Like some freakish constellation in the night skies, three sports-related events have aligned this month to reveal a deep confusion in the British soul about the question of competition. Firstly, the moustachio'd old cove in charge of the Football Association announced that £12m or so is to be spent on a bid to host the 2018 World Cup. A few days later, with unhappy timing, all of the home football teams, with varying degrees of hopelessness, failed to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals.
Finally, the small matter of our preparation for the 2012 Olympics entered a new and important phase with the announcement of a review of government investment in sport and fitness.
It seems that attitudes are changing in this area, and in a controversial direction. London's successful bid for the games was largely built on the idea that they would be part of a policy of popularising sport and making it more widely available. "We want two million more active people by 2012," said Gordon Brown recently, repeating a familiar government line.
Now, rather belatedly, it has been realised that this cheery Sport-For-All mantra contains a specific, practical problem when it is linked to the 2012 Olympics. Getting two million citizens off their fat, under-exercised bottoms is a laudable enough aim, but it has nothing to do with true, competitive sporting excellence at an international level.
Getting fit is one thing; winning medals is completely different. This obvious truth contains profound implications for government policy. Put simply, the more money that goes to help the fat and the wheezy to shape up, the less there will be available to find, train and develop potential champions of the future. Indeed, it is now being argued, campaigns to encourage people to sit on a rowing-machine at a gym, swim lengths at the local pool or join a yoga class should be, like the promotion of healthy eating, part of the Government's health policy. The money for these great initiatives should not be taken from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but the NHS.
The conflation of fitness and sport has become such an easy political rallying cry that an idiotic illusion has taken hold. It is seriously believed that, if we get enough pale and pudgy 11-year-olds gasping their way miserably around an athletics track, then eventually we shall be successful as a sporting nation. This comforting lie chimes well with the anti-elitist mood of the times.
Unfortunately, winning and elitism tend to belong together; in sport, democracy is for losers. It is the one area in which selection and favouritism are rewarded with medals. A nation which truly wants to produce winners at the top level is obliged to be ruthless, winnowing out the merely good, the sincerely keen, in order to concentrate on the best.
Obesity is undeniably a problem. A nation that succeeds in making its citizens less tubby, constipated and ill-tempered will be happier and more productive. Its hospital wards will be emptier. National debate will be less liverish and disgruntled.
But to make any connection between two million newly active citizens and achieving sporting success in 2012 is dangerously misguided. The day of the amateur is past and the idea that an overweight kid, encouraged away from his PlayStation and on to the track by Mr Brown is one day going to win the 800 metres belongs in the storybooks.
It is time to support the sporting heroes of tomorrow with money and resources, rather than allowing the unfit majority to hold them back.
Service with a sneer
The great Islam debate is clearly where our hippest satirical talents are now to be found. Interrupting himself while writing a screenplay with an Islamic theme, the menacingly funny Chris Morris has taken a pop at the views of Martin Amis, asking: "Didn't he once accidentally sneer his face off?"
It is a good joke but would be better if the byline photograph accompanying it had not shown Morris himself wearing a sneer that almost splits his face in two. What wonderful television it would make if these two men, each of them an impressive Mr Angry for his respective generation, went head to head to discuss the Koran. In the event of a tie, a sneer-off would decide.
* Here is a discomfiting thought. A television programme like Strictly Come Dancing serves to bring the nation together, providing a sense of community that is normally missing from contemporary life.
The idea has come from Derek Draper, the husband of Kate Garraway, a TV presenter who recently did a stint on the dance-floor. Draper, fascinated by the interest in his wife, has been giving the matter some thought. "Evolutionary psychology shows that for tens of thousands of years we lived in villages of 150 people," he has revealed. "In our modern lives, we often don't even know the name of our closest neighbours. But we crave to be part of something big that can unite the nation."
In this Darwinian reading of reality television, it is people like his wife who tap into a myth of the ordinary person going on a quest and becoming a hero – perhaps the most depressing interpretation of a Saturday night TV show ever published.Reuse content