Letter:Olympic history repeats itself

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The Independent Online
Sir: The present outcry about Britain's poor showing in the Olympics ("Black South Africa breaks through, but Britain trails behind", 5 August) echoes with uncanny precision the controversy which raged after our athletes had performed below expectations in the 1936 Games in Berlin. The main worry was a feeling that England had somehow "gone soft", and commentators struggled to pinpoint the reasons for our decline.

One writer blamed democracy, "the shibboleth which encourages mediocrity and does away with virility." Our failure in Berlin, he wrote, "should give a jolt to our national complacency. England is admittedly the mother of sport, yet the pick of her athletes have been outclassed."

Others pointed out that Britain had no effective system of national coaching, and that until British athletes got help, in the form of money and organisation, on the scale that other countries already enjoyed, they would not begin to compete. What Britain needed, wrote one former medallist, was a ministry for Health, Sport and Recreation.

The key question was this: "at what point does sport end and political manipulation begin?" Those who watched the Games in Berlin came home disconcerted by the way the Nazi passion for mass exercise had apparently toned up the entire nation, and in 1937 a delegation which went to study Hitler's system came home reporting that excessive physical education in a whole nation with the size and standing of Germany "might lead to fearful consequences for her and trouble for the entire world."

Should we remain amateurs or all turn professional? Then, as now, people found it impossible to decide.