Olympics: Leave no stone uncurled for the grass roots

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The Independent Online

When it comes to Olympic medals, we must all have built-in metal detectors that emit high-pitched squeaks whenever we see one. This would explain the amazing transformation that overcame the nation last week when the Winter Olympics suddenly summoned us to the edge of our seats.

When it comes to Olympic medals, we must all have built-in metal detectors that emit high-pitched squeaks whenever we see one. This would explain the amazing transformation that overcame the nation last week when the Winter Olympics suddenly summoned us to the edge of our seats.

Activities in Salt Lake City were sliding towards a quiet and generally ignored conclusion when first a bronze, won at breakneck speed by Alex Coomber, and then a gold medal, delivered at a more sedate but vastly more dramatic pace by Rhona Martin and the girls, changed our entire attitude.

For some, the shock was a touch embarrassing. Most TV columnists in the press had been relishing the opportunity to let loose their mocking wit on sports they had never seen before. Curling was one of their favoured targets. "Half sport, half housework" was one of the cleverer taunts at the sight of the frenzied brushing that hastens the progress of the stone along the rink towards the target.

Others took a more severe and questioning stance. Why are we wasting time and money sending 50 Britons on a fools' errand up a distant mountain? That was the indignant tone adopted by those who also calculated that the enterprise has cost us £3 million in Lottery and other grants to assist the various sports involved. Strange that an example of monumental squandering one day should abruptly take on the form of a colossal bargain the next. What do get for three million these days? You could probably pay the wages of the England football squad for a month or you could buy a knighthood or get the Government to help you acquire a few businesses overseas.

But I doubt if you could purchase the amount of flag-waving and national feel-good that enlivened our windswept mid-winter last week. But even that £3m does not give an accurate account of the value. Curling, men's and women's, received £15,000 last year, and considering how many Scots play the game that will hardly keep them in broom handles. That money, by the way, came from the Scottish Lottery fund, so the rest of us were cheered up at someone else's expense.

That's another point. Curling being almost exclusively a Scottish sport as far as these isles are concerned, there was not the slightest inclination to begrudge sharing the glory with Great Britain as a whole. On the contrary, they were delighted to win it draped in the Union flag, which is a lesson for the devolutionists to absorb.

It will be interesting to see what publicity they'll get in the London press when they next compete in the European or World Championships. Then, of course, they will be representing Scotland.

Their victory, and the success enjoyed in the skeleton event by Coomber, will bring very pleasant benefits. I am not thinking about what deserved rewards will come to them personally in the shape of endorsements and appearances but what strength their example will bring to the battle to convince this Government to do more for sport.

They stubbornly ignore all evidence of what sporting participation can do to help the health, fitness and leisure enjoyment of the country. We are constantly fobbed off with phoney initiatives but receive little in the way of practical encouragement. We are starved of adequate facilities, and those local clubs who try to fend for themselves are taxed for their pains and have to go through the expensive and laborious process of becoming a charity in order to qualify for relief from taxes and rates.

Recent figures reveal an alarming -increase in the levels of child obesity, yet the bulk of our schools still do not meet the basic requirements of physical education. And we are still losing school playing fields at a steady rate.

Sport at grass roots is in an appalling state and will continue to be until we make a serious and wholehearted attempt to match what the rest of Europe contributes to sporting development. And, all the while, the Treasury continue to sit on £3.5 billion of Lottery money, part of which should already be at work improving our sporting infrastructure.

What the curling heroines have achieved is to remind the nation of the benefits of sporting activity. They don't need help because theirs is an ancient game with deep roots in their society, but their gold medals show what can be done if ordinary people have the opportunity, the facilities and the encouragement to get out and play.

The word "ordinary" will never be applied to those girls again, but they are normal people in search of pleasure and fulfilment from a game that has no trace of glamour about it but generates an enviable spirit. That's something their critics cannot cope with. We cannot all win gold medals, but if we can encourage people of any age, sex or class to get out and take part in healthy and competitive activity they are going to reach heights of achievement they had not dreamed about and produce a better nation than the couch potatoes can provide.

The other beneficiaries from the curling gold, of course, were the BBC. Not for the first time, the Winter Olympics have provided the Beeb with hours of peak-time viewing at a bargain price, and but for the medals they would have come in for criticism for wasting our time and money.

Now they can be rightly praised for beaming a bit of glory into our homes. The relief at this was manifested first among the presenters, who had been talking mainly to themselves for 10 days or so while housed in a studio in London.

In order to beef up the interest, they tried desperately to create some affectionate rapport between the presenters. The main qualification in television direction these days seems to be chemistry engineering.

They took a chance in inflicting so much snowy action during a fortnight in which we were not exactly short of sport on our screens, what with the Six Nations, the Champions' League and the Uefa Cup. I'm delighted they got away with it. There's a wider range of folk to be considered than the beer-swilling throngs – among whom I am happy to be numbered – who crowd around the sets when the main sports are on.