nation we are becoming progressively and hopelessly unfit. Liverpool's fall out in school sport has not been as marked as in some other areas but the panathlon has provided a welcome boost at a critical time. Broadgreen, who successfully defended their title as Liverpool's panathlon champions last week, is a mixed comprehensive school of 1,400 pupils in a tough-ish area, catering for some physically handicapped as well as the able-bodied. It is a school with a reputation for straightening out the scallies and there is no doubt that sport is a conduit. They took a team of 100 to the finals, including two refugees from the former Yugoslavia who helped them win the basketball gold.

Tim Wright, the school's head of PE, admits interest in sport participation has been buffeted by the availability of Gameboy and Nintendo. "We have a committed staff who are prepared to give their time every day after school. The opportunities are there. All the children have to do is come and take them. In this respect an event like the panathlon is a huge incentive, not least financially in terms of getting coaching and equipment. But the kids also have an incentive in competing together as a team."

Much of the talk in this quarter of Liverpool last week was not so much of the pounds 22m aid for the Reds but the pounds 60m designed to cure the blues - the sum the government have specified to alleviate that sinking feeling about school sport by employing special co-ordinators to promote competition. Steve Stewart, the deputy head of Liverpool's Queen Mary High School, is among many teachers less than ecstatic about the scheme. "I would rather the money went directly to schools to give to the PE staff who are prepared to run extra-curricular activities. It doesn't need special co-ordinators. We have professionals with degrees already in PE teaching posts across the country. Give them the money.

"I truly believe that all kids should be involved in sport. Everyone has got some sort of talent, some kind of sporting ability. We need to explore that. I don't think that school sports is completely dead in this country, although, of course, it is nothing like it was 20 or 30 years ago when sometimes you actually had members of staff fighting for the chance to take football on Saturday mornings. This is why the panathlon idea is so great. One of the things we try to build in schools is team spirit - not so much the win at all costs mentality but developing relationships between pupils, with staff and with other schools."

John Walsh, whose Lee Manor High School was among the enthusiastic runners- up to Broadgreen, said the event was important to them because they haven't the facilities to compete with other schools in traditional sports like athletics and cricket. "Something like this gives us the opportunity to compete on level terms in a really great atmosphere."

That was evident from the supportive shrieks at the Sports Centre, notably the hall which housed the indoor athletics. There were some delightful cameos, too. Like the moment a turbanned Sikh youngster handed over to a Chinese team-mate in the relay, where the sexes were also mixed.

Outside the arena the drizzle drifted in from across the Mersey. A beaming youngster approached and enquired: "Can I borrow your moby, mister? I must tell me mam we won."

School sport dead? Well, in Liverpool last week it was hearteningly alive and kicking. And running and jumping, too.