Why Jamie's campaign should give food for thought to our sporting heroes

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The Independent Football

On thursday morning I had coffee with Sir Peter O'Sullevan, whose knighthood fits him like a snug pair of riding breeches. It's not that he is remotely grand, more that he seems the embodiment of Chaucer's parfit gentil knyght.

On thursday morning I had coffee with Sir Peter O'Sullevan, whose knighthood fits him like a snug pair of riding breeches. It's not that he is remotely grand, more that he seems the embodiment of Chaucer's parfit gentil knyght.

And of course the K was for so much more than, that glib phrase, services to broadcasting. He has campaigned tirelessly for horse welfare, and deserves much of the credit for the huge strides that have been made.

Anyway, as I left his flat I reflected on the most prestigious honours dished out to sporting luminaries. There are some bizarre inconsistencies.

Sir Matthew Pinsent and Dame Kelly Holmes is doubtless as it should be. But, as he prepares to walk down Augusta's Magnolia Drive with more Green Jackets in his wardrobe than most, why no Sir Nicholas Faldo? Why Sir Michael Stoute but no Sir Martin Pipe? Maybe it's because Pipe and Faldo are such chippy characters, so good at raising hackles. Yet if that is so, why Sir Alex Ferguson but never Sir Bob Paisley? Even as an Evertonian it seems disgraceful to me that Paisley never felt the cold tap of steel on the shoulder of his best cardigan.

The point about honours for sporting achievers is that, on the whole, they reward selfishness. Or if not selfishness, exactly, then self-absorption.

Try asking Lady Redgrave what it was like living with Sir Steve through his competitive years. What he did was incomparably remarkable, especially when you consider his problems with diabetes, but let's not kid ourselves that it was all for the greater glory of British sport. Indeed, I doubt whether any of it was. It was simply to satisfy his intense demands of himself.

I don't mean to criticise. You can't succeed in sport at the highest level and not be self-absorbed, and there's no reason why great achievements, whatever the motivation, should not be rewarded with a day at the palace.

Moreover, Sir Steve and Sir Matt and Dame Kelly have, in fulfilling their own ambitions, generated a great deal of pleasure for the rest of us. No, what I ask for is consistency.

All of which brings me, oddly enough in a sports column, to Jamie Oliver. If his spectacular campaign to improve the quality of school dinners is not worthy of a knighthood, then I'm a spotted dick. It doesn't matter that Sir Jamie Oliver rolls off the tongue a sight less easily than Sir Peter O'Sullevan; the fact is that he has done the nation's kids as good a turn as Sir Peter did the nation's racehorses. If Ellen MacArthur deserved to be made a Dame in her twenties, and I think she did, then Oliver unquestionably deserves to be made a Sir in his.

You might reasonably ask why I am making the comparison. What does food have to do with sport? Well, try asking Walker's Crisps, who made Gary Lineker the face of their advertising campaign. Or McDonald's, who sponsored Euro 2004 and whose shilling Lawrence Dallaglio very happily accepted. Or Pepsi, who have added some (scarcely needed) fizz to David Beckham's bank account.

I think my gist might now be sailing into view. There is something grotesque about Oliver working very hard to improve children's diets, while even more potent role models than him do very little work, in return for a great deal of dosh, to encourage children to eat and drink junk.

It's easy to sound sanctimonious about all this. Fizzy drinks and crisps are not Goering and Goebbels in the threat they pose to the British people (although some would say they are far worse), and Lineker, Beckham and co should not necessarily be pilloried for promoting things that kids have enjoyed for decades. Besides, McDonald's funds a community football programme that is paying for 10,000 people to qualify as coaches, which can only be a good thing. Or can it? According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University:

"It is very convenient for fast food and soft drinks people to sponsor sport, because by doing so they place all the emphasis on activity as the means of avoiding obesity, rather than both activity and diet." Ian Campbell, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, a group which I like to think holds its AGM on reinforced chairs, goes further. "If these people really are altruistic in wanting to support sport then they would put money into a blind trust and do it without their logos on display," he says.

In the meantime, it seems crystal clear to me that Beckham's knighthood should be withheld until he becomes the face of organic carrots.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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