When innocence of youth must be the winner

One of the most absolutely dependable chores of printed and transmitted sports journalism in this country is the heated inquest into a performance that has not come up to national expectation. No sooner is it again made clear that our eminence in sport is largely historical than probes are launched at the urgent behest of editors who are probably as much in the dark as any patriot who feels entitled to an explanation.

One of the most absolutely dependable chores of printed and transmitted sports journalism in this country is the heated inquest into a performance that has not come up to national expectation. No sooner is it again made clear that our eminence in sport is largely historical than probes are launched at the urgent behest of editors who are probably as much in the dark as any patriot who feels entitled to an explanation.

Whether it be international disappointments in football and cricket, the failure to produce Wimbledon champions or the fairly reliable conclusion that not a great deal can be expected of Britain's track and field athletes in the Sydney Olympics, there is usually enough to keep fervent pundits occupied. Lately, by which I mean since the present administration came to power, this sort of thing has come more and more into the political arena.

Announcing a £50 million boost for sport in the Commons this week, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, blamed the poor record of England's national football team on Tory underfunding. This, he said, would be doubled over the next three years to "put English sport back on its feet".

Success in sport can do a great deal for national morale, but there is a lot to be said for the advice Jimmy Carter was given by an American political columnist shortly before beginning his term as the President of the United States. "Don't," he was urged, "invite athletes to the White House for dinner. Don't invite athletes ever. Have the courage to decide with Harry Truman that 'sport is a lot of damn nonsense'."

Populist theory may argue otherwise, and often does, but the ideal of healthy minds in healthy bodies matters a damn sight more than supply lines. I have a friend who was once approached by a sports body and asked to follow a particular line of research. It was to gain some knowledge of how gifted young sportspersons reacted generally to the quest for success when realising that it depended on their undivided attention. To the disappointment of their coaches - and parents - many rebelled. One, a girl who was two years in advance of her age on the junior tennis circuit, has not picked up a racket since giving up the game at 15-years-old. A swimmer, for whom great things were predicted, woke up on the morning of his 16th birthday and tore his training schedule to shreds. "All those hours in the pool, not being able to go out with the boys, I'd had enough," he said.

In the Daily Mail this week, the former Olympic coach Frank Dick argued a case for the preservation of innocence. Troubled by the theory that sports champions are formed by the age of 14, he wrote: "We would have to enter a world where youthful innocence is sacrificed to the demands of sporting competition."

It is only necessary to recall the wicked science that went into producing Soviet and east European gymnasts to have the utmost sympathy with Dick's views. But damn those who see the remarkable feats achieved by Tiger Woods as an endorsement of the growing belief that success in sport comes from the earliest possible stimulation. Youth has no dominion. At 34, the world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis is much more effective than when in his 20s. Jack Nicklaus won the last of 18 major championships in his 47th year. And as Dick points out, Britain's best-ever sprinter Linford Christie was past 30 before he reached his peak.

Since the impulse to take up sport today is very often the impulse to share in the riches made available by global television, we had better think carefully about the possible effects of throwing money at the development of an upcoming generation. Tony Blair said this week that without investment many children will be denied an opportunity to develop their sporting ability. To what end Prime Minister? Rounded citizens or warriors in a vainglorious quest for superiority?

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