Earlier this month the National Audit Office published a report that contained damning criticism of the way the council managed some if its facilities. The report alleged that the council had failed to institute procedures for dealing with conflicts of interest, especially where sponsorship deals were concerned; that it had failed to protect the public interest when it set up the Sports Council Trust Company, and had allowed unclear financial relationships to exist within the council and other bodies that had close ties to it.
In fact, although the criticisms were widely publicised, they were mainly procedural and applied only to a small sector of the council's activity. They also arose almost entirely out of reforms that had been foisted on the council by the Government in the Eighties.
More serious for the council in its implications was the alacrity with which the Audit Office's criticism was picked up by the media and the public. This showed that the Sports Council has a fundamental image problem: it is not respected, and there are many people who would like to see it replaced by a stronger, more independent and dynamic institution.
First, let me offer some words of sympathy for the council. Since it was set up in its present form in 1972 it has failed to establish the kind of 'policy community' for sport that has been so important in protecting agriculture and roads, for example. But I don't think there was ever a possibility that it might. Sports administration does not command the kind of 'last bastion of the civilised world' image that has attracted fairly powerful figures to the Arts Council. A rival, the Central Council for Physical Recreation, was left in place and fighting for its life. Governments since 1972 have not had sport policies as such: they have responded to problems in sport, such as football hooliganism, or have seen sport as a cheap alternative to other areas of policy in such diverse fields as the boycott of South Africa and the provision of inner-city sports centres.
The Sports Council's grant of about pounds 40m is tiny in the context of an industry that is the sixth largest in the country.
In short, the council has been held responsible for British sport and sporting failure without really having the power to achieve much. The fundamental problem, not tackled by its critics any more than by the council, is that Britain has no clear consensus or policy about sport: it is simply assumed that it is a 'good thing'. But that bland assumption can be debilitating unless we can clarify and agree what kind of good thing it is and why - and, especially, why it is the kind of good thing that cannot be left to private activity and the market.
There is even a problem about how sport is defined. Sports policy, for example, as conceived by the council excludes all field sports, ignoring everything that would have been considered a sport (as opposed to a game) a century ago and putting at arm's length some of our most popular sports, such as angling. It arbitrarily excludes popular motor sports, and indoor games such as darts, chess and snooker. Instead, it has concentrated on Olympic sports such as athletics and gymnastics, which have, at best, limited grass-roots support.
One version of why sport is a good thing lies in the Victorian idea of fitness, given a strong push into government policy by the quaintly named interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration set up after the discovery that British recruits for the Boer war were generally wheezy and weedy. This line of policy generated compulsory PT in schools, the Physical Training and Recreation Act of 1937 and massive local government involvement in sports facilities. The objective was to get the mass of the population fit for work and war, and it was stimulated by German competition.
Alongside this there has always been a view, descended from muscular Christianity, that sport is good for the soul, that it teaches the most disreputable elements in society the virtues of teamwork or application (or at least keeps them occupied). It is this attitude of 'let them play five-a-side' that has, for instance, transformed Belfast from the worst- provided area in the UK to the best in terms of sport facilities during the past quarter of a century. As Mr Sproat expressed it yesterday: 'If there were more organised team games in schools, there would be fewer little thugs like those who murdered James Bulger on the streets.'
A much newer demand on policy is the expectation that governments find a way to organise international competitive success, because what our representatives do on sports fields is a symbol and metaphor of our national status. The origins of this expectation lie in the volte-face by Stalin in 1945, which rescinded hostility to the 'bourgeois' Olympic Games and concentrated enormous resources on succeeding in them.
Very quickly we had the Soviet Union, East Germany et al as models of what could be achieved by a state commitment to sporting success. Thus the Sports Council was expected to deliver not only 'Sport for All', but also 'excellence'; its own estimates of the proportion of its grant spent on the latter have varied from 25-35 per cent. Since 1979 the Government has demanded more of both. The oft-repeated claim that these aims are complementary (they would say that, wouldn't they?) can only be sustained if mass sport is shaped and inspired by imitation of success.
'Sport for All' may be vague, instrumental and patronising, but it surely does some good and relatively little harm. 'Excellence', on the other hand, if it means copying Soviet and East German sports systems, is an essentially vicious objective. We are only just learning the extent to which Olympic success over the past 20 years has been based on the principle, 'If you don't take it, you won't make it'. But we knew already that it involved treating people as performance machines from an early age.
Quite simply, in the mechanical sports - sprinting, throwing, weightlifting, etc - we should not want to succeed, because you have to be dehumanised in order to do so. The harm that the 'performance principle' is doing can be seen from the 'excellent' young footballers who show up at Lilleshall as potential England players only to be diagnosed as cripples. But you can probably see some of its manifestations in the way your local under-nines are run.
The real Sports Council has been based on an incoherent mess of values and objectives. The symptoms of its lack of purpose have often been a kind of fashionability and political correctness that has seen it torn between excellence and mass participation, enthused with women or the disabled as the environment and the needs of survival dictate.
My fantasy Sports Council would take its core values from the part that games and sportsmanship play in our national culture and our immense contribution to the world stock of these goods. It would resist imports, particularly the Germanic heresy of valuing mere physical prowess and those sports that encourage it. It would foster the senses of meaning and belonging games can give, both to players and spectators. It would aim for excellence in those games and sports that enhance the human spirit, such as football, rugby and cricket, and it would get us out altogether of the sleaze that surrounds world institutions such as the International Olympic Committee and Fifa, setting up rival competitions and institutions in their stead. And, yes, it would help teach us to lose with dignity and maintain a quiet contempt for those for whom winning is everything.
The author is director of the Warwick Centre for the Study of Sport in Society, but is writing in a personal capacity. His book, 'The Changing Politics of Sport', is published by Manchester University Press, pounds 12.95.Reuse content