So what happens now? I think we can all agree that the Olympic Games were a powerful endorsement of sport in the good society. There was plenty going on over and above the winning and losing of medals that will take some unpicking. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had a crack at it in one of his many busy bulletins on the state of the sporting nation, dealing in broad sweeps with the fundamentals of grass roots involvement, the importance of competition, of learning life lessons, investment, nurture and legacy. The soundbites were all good.
If the state is going to glory in the achievements of its citizens, use the success of British athletes in London to project an image of Britain on the global stage then it is only fair that it should stump up some cash for the privilege. This, Cameron informed us yesterday is happening. The funding commitments through UK Sport have been extended by two years to take us through the next Olympic cycle all the way to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. That amounts to half a billion smackers over the next four years for 23 disciplines identified in the elite sport programme. In addition to that Cameron has pledged £1 billion over five years for youth sport.
It is not difficult to pick holes in the Jonny-cum-lately attachment to sport of a political class that has spent a generation flogging playing fields and other resources while killing curriculum based athletic activities. But this is not the time to dig up that old chestnut and fry those responsible. Let us take Cameron at his word. It is probably the case that he and his fellow elites have been surprised by the persuasive power of the Olympics to bring the people of this country together. From the moment David Beckham touched down in Cornwall to set the Olympic torch route alight, the common man has bought unconditionally into this goodwill feeling. Again it is for sociologists to unravel this phenomenon and explain the process by which we reconnected with each other as Britons. But something is going on.
There was clearly a collective euphoria around the success of the British athletes, but for that to happen there needs to be a common, unifying cause that compels people to care in the first place. Through sport we certainly came together, bonding in a way unthinkable a fortnight ago. Strangers would talk on the London underground instead of stare at their smartphones feigning engagement. They would share experiences, commune around the efforts of Mo and Jess, Wiggo and Sir Chris Hoy. It was as if the whole of Britain had agreed to go on holiday with each other. Mad eh?
The immediate, more obvious legacy issues are addressed with the funding package. That eight of the arenas used in the Olympic Park are to be retained is another thumbs up. These are material gains. Where the real gear shift is required, and Cameron in a blaze of clarity made this point well, is in the attitude and thinking of ordinary folk towards participation. The biggest fall-off is unsurprisingly among 16-24-year-olds. The minute school is out too many kids down tools. It is not the government’s responsibility to chivvy us into the swimming pool or on to a bike. That is ours alone. And please, no bleating about a lack of encouragement in school. According to government statistics as many as 5,000 schools have formal attachments to sporting clubs.
There simply isn’t time or the funding in the state sector to devote the formal time required to give kids the exposure to sport we would all like. That has to come from parents and clubs, from people like you and me. I did my bit helping to run an age group village football team. My son started at seven and six years on still plays for the same village team. Come on Great Horwood Ravens! For two years I was the one taking coaching sessions and putting out cones. It is now the responsibility of other parents.
Up and down the country families and friends give their time freely and their kids respond. The good ones get to go to the Olympic Games and win medals. That is the equation. It always was. What London 2012 has done is re-inforce in an emphatic way the value of sport in the community. From my own anecdotal evidence over the last fortnight I would argue that involvement with the Games made us better citizens, predisposed towards each other, our community and ultimately our country. That is surely worth investing in.
Out there lurking, is the great beast that is football, nine months of unremitting fury. The first exchanges passed at Villa Park yesterday. Next weekend the Premier League rolls out. I hope the great, old game has been watching. The Olympics have been a civilising agent, a forum in which winning and losing is seen as part of the game and accepted, however painful the result. How nice it would be were our footballers to show each other the same respect the athletes did. I know. I’m not holding my breath.
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