James Lawton: Politicians may bask in Beijing's golden glow but they're still failing our children
Tuesday 26 August 2008
Behind every British triumph in Beijing, and every eloquent statement by heroes like swimmer Rebecca Adlington and sculler Mark Hunter about how it felt to beat the world, there was a scandal.
It just wouldn't go away. Indeed, it grew only bigger in the minds of those who have campaigned over the decades to give every boy and girl in the country an even playing field, any kind of playing field come to that, when the politicians and their publicists gathered in near battalion strength at the "Bird's Nest" stadium here on Sunday night to see the London mayor, Boris Johnson, accept the Olympic flag.
The wretched truth behind Britain's extraordinary showing at the 29th Olympics, bettered only by the megapowers of China, the United States and Russia, was that it said everything about the potential of the nation's sportsmen and women to compete against the best in the world when provided with proper support – and absolutely nothing about the interest of successive governments in sport as anything other than an occasional boost to their fading popularity.
When Johnson took the flag and promised the world's sport would be given an appropriately brilliant welcome when it came home to the 30th Olympics in London, in four years' time, he was, let's face it, participating in a lie. The lie is that Britain won the right to host the next Olympics because, as the former Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, it was committed to investing in youth and not because of brilliant campaigning by the Olympic icon Lord Coe and the clumsy, arrogant politics of the far superior candidate, Paris.
As the government preens itself over the torrent of gold, silver and bronze it presumably expects us to equate the massive investment of Lottery funds in elite athletes on the road to Beijing and, most relevantly, London, with a serious policy of providing decent facilities across the whole range of young people – a generation who just happen to be rocketing up the world's obesity league.
Beijing was British sport's glory won not only on the back of superb athletic achievement; there was also the not inconsiderable matter of £265m prised out of Lottery profits by politicians anxious to keep the Olympic bandwagon running. Did that kind of largesse ever materialise before the juicy prestige of an Olympic hosting triumph came into sight – or the national humiliation of 1996, when one gold was gleaned, which was two less than the haul Kazakhstan?
We know the answer to that as we see the disarray of so much of the youth of the nation, standing on streets in the cities fingering their cold steelware and wondering what to do, and the teenagers who mill outside village shops with the nearest youth centre or football field or tennis court a long bus journey away.
Arsenal's French manager Arsène Wenger is not xenophobic – he has proved that in his long years irrigating English football with the finest skill – but he was maybe the most damning witness of all in a brief aside in a long interview with my colleague Glenn Moore in these pages at the weekend. Wenger said: "I have been watching the Olympics. The British success is amazing because you have no structure here.
"In France, every village has sports facilities provided for the public. Here there is hardly anything. Where do they all go to train? In Paris there are 50 competitive swimming pools and in London two, and yet you got the Olympics."
We got them and now we are saying we will make a different kind of glory to that which came in Beijing but something splendid in its own right. Let us hope so. Let us hope that the medallists of Beijing have brought some light and inspiration. But maybe we should still apply a little caution to our best hopes.
That certainly was the advice of the Olympic heavyweight champion Audley Harrison in Sydney eight years ago when the British team ran far ahead of expectations with 11 gold medals, 10 silver and seven bronze.
"It's all very well getting carried away with the fact that some investment in a few elite athletes has brought success here," Harrison said, "but what people should remember is that there has to be a wider base for the development of young people in sport. The fact is we just don't have a sports infrastructure in Britain. We have improved here in Sydney but that is because the most talented have at last been given some real support.
However, there are so many other young people who could develop if they were given the right facilities."
The secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, was prophetic about the scale of the British success here but surely provoked only a sharp intake of breath when he asserted that Australia was now looking to Britain as a model for sports success.
It is true that Britain won five more gold medals than Australia here, but the total margin in gold, silver and bronze was just one medal. A couple of other considerations have to be made. Britain has three times the population of Australia and until the Government threw Lottery money at the Beijing crusade the head-to-head totals over the previous three Olympics in Athens, Sydney and Atlanta were embarrassing. Australia won 50 gold medals while Britain gained 27. Australia's overall medal total was 158, Britain's 73.
"Look here, mate," said one Aussie here, "it's not rocket science? If you throw a ton of money at a group of talented athletes and buy up some top coaches, the chances are you are going to do well. But it is something you have to do over the years to maintain that success.
"It can't be a one or two-Olympic wonder, not if you have to change the whole culture of a nation's sport to get on the right track long-term."
Australia had a magnificent sports centre for its elite athletes in Canberra more than 40 years ago, a vast and beautifully manicured facility drawing candidates from every corner of the country.
It also fulfilled the Wenger dictum that a sports infrastructure can work in the long run only if it is solidly based in every local community.
Maybe the spirit of Beijing will indeed infuse the London effort, maybe the Lottery penny has finally dropped: sport is good for the country, and, good for politicians who trade on an upbeat national psyche.
Meanwhile, maybe British sport most needs the kind of perspective of a brilliant obsessive like Arsène Wenger – and a remarkable countrywoman of his encountered on an Olympic bus after the Beijing flame was extinguished.
Nicola Pallisard, 76, was attending her 16th Summer Games, four as a competitor, the rest as a journalist. She competed in London from the diving springboard as a 16-year-old and in three subsequent appearances, in Helsinki, Melbourne and Rome, she could not improve on her debut.
"I finished fourth in London," she sighs. "I won the chocolate medal, but I loved being there and I loved London for staging those Games despite the austere times. A lot of people made great sacrifice for their love of sport and you can never forget that. But I do have to say that my country should be staging the next Olympics.
"The campaign went very wrong; maybe there was over-confidence, arrogance. But if you look at our countries and have to say who has put most into sport, who have cared most to give facilities to the young and made them value participation most, well, the answer is very simple. Over so many years since the London Olympics of 1948, obviously it is France."
It was something to set against the euphoria in London House, the 2012 organising committee's headquarters here in Beijing when Johnson gave a witty speech about ping-pong – or, wiff-waff, as he called it – coming home.
What is coming to London is not wiff-waff but a test of the waffle that accompanied the winning bid, all that talk about the desire to give the young people of Britain new chances on the sports field, new horizons.
Siphoning off a shedload of Lottery money to the stars of Beijing, those young men and women determined and resilient enough to establish their elite credentials in a Third World sports environment, is not quite the same thing.
Yes, Beijing has been cause for huge celebration in the streets of Britain. But let's be sure about the reasons why. They are certainly not the ones the politicians would have us believe.
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