On your marks, get set, move along please
Saturday 10 July 1999
Not that the parents don't care. Of course they do.
But why? Is it because, having been schooled in the blinkered old days of winners and losers, the older generation are deemed to be a lost cause so far as open-minded exercise is concerned? Immune to the soul-crushing potential of the 50 metres dash? Or, God forbid, the egg and spoon race?
In common with many other schools, the competition ethic is sublimated into a hybrid form of team sport, in which randomly selected groups of pupils complete - or not - a series of tasks which strain the sinews of credibility. Hula hoops and bean-bags feature heavily.
The guiding principle in each activity appears to be that it shall cease as soon as the participant gets the hang of it.
Move on! Move on! There's another meaningless exercise further up the line!
I recall taking my eldest daughter to something called Mini Movers. I remember the name because it was written on the T-shirt we bought for her after her first visit.
This was a highly organised session, based on the same principle as the batty sports days. What frustrated me - and, far more importantly, frustrated my daughter - was the fact that she had no soon alighted on something she enjoyed and was good at than she was hiked off to the next stage by the steely-eyed instructor.
What kind of sense is there in that for a three-year-old? Or an anything- year-old?
Can you imagine them doing that sort of thing in the United States? "All right, Nancy, so you're a natural gymnast. Now stop showing off and get over to the Silly Hockey!"
And no, of course we don't want driven, channelled automatons who burn out by their mid-teens. But what's wrong with letting young children follow their natural inclinations?
On the face of it, a large proportion of the kilocalories expended at school sports days I have witnessed emanate from children hopping up and down as they wait their turn. More than 50 per cent of the time allotted to these curious activities is spent queuing.
As preparation for British life, then, these sports days are ideal. In future years, as the impatient hoppers on these school fields grow up and embrace the adult world of waiting their turn - for buses, or more likely, given the school's catchment area, numbered tickets at Waitrose delicatessen - all this will have stood them in good stead. With the emphasis on stood.
Meanwhile, with the emphasis on sitting, the bemused parents are obliged to try and make sense of what they see in front of them.
It used to be about finishing tapes. Now you only know it's all finished when someone blows a whistle.
But just supposing - and you will have to humour me here - sports day is supposed to have something to do with sport?
Perhaps, though, we are looking at this the wrong way. The thing to do now - now that we have trained up a rising generation of hula-hoopers and bean-baggers - is to begin serious lobbying of the world's sporting bodies to alter the composition of their events.
Come to think of it, this process has already started with moves to introduce golf and ballroom dancing to the Olympic Games.
There were suggestions, too, in the hopelessly naive days when people in Manchester believed they might secure the Olympics by offering a sound, straightforward bid, that local enthusiasms should be reflected in a programme which included black-pudding throwing from Bury and narrow-boat racing on the Grand Union Canal. But that was probably only a joke.
Thus sports which have clearly outlasted their use as far as the British educational system is concerned - running, throwing, jumping, those sort of things - can make way for a new generation of events.
There are major commercial and ethical advantages to this strategy. The introduction of items such as bean-bags, hula-hoops and bendy plastic hockey sticks to events such as the Olympic Games is likely to stimulate huge sponsorship interest from manufacturers. Some may even contemplate switching from the production of outmoded items such as footballs and running shoes.
The other big advantage of these measures would be their strong anti- doping message. These new events would require so little by way of effort or accomplishment that there would be no advantage in taking performance- enhancing substances. The drugs don't work, because there's nothing for them to work on.
What we are talking about here is a brave - no, that's not the word. Nice. Yes, a nice new world, where nobody exactly loses, and nobody exactly wins, and nobody is exactly happy or upset about anything.
It's not the winning. It's not even the taking part.
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