Leading article: Britain is lagging behind the field

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The Independent Online

After the astonishing success of Britain's athletes in the Beijing Olympics, an awkward question hangs in the air: how on earth do we follow that? What can we do to ensure that our national haul of 47 medals (19 of them gold) is not a merely a glorious one-off, but is consolidated in four years when the games come to London.

Gordon Brown has rustled up an answer of sorts. The Prime Minister wants a push for more "competitive" sport in schools and to end what he calls the "medals-for-all" culture. Such a glib proposal highlights the danger that our politicians are drawing all the wrong lessons from Beijing.

Great Britain's success in the recent games was built, first of all, on the natural talent, hard work, and brilliance of our athletes. Financial investment played a big part too. The injection of £265m in lottery funding to support our athletes and to employ some of the world's top coaches was crucial in allowing our sportsmen and women to give their best in Beijing. But what our success was not built on was a healthy national sporting culture in which everyone has the opportunity to take part.

In fairness, Mr Brown is not entirely wrong. An intensive focus on elite sporting prospects is sensible. There should be more screening to identify exceptional young talent and get them the best coaching early. But what Britain needs still more is a greater investment in basic community sporting facilities, accessible to all. As Arsene Wenger, the astute manager of Arsenal football club, remarked in an interview with this newspaper at the weekend, the basic sporting infrastructure in Britain is simply abysmal. We have fewer full-size swimming pools, recreation pitches, tennis courts and community sports centres than many other developed countries. Travel around the United States or western Europe and you will see how sporting grounds can be a focal point for community life. Britain has little to compare.

It is all very well for Mr Brown and his ministers to demand that all children be required to participate in at least five hours of sport a week. But where, exactly, are they supposed to do all this sport? Mr Brown can talk all he likes about Britain going "full-throttle for gold", but while his Government continues to preside over the selling off of school playing fields, this is merely hot air.

Britain did exceptionally well at the Beijing Games. And the success of our athletes should provide a fantastic springboard for the 2012 London Olympics. But let us not pretend that the medal tally in Beijing is evidence of the superiority of our grass-roots sporting infrastructure. The hard truth is that, in that particular race, our peers remain ahead by an embarrassing distance.