James Lawton: Why the future of British sport should be put in Coe's hands

If an interest in sport is lost by the age of 10 or 11 then it is gone for ever

Those who are ancient enough to know say there have been three great explosions of national pride and joy since Germany was beaten in 1945 in what someone, in less politically correct days, described as their national game.

That provoked the first run-out-into-the-street outpouring when Victory in Europe was announced.

The second came 21 years later after the Germans were again defeated, this time at Wembley in the World Cup. It was written, "We haven't seen scenes like this in London since VE day."

Now we have the still potent eruption of emotion created by London 2012.

There have been a few other fringe candidates, including the pleasure that seeped more gently across the country when the Ashes were retrieved at The Oval in 2005 and two years earlier we had much cause for celebration when England won the World Cup of rugby with superb application.

The point that has just been re-established so profoundly is that sport is quite important to the way the nation sees itself. This has been so spectacularly obvious these past few weeks that you have to believe that the Government minister in charge of it should without delay be given both a sharply higher profile and his own empire, rather than a small colony at the Ministry of Culture.

Sport, let's face it, has just shown once again its extraordinary muscle out there in the street and while this shouldn't be to the detriment of all those artists and musicians and playwrights who are vital to a healthy, civilised society, there is certainly an argument for giving unto Caesar what is his due. This, seamlessly enough, brings us to Lord Coe, who rightly struck a triumphant note when the Olympic flame was doused on Sunday night.

There is talk of Coe becoming president of the IAAF, the ruling body of track and field, as maybe a trial run for the leadership of the Olympic movement. Heaven knows, he has established his credentials on and off the track, but from the national viewpoint - one which until recently had become jaded by the consistent international failure of the cannon-riddled flagship of football - the timing is surely perfect for him to develop his role as both the leader and maybe even the conscience of British sport.

This is not meant to insult the incumbent Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, someone who consistently makes sense when he talks about the challenge of giving sport a much stronger foundation in this country. However, he cannot hope to wield the weight of Coe after his Olympics coup. Indeed, Robertson was not so long ago bemoaning the decision to heap VAT charges on the suppliers of five-a-side football pitches - a bizarre move indeed at a time when the nation was being urged to develop at least a short-term obsession with the glories of the Olympics.

Nobody should want to see sport elevated to some Orwellian propaganda weapon of Government - real life goes on now, with all its usual pressures and fears, but the call should be that, outside the special circumstances of hosting an Olympics, there needs to be a recognition of how much work needs to be done to reverse the follies of the past.

The mistakes of selling off school fields, and crimping the time allowed for physical education in the state system, were still in flow when the London bid was landed and Tony Blair announced that it was a triumph for youth.

No, what we have seen is a victory for a superb group of elite athletes funded as never before on the run-in to the London Games. It was an approach that began before Beijing and drew some startling benefits.

There was also a significantly high rate of public school-groomed Olympic heroes these last few weeks, though no one had their old school ties and scarves as they headed for the podium.

It means that the appropriate response now is recognition of (a) the huge impact successful sports teams can make on the nation's morale and (b) an urge to provide the kind of facilities for youth - not just the kids with the turn of foot and the hints of class - which are routine in countries like France and Germany and Italy outside of special projects.

Coe has already talked cuttingly about the neglect of sport in primary schools, pointed out that if an interest in sport, and a love of doing it, is lost at the age of 10 or 11 it is probably gone for ever.

No one could argue on Sunday night when Coe declared that London, with the support of the country, had "done it right". But then you could argue that the successes in Beijing and here - the direct result of huge new investment - only underlined the fact that in the past there has been quite shameful neglect of the kind which, given the track record over the years, there is reason to fear might be repeated.

Sixteen years ago in Atlanta, Britain gleaned one gold medal on the back of Sir Steven Redgrave's relentless need to beat the world, but then at that point we hadn't lined up a potential political beanfeast. Now we are back in that position, and with initially depressing figures on the take-up of coaching programmes in areas of need, a key plank of the legacy argument.

The Prime Minister, given the current mood of the country, could scarcely say other than that sport had moved sharply up the Government agenda. However, priorities swing this way and that, and what is needed is solid recognition of the achievements of Olympic heroes like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis and the level of response they have received from their people.

Someone should make sure this is enshrined not in a debating point but a year-by-year reality of British life. What is needed is not just a new deal for sport but a permanent one. No one is better equipped to enforce it than Seb Coe.

Tiger's pain is to witness McIlroy surge

Rory McIlroy is not only a genius in his own right, he is becoming a walking reproach to the man he seems increasingly capable of supplanting, Tiger Woods.

The young Ulsterman's second major - acquired at a faster rate than the Tiger's opening onslaught 15 years ago - was of the same landslide proportions of his breakthrough US Open victory last year. By winning the US PGA, after such an indifferent Open performance, McIlroy showed a stunning capacity to live quite brilliantly in the moment.

It also used to be the great strength of the Tiger but in still another major he has, while occupying a threatening position, failed to come home with anything like the required authority.

These have been punishing years for the player we assumed to be the greatest golfer we were ever likely to see but, of all the hammer blows, the greatest must be the sight of his young rival devouring courses as if by whim. Right now, redemption can never have seemed so far away.

Pietersen is missing voice of reason

One tragedy of the Kevin Pietersen affair with its appalling waste and numbskull posturing is his apparent lack of sound advice.

On one level he seems to be confirming the theory that when you fall in love with yourself it is the beginning of a lifelong romance. On another, he seems to be guilty of failing to understand the call of celebrity is so often aimed at the heart of consistently great achievement in sport.

It was on this basis that Sir Alex Ferguson risked the wrath of Manchester United fans and much of the nation when he told David Beckham that the values of showbiz and the demands of professional sport simply didn't mix.

The management of England have had strong reasons to demand a reality check from Pietersen and he has plainly blown it. It cannot help that one of his principal supporters happens to be Piers Morgan, who has - as one old pro put it yesterday - "consistently pumped Kevin's tyres".

The latest puncture was maybe inevitable.

 

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