Thomas Sutcliffe: Competitive sport is good – but it's not for everyone

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister has announced that it is time we had more competitive sport at school, choosing the Olympic closing ceremony as a good moment to repudiate the received opinion that left-wing administrations are hostile to the divisive business of saying one child has done better than another. The Government had now begun to "correct the tragic mistake of reducing the competitive element in school sports", he said, rather implying that this was a new initiative.

Given that not coming first is no longer to be treated as a traumatic assault on a person's self-esteem, I don't suppose he will mind me pointing out that in making this policy announcement he is something of a Johnny-come-lately, and doesn't even qualify for a podium position. It's been a feature of Labour policy for years now. Chris Smith promised to put competitive sport "back on its feet" in July 2000, Charles Clarke got all Daily Mail about the issue in May 2003, declaring that it was "ridiculous" to say that it was bad for children to compete against each other on sports days, and Alan Johnson added his voice in February, 2007, condemning the "absurd and perverse political correctness" which had outlawed direct competition in many schools. Which does make you wonder whether the Prime Minister is inventing a problem to sound toughly common sense about. Or why eight years of Labour government hadn't been enough to put it right.

The terror of pointing out the second-bests and the also-rans was an absurdity, not least because children – instinctively competitive from the age they first totter to their feet – were never fooled. They knew perfectly well that a sticker reading "I tried my best" was as worthless as a Zimbabwean dollar. And more often than not they convened their own sports meets in the playground to work out who was fastest and strongest.

But, before everyone gets carried away with Olympic fervour, it might be worth remembering that compulsory sports have their downsides too, particularly compulsory team sports. In my experience (probably very different from that of Mr Brown, a first-team star), rugby was extraordinarily effective in bringing together a disparate group and making them realise that they shared a common purpose. They would trot onto the pitch bickering but before long they would be shouting as one: "Oh God! Don't let Sutcliffe get the ball!" Since my gym teacher often put me on the field as a scrum-half, this could make play very tricky indeed.

Because they cared desperately about winning, they regarded me as an unconscionable handicap. I agreed with them. But we were stuck with each other because the prevailing orthodoxy had it that this activity was morally improving. In truth, it instilled in me an antipathy towards strenuous physical exercise which lasted for nearly 20 years. There was nothing wrong with losing. That I could cope with perfectly well, having had plenty of practice. It was being excoriated as a loser that I didn't much care for, given that I would far rather have been reading a book in the first place. And as soon as I was allowed to play tennis – where the only person shouting at me was me – I didn't have a problem. Competition is fine; compulsion – in my experience – doesn't help anyone.

Oh, Carol, do shut up...

It was a pretty open secret that Mrs Thatcher was having trouble with her memory – the media presumably having kept it that way because they deemed that it was nobody's business but her family's.

Now Carol Thatcher has effectively made it common knowledge that the former prime minister's once fabled grasp of detail has become distressingly frayed – describing confusions and lapses that will be sadly familiar to anyone with a parent suffering from Alzheimer's or senile dementia.

I found myself wondering a little about Carol's motivation in revealing this fact. On the one hand, continued secrecy would have been dishonest and unhelpful, given how common the problem now is. On the other hand, did she really need to detail her mother's condition quite so explicitly?

And, given this development, did nobody – at any point – question the tastefulness of publishing her memoir as A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl?

Fruit from the manure heap

Armando Iannucci has called on the BBC to launch a subscription channel along the lines of HBO, so that creative talents canexplore their ideas without having to worry about tight budgets or ratings figures. He wasn't, he admitted, even going to pretend that he understands how the economics of such a channel might work. He can save himself the trouble, because they wouldn't – not in this country, at least.

I share his admiration for the HBO brand. In fact the sight of those letters resolving out of transmission "snow" to a simple harmonic crescendo always induce in me a Pavlovian jab of anticipatory pleasure. But the reason HBO has flourished in America is because of the deep layer of well-rotted manure that surrounds it on all sides. As bad as British television can sometimes be, I doubt that it's anywhere near bad enough to fertilise a premium channel like HBO.

The adverts aren't intrusive and infuriating enough and the terrestrial channels aren't as blandly grit-free as the American networks – where even the glimpse of a nipple can cause national palpitation. And, though it might be nice for creative talents to have access to a money tap and be left utterly undisturbed by the suits at television centre, they don't seem to do too badly under the current constraints. If you can find a show as good as The Thick of It on a free digital channel, why on earth would you feel the need to take out a subscription to a new one?

* I couldn't help but think of Sarah Millican's former husband when I saw that she'd won the If.Comedy award at Edinburgh for Best Newcomer, with a routine described as "a biting analysis of a painful divorce". To add to the satisfaction of extracting some value from an emotional ordeal, she gets a £4,000 cheque and, presumably, a string of bookings for a UK tour. He, I would guess, gets the niggling and possibly irrepressible desire to find what exactly she's saying about their split, and why exactly it makes audiences clutch their sides in helpless mirth. The big question is, would you creep into the back row as the lights were going down or would you make sure that you got a seat right at the front, so that as your former partner scanned the audience for people to tease, she suddenly spotted her muse staring back at her? And would you dare to heckle?