Chris Hewett: Boris's 'conservative lesson' is confounded by Wiggins and Co
These Games have been, are being and will be politicised to within an inch of their lives
Can there be a more exquisite pleasure on a summer's morning than waking to the sound of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson orating on the "correlation between what you put in and what you get out" and the "alchemisation of the forward momentum" while celebrating Team GB's success at these Olympics as a triumphant affirmation of "the conservative lesson of life"? We must surely hope so, for if listening to a political interview on the radio at the crack of dawn is really as good as it gets, we are beyond help.
Fresh from his baiting of the American presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a subsequent aerial adventure above a London park, the mayor of our capital city was in full Bullingdon voice, plum stones flying left and right. "The Olympics, with its very clear message about effort and achievement and what it takes to connect the two, could not come at a better time for a country making a difficult psychological adjustment to a new world without easy credit – one in which life is, I'm afraid, considerably tougher than it was before the crunch," he said on the BBC's flagship Today programme. This from a devotee of "wiff waff", an archaic name for table tennis resonant of a time when the game was played with a wine cork for a ball and cigar box lids for bats.
These Games have been, are being and will be politicised to within an inch of their lives: there was, is and can be no escaping it, for sport and politics are inseparable and have been for decades. Many of the cricketers and rugby players who, during the years of apartheid, travelled to South Africa on rebel tours – ill-starred adventures organised by the desperate on behalf of the grasping – tried to persuade us otherwise, but they knew the truth of it even if they didn't much care. Talk about being on the wrong side of history.
Unlike the Olympics in Beijing four years ago, which creaked under the weight of human rights concerns, events here are loaded with domestic issues: legacy, regeneration, Londoncentricism and all the rest of it – fertile territory, you would imagine, for those who do not see the world in quite the way Mayor Boris sees it. Yet it was one of Johnson's fellow tribesmen who ruffled right-wing feathers by highlighting an inherent inequality of opportunity in school sport that means the next generation of gold-medal rowers are infinitely more likely to emerge from Eton College (with its privileged river access) than from Bash Street Comprehensive (which doesn't even have its own puddle).
When Colin Moynihan – the 4th Baron Moynihan, no less; Tory peer and chairman of the British Olympic Association – said it was "wholly unacceptable" that the fee-paying school minority won as many medals as the state school majority in Beijing and condemned it as "one of the worst statistics" relating to our sporting life, you could hear the spluttering in the front quad from one end of the country to the other. One after another, supporters of the independent sector took to the barricades in defence of a status quo that in essence offers further protection to those who have already avoided crashing in the accident of birth.
They need not worry unduly: the rich and influential have mastered the art of tweaking the system just enough to ensure it stays the same, so private education will continue to thrive. However, Britain's sporting future need not necessarily depend on what happens in our schools.
Cycling, patently the key driver of improvement at Olympic level since the Sydney Games of 2000, is in no way linked to the great seats of learning: of the 15 or so best-known riders in the wildly successful current squad, the vast majority were taught at comprehensive schools (as was Dave Brailsford, the man directly responsible for the most advanced sporting operation ever developed in these islands). New talent is identified primarily through a mushrooming network of local clubs, all of which offer basic coaching and, more importantly still, a first chance to race.
Two of our major sports, rugby union and cricket, have yet to free themselves from the grip of the school system and, by extension, its politics. Even though only a third of the 2003 World Cup-winning England rugby team were educated at fee-paying establishments – a statistic that will come as a considerable surprise to those who despise the game for long-entrenched class reasons – selection policy at age-group level is still loaded towards, and manipulated by, the private school sector. And while cricket's outreach programme has strengthened the hand of local clubs, there are well-placed fears that in a time of recession, it will once again become the exclusive preserve of the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots".
Moynihan was correct in singling out football as the team sport that reflects most accurately the make-up of society: it is indeed the most egalitarian of games, largely because it is club-based, not school-based. Cycling has followed the same road, so to speak. Ask Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish or Victoria Pendleton. None of these great riders would dispute for a second that elitism is at the heart of Olympic performance, but at the same time, they would acknowledge that an elite drawn from the base of the pyramid is more potent than an elite drawn only from its apex.
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