There is no audience more prepared to humiliate you for sporting failure than your primary school contemporaries

Jim White ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
In the week of Andre Agassi's see-through shorts, Stan Collymore's holiday snaps and Michael Atherton's imaginative way of setting out to win two Tests on the trot, the most extraordinary sporting news came from Yorkshire. It may not be the most plausible explanation for Darren Gough, but one teacher in Bradford was alleged to have taken a singularly robust attitude to competitiveness at his primary school's annual sports day.

Andrew Whittaker is presently in Leeds Crown Court charged with assault of his pupils. It is claimed by the prosecution that he sanctioned bullying by a group of favoured boys; a gang, allegedly, that was particularly active at this time of year.

"On sports day there were bronze, silver and gold certificates," one former pupil, now aged 12, told the court on Wednesday. "If we got lower than gold, Mr Whittaker said we would get butted by three pupils he called the head-butters. Quite a lot were butted because not that many were brilliant at sports."

It is a gruesome thought: in my time, sports day was humiliation enough without the added burden of being assaulted by a gang of short-trousered storm-troopers. Being useless at running, I generally entered the novelty races at the bottom of the day's card. And I can't remember winning any of them. In the three-legged race I always found myself bound to the class fatty; in the potato and spoon I was disqualified for over-zealous use of the thumb; in the obstacle race I was, one year, heading for glory until Malcolm Brookes caught me up under the sacking and pulled me back by the ankles.

"You're useless, you are," everyone said afterwards, proving there is no audience more prepared to humiliate you for sporting failure than your primary school contemporaries. Which is why, as a resolve-stiffening exercise for a life ahead stuffed with personal disaster, there was no better lesson. Provided there is no resort to head-butting.

Memories like this must have prompted those educational theorists to legislate that all competitive sport at any age was a bad thing. What disastrous consequences that has had: a nation's sporting heritage brought to its knees as an act of revenge for coming last in the skipping race.

Recently, John Major has signalled a backlash - he has issued a policy that competitive school sport should, along with lengthening shadows and lukewarm beer, be revived. On Wednesday, I got the chance to see how his crusade is faring at first hand: it was my children's sports day.

It took place in Islington, home of trendy academic theories, in a local park which was soon seething with the wild-eyed, the anxious, the pant- wettingly over-excited - and that was just the parents. Everywhere you looked there were parents with video cameras welded to their faces, hoping to catch their offspring if not winning, then at least taking part.

Throughout the morning, the children hopped, skipped and jumped in, it seemed to me, a reasonable approximation of bliss: the look on their faces suggested all they wanted to do was compete. Which is what the educationalists failed to recognise: you can never legislate away children's natural instinct to win. Thus here we were within a stone's throw of Tony Blair's place, and the children were competing like Tories in a leadership election.

What this school did, which enabled everyone to enjoy the pleasures of competition without the despair of coming last, was to conduct every race as a relay: to spread the guilt. There was the 5x20m dressing-up race, the 4x40m balance-a-quoit-on-the-head dash, and the 7x20m three-legged hobble.

Even the parents' race was a mixed relay. Which was just as well if the grown-ups were going to behave like those at a colleague's sports day, at which two fathers came to blows over a disputed photo-finish. Indeed, give or take a few incidents of sunburn and half a dozen cases of prematurely consumed packed lunches, this method seemed a paradigm of how to introduce the under sevens to the pleasures of competition.

The only cloud on an otherwise unsullied morning was in the 5x20m potato and spoon relay. The boy running the anchor leg for one team was disqualified after legging it up the course with the potato clutched firmly to his chest like he was an All Black centre taking off for the line. His parents' embarrassment at seeing their son being publicly revealed as a cheat was compounded when he chirruped out his plea of mitigation.

"It's not my fault," he complained. "I was only doing what my dad told me to do." In the interests of independent, impartial, truthful reporting, I am obliged to reveal the identity of the miscreant. It was my son.

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