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?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones