Leading Article: Sporting excellence: a worthwhile goal?

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WHAT is the point of sport? Given the time, money and attention it commands, the question seems otiose. But whenever specific issues arise in connection with sport they open up a vast field of unresolved controversy. Should sport be forced on schoolchildren? Is there something wrong with a nation that cannot win at cricket? Should the Government spend more on sport? Is Gazza's leg a matter of national importance?

The answers depend largely on what sport is for. Fitness is the one benefit on which most people agree. Healthy people are happier, more productive and less of a burden on the state. Children who take plenty of exercise are more likely to become healthy adults. But fitness can be achieved without competitive sports, so beyond this point opinions divide.

Traditionally, sport has been promoted as character training because it teaches people to contain their aggressive impulses within a framework of agreed rules. In team sports, it also teaches co-operation, albeit with one side only. If aggression is innate, especially in young males, it makes sense to harness it. Sport therefore helps to make society safer by teaching people to obey rules. It also prepares them for success in the marketplace, where competitiveness is a virtue - provided, as in sport, rules are respected.

Britain's industrial and sporting failures are often blamed partly on the challenge to this view that came from the left wing in the Sixties. Aggression is not innate, argued some socialists in that period, including many who moved into the teaching profession. It is either a relic of primitive survival mechanisms or a product of social oppression. In either case, it should be discouraged. Children should be taught to co-operate rather than compete, and to develop a sense of self-worth that does not depend on being rated against others, whether in physical or academic competition. Sporting passions were seen by these critics as out of place and damaging in modern society, and often involving misplaced sexuality - witness the orgasmic reaction when a ball penetrates the goal.

Curiously, the Communist regimes of the period, which might have been expected to put this philosophy into practice, did the opposite. They poured money and drugs into their athletes in the hope of demonstrating the superiority of their system. They also spent crippling sums on armaments in a parallel pursuit of power and prestige.

The lesson of their experience must surely be that sporting achievement is not in itself a measure of national excellence or individual virtue. Indeed, treating it as such leads to distorted priorities and ruined health for many athletes. At best it may be a by-product, for if a country provides a broad sporting infrastructure, the apex of the pyramid is likely to be higher.

But that does not resolve the debate over whether sport provides training for life, diversion from it, or merely a means of getting fit. If sporting activities are educationally valuable, children can reasonably be forced to engage in them, just as they are forced to study mathematics for their own good. If sports are a substitute for war, if they glamorise or actually increase aggression, or if they are merely an outlet for primitive survival instincts, the case for compulsion is much weaker.

General agreement on these questions is unlikely, especially as everyone's experience of sports at school is different. Some feel their schooldays were blighted by compulsory sports, others that they could not have survived or risen in the world without them. The Government would therefore be wise to avoid dogmatism. It should concentrate on encouraging the provision of better opportunities for pupils who want them, and better incentives for teachers who wish to help. Selling off playing fields was a mistake because it reduced opportunities. A reversal of that trend, and of the philosophy that lay behind it, is welcome. But going to the other extreme would only reduce the freedom of choice that should be the basis of any new policy on sports.