Sorry Boris Johnson, but suffering the humiliation of PE once a week is quite enough

The regular social humiliation I experienced on the sports field crushed my confidence

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The Independent Online

Let me paint a tragic picture for you. A shy, eight-year-old girl, knock-kneed and skinny, painfully self-aware and so pale that her peers have nicknamed her “ghost” is standing alone in front of 30 of her fellow school pupils. There is an argument going on among them. They’re shouting at each other, gesticulating towards her, while she looks down at her plimsolls and prays for the sodden ground to swallow her up. Zoom in and you’ll be able to hear what they’re saying: “You have her!” “No, you have her!” “No, you have her!” And then, in the culmination of one long, toe-curlingly awful instance of ritual humiliation, the teacher steps in and says: “I know none of you want her on your team. But one of you has to take her, so we’ll all just have to deal with it.”

Alas, dear readers, that poor soul was me, and I never did progress past the “so bad people will fall over themselves not to be around me” level of skill in rounders, or, for that matter, any other competitive sport. 

The simple fact is that my awkward body was not made for aggressive tackles, breath-taking passes and expert penalty shots. The best I can manage is a few half-hearted yoga poses – and that’s only because they serve free curry after the local class. I’m still knock-kneed, skinny, pale and self-aware, although the shyness has abated in the last decade, safely removed as I am from the school fields where I was once referred to by a sports teacher as a “useless rodent”.

That’s the thing about regular social humiliation: it makes you shy. It crushes your confidence and it eventually turns you into the sort of bitter adult who recounts tales about minor injustices at primary school in a national newspaper. Personally I don’t feel, as Boris Johnson has claimed, that forcing schools to hold “compulsory competitive games” every morning would improve the lives of the children subjected to them or do anything to tackle the obesity crisis.

I know what BoJo would say to that: I’m one of those feeble ideological lefties who can’t bear competition. I’ve never been able to get to the bottom of why a strong competitive streak is so prized by the upper classes. Is it because they were chucked into a dog-eat-dog boarding-school world at five, forced to grin and bear arbitrary systems of authority involving housemasters, prefects and god-knows-what-else until they believed it was a good thing thanks to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome? Is it because they never saw their uncle, emboldened by advocaat, throw the Monopoly board across the room and storm out in tears at midnight on Christmas Eve? Or is it because no self-respecting Tory would ever publicly admit that it was, in fact, he who was chased around the playground by a sadistic man in jogging bottoms shouting, “Come on, now, Boris, get those revolting little trotters of yours moving!”?

Johnson appears to live in a world in which even conversations are there to be won, rather than shared, so it’s not surprising that he thinks a daily dose of rugger is just the ticket to harden up our podgy children. But studies show that exercise isn’t as important as you’d think: in fact, in April of this year, three international experts wrote an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine detailing how food companies had irresponsibly over-stated the benefits of exercise in order to keep peddling their high-fat and high-sugar wares. “An obese person does not need to do one iota of exercise to lose weight,” stated Dr Malhotra, a renowned cardiologist. “That is unscientific and wrong. You cannot outrun a bad diet.”

Elsewhere, it’s been found that shaming people for being overweight catastrophically fails to have the intended effect of forcing them to diet, instead causing them to pile on further pounds. That puts paid to the second Tory-values initiative I imagine they were going to run with, in which Conservative MPs line up and yell, “Come on, fatty!” at students undergoing their compulsory hour of competitive exercise each morning.

So it’s not me and my weedy disposition that’s blinded by ideology; it’s our beloved London Mayor. That’s the problem with his sort: they think everything can be solved by pulling yourself up – or around a field – by your bootstraps. Boris should instead take a look at the big corporations purveying goods filled with E-numbers, additives, trans-fats and glucose syrup. It’s fat cats in the boardroom, not the fat kids in the playground, who should be held responsible for solving the growing obesity crisis.

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