Hamish McRae: Can the Olympics help give sport back to the people?

Our challenge is not just the pursuit of excellence. It's about spreading athletic activity throughout society
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The Independent Online

It is upon us. The greatest sporting event in the world, of course, but also the greatest single media event and, more questionably, a huge political event too. China is using the Olympic Games, denied to the country after the catastrophe of Tiananmen Square in 1989, to display its competence, ambition and economic might to the world. If the show it is putting on is not quite Berlin 1936, it is not the cut-price games of Atlanta 1996 either.

But if these Olympics mean an awful lot for China, what might they mean for us? We will be putting ourselves on display in 2012, though mercifully in a somewhat different way from China. If we currently, and understandably, worry about our competence at handling big investment projects, I think we are also reasonably sure that we can both run a good party and put in a reasonable performance in the arenas.

The run-up to this will be the medals rankings in Beijing. There was a certain swagger in the confidence yesterday of Andy Burnham, the sports minister, when he backed the prediction that Britain could win up to 41 medals in Beijing and noted that we could go as far as beating Australia in the table. "We are about to enter a glorious new era for British sport and I hope success in Beijing will inspire the next generation of young sports stars," he said.

Well, excellence matters in sport, as in other aspects of human endeavour, and something really interesting does seem to be happening in Britain. It is thanks, amongst other things, to the injection of lottery funds into sports facilities and that is great. But if one of the lessons for Britain that will emerge from Beijing is that excellence needs to be supported, there will, I suggest, be another: it is that other aspects of sport – such as access, diversity, team-building, self-discipline and ingenuity – need to be fostered too.

One of the astounding aspects of the Olympics is the way in which it manages to rise above the razzmatazz, the nationalism and the money, to become a celebration of individual achievement. That is what brings the TV audience rankings, not the ceremony, not the sponsors and not the national coaching machines.

There are the few high-profile track events with global resonance: the 100 and 1,500 metres, the Marathon. But most of the disciplines are on quite a small scale, practised by quite small numbers of people and operating without vast sponsorship budgets. Who before the Athens Olympics had heard of a yacht called a Yngling? Who, ahead of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, could have conceived that curling could become a successful TV sport, with commentators enthusing over the task of the team smoothing the ice ahead of the stone as "great sweeping"? Were it not for the Olympics, would synchronised swimming be recognised as a real sport, rather than a 1950s Hollywood movie routine?

That is not to mock; it is to point out that a lot of Olympic sports are still truly amateur disciplines. This is not a branch of showbiz. For many individuals, it is a case of young people getting up at 5.30 in the morning to start their training, not because they will get fame and fortune but because they want to take the talents they have been given and do as well as they can with them. For team events, it is people getting together and realising that the more effectively they co-operate, the more chance they have as a group to outperform than they could have as individuals.

So the challenge for us should not just be the pursuit of excellence. That bit seems to be coming right and we just need to do more of what we have been doing. My cycling colleague tells me that the reason why we are the best nation on the planet is that we have put a lot of money into new tracks, training and the high-tech end of racing cycle development. That is a model we should roll out to other sports – easier said than done, but at least the objective is clear.

The much harder challenge is to spread sport through our society. That means reversing the trend of the past half-century. From the middle of the 19th century until the 1950s, there was a gradual rise in the proportion of the population undertaking some kind of sporting activity. For many of us who went through school then, it was normal to have some kind of sporting or athletic activity every day. Some of us went on afterwards, in my own case in Ireland, playing club rugby rather unsuccessfully.

But now the school playing fields are being sold off and access to sport has become much more restricted in other ways. It may be that "health & safety" regulations have had the perverse effect of closing down facilities that are good enough but don't reach top standards. True, there has been an explosion in the number of health clubs, but these have a different culture and in practice are available only to a limited segment of the population. There has been growth in some elite sports such as golf, skiing, scuba diving and so on, which is fine, but these are inevitably minority activities. We need sport for everyone, not for the few.

So what is to be done? The starting place surely should be the Olympics. And it should be the real Olympic ideal rather than the sponsor-driven or nationalist ethos that we will see a lot of this month. We should recognise that preparing for 2012 is not just about facilities, but it's also about participation. There are models: Australia has done better than any other nation at increasing participation in sport and we could learn from that.

There is also a lot to be done in the schools and here we need to listen to the schools themselves to see where the blockages lie. It may be partly lack of facilities but it may be difficulties of supervision. The new fashionable idea (outlined in the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein) is that you make a number of quite small changes that nudge people's behaviour towards an objective. (To take a completely different example, if primary schools in developing countries give children a hot meal, school enrolment shoots up.) I suspect that this is a case for nudging schools towards more sporting activities and it is certainly the right time to do it, but this will be a long slog for another generation at least.

There are signs of hope. Take cycling. Leave aside the hoped-for performance of our athletes in Beijing and look at what has been happening to cycle use in Britain. Numbers are climbing. People who have switched to cycling to work may not think of themselves as taking part in a sport, but in a way they are. This may be the result of a rise in the cost of petrol and it is associated with greater, if still inadequate, provision of cycle lanes.

But it does not matter why people do things; what matters is that sport becomes more of a thing to do and less of a thing to watch. OK, we are allowed to watch the Olympics on the box; but let's, when they are over, think about how we use this opportunity to fix sport in our society.