Sweet fifteen for an epistle to a golden age

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TODAY, this column completes 15 years of existence. Admittedly, this is hardly a major landmark. At 985 years short of a dome, it is not even a minor milestone. Indeed, in that bureaucratic whirlwind known as sporting administration, 15 years is no more than the average length of a bungs inquiry.

The anniversary would not be worth mentioning at all but for the fact that the period, brief as it may be, has coincided with the most dramatic and concerted surge of changes that British sport has ever encountered. We are not complaining. When it made its first appearance on the corresponding Sunday in January 1983 in another newspaper, this frail creation was not given long to live. Serious reservations were expressed about whether a weekly editorial comment column, even one tending towards the waspishly light-hearted, could survive on such a meagre diet of serious sporting subjects.

While there have been many occasions during the production of approximately 700 columns when the good Lord has been agonisingly late in providing a topical theme, the search for discursive material has become a rapidly reducing chore in a world that seethes with activity.

The past 15 years have been subjected to a sporting explosion from which the mushroom cloud is still spreading. One illustration close to home is that this column made its debut in a four-page sports section and today is part of a section numbering 14 pages. Newspapers generally have increased in size but no department has had its ration swollen as much as sport.

Television offers the most powerful demonstration of this expansion. A sports fan catapulted from 1983 would not believe the amount and variety of live sport available. We can scarcely believe it ourselves. It is not so much blanket coverage as a double duvet and advancing technology promises much more to come.

The glut is such that hardly a newspaper bothered to spare a line for the BBC's announcement on Thursday that Sunday Grandstand, an intermittent programme to date, will now become a permanent addition to its Saturday brother. Two Grandstands for the price of one; there is no need to go back 15 years to find a time when that step would have been unthinkable especially as, through its own carelessness, the Corporation has less access to major sport now than it has ever had.

It all adds up to a concentration that in earlier days we would have judged to be more than the nation could tolerate. Sport has long been able to dominate the entire country's attention with certain events such as the Olympics, World Cups, Wimbledon, big horse races and Cup finals, but now the assault is conducted on almost a daily basis and is noisily unremitting.

The growing influence of BSkyB is undoubtedly responsible for this, but any gratitude ought to be mutual. Sport can be credited - or discredited, depending on your viewpoint - with single-handedly accelerating the sprouting of satellite dishes past the profit barrier. It has been a beneficial arrangement.

Not all our sports men and women enjoy high regard but their profiles as objects of fascination have never been higher. Perhaps sport's most significant growth during this time has been as an integral part of our everyday lives. This may have been an inevitable consequence of more of our time and inclination being liberated for leisure purposes but a more immediate cause is surely that sport has gained more relevance in the eyes of the infidels. The amount of money swilling around these days would help to account for much of that. People tend to take big earners more seriously, no matter how deep their disapproval.

But it is in comparison with the rest of society's main forces that sport has gained most of its ground. If you examine the performances over the past 15 years of what were once regarded as more serious institutions - such as Parliament, the Monarchy, the Church and the City - sport's presence as an entity in our midst does not suffer in comparison.

We've had our moments of disorder and disgrace but as a thriving, and not too badly regulated, sector of the national scene sport has considerably enhanced its position. Since one of the early laments of this column was that sport's ability to make a valuable contribution to society should be recognised, this is a welcome development.

We have seen a corresponding increase in the number of people persuaded to raise their personal fitness levels. This increase is largely confined to those who can afford subscriptions to private health clubs or have easy access to suitable public facilities. There is still a need, identified in the early days of this epistle, for a national fitness initiative and not only has that need become more urgent but the wherewithal is now available from the national lottery to provide swimming and gymnasium facilities, particularly in deprived areas.

The lottery is probably the single most significant development of our times but the proceeds are still not being distributed in the best interests of the country. The chief beneficiary is still the Treasury in whose coffers resides pounds 3.5 billion of lottery cash still waiting to be paid out because of bureaucratic delays.

In 1983, the Sports Council were begging Mrs Thatcher's government to raise the pounds 27m annual grant they gave to sport. That seems a piffling amount now. Sky alone must spend in excess of that on sport every month while the lottery stashes away more than pounds 20m a week. There are several good causes competing for that sum but the people, especially the young, should be enjoying more tangible benefits of sport's share.

Many of the changes in sport have been enforced by events far away from the arenas. The collapse of the the Soviet Union and the communist bloc and the happy demise of apartheid has made the international scene more fascinating in several sports.

Domestically, the football and rugby fans of the early Eighties would be staggered by the differences in the structure of the games, not to mention the stadiums. Rugby union and league are staggering themselves under the burden of attempting to adapt to a commercial agenda totally alien to their pasts.

Fifteen years ago football was debating the Chester Report which recommended a shake-up of the Football League. It was merely a tinker compared to what happened when the Premier League clubs broke away. Fortunately, the elite have so far failed to seal themselves off hermetically from the clubs below and, despite many deficiencies, the game booms with potential.

That it is watched by larger and more affluent crowds in the compulsory comfort of all-seated grounds is thanks to the harvest of the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough rather than to any vision from the game's leaders but the transformation remains amazing.

I wish we could spend more time discussing what happens on the fields of play rather than the tumult off it but that is the nature of the beast these days. I content myself that I didn't have the powers necessary to predict all these changes in that first column. Otherwise, there would have been no second column and I would have spent the ensuing years between padded walls.