This sporting lifestyle

The fitness cult has taken over the world and John Major wants to be a winner. But physical perfection is a dangerous absolute
John Major's latest wheeze - a "revolutionary" British Academy of Sport combined with a network of sports colleges - is intended to produce a new generation of winning British athletes. Either this is another example of his characteristically lousy timing or he is spot on. We are, after all, in the middle of an Olympics that seems to feature an alarmingly large crop of chirpily heroic British losers. Perhaps that is precisely why we need a new sports initiative or, perhaps, it will simply make us ask: why bother? Leave the superhuman stuff to the American, the Chinese or even the Irish; we'll just turn up to moan about the buses.

But, of course, none of us, the Prime Minister included, can seriously hope to ignore the sports cult that has taken over the world. Political causes are dead, religion on the wane, even getting richer lacks any kind of spiritual depth. But sport and fitness seem, more than ever, to provide an absolute that crosses all cultural boundaries.

You can't argue with the simple spectacle of somebody running or swimming faster than anybody else. You can't deny that those honed, perfect bodies represent one instantly recognisable, universally acceptable form of human perfection.

Indeed, in a bewilderingly plural world, in which all values are relativised, they begin to represent the only such form. In every other field of human activity, excuses can be made. You don't get on in your career because you have been unfairly treated, or your genius is not recognised because the system is rigged against you. Losing athletes may attempt similar excuses; but, in reality, the other guy going faster, higher or longer is too final, too clear a judgment to be relativised by anything.

That is one reason why everybody takes drugs in sport so seriously. You might argue that chemically driving the human body to even greater heights represents a more exalted form of absolute. Medical technology might reasonably be seen as part of the whole ingenious mix of training and preparation. Why not see what the doctors can bring to the party? Why not have an all- druggy Olympics?

But, in fact, drugs drag the whole thing back down to the old excuse- laden, relativised marketplace. We don't like sporting drugs because we can't see them. Some hidden cocktail is driving these limbs, not simply the determination and fitness on clear display. Sport is reduced to a technological arms race like any other. Winning becomes ambiguous, as in Formula One motor racing - is it Damon Hill or the Williams car we applaud? Drugging an athlete makes him into a vehicle, a dualism of chemicals and body, when what we really want from sport is the simple, visible monism of human beings stretched to their physical limits.

And we seem to want it now more than ever. The worship of the idea of fitness became big business in the Eighties. Health, physical and spiritual, became identified with specific rituals - the gym, the jog - and with specific clothes that were worn even when not exercising - the training shoe, the tracksuit. Even Oasis, pop stars behaving badly, have helped to sell sportswear. Without them Adidas would be just another sports label, not an essential teen accessory. The company's three stripes, like the Christian cross, appear in contexts remote from but still dependent on their original, transcendent meaning. The stripes refer to salvation through the body, the cross through the soul.

So bodily perfection has become an ultimate state beyond cultural or material argument. You can quibble about whether you want more money, more art or more fun, but everybody, whether they admit it or not, wants a better body. Teenagers, given the chance, rebel against everything except sport. On television Gladiators captures this by placing real, super- cultivated bodies into a context derived from computer games. The performers told me that when they meet their youngest fans, the first thing the children do is reach out and touch them to reassure themselves that such iron perfection is real.

Whole nations, which usually compete over conflicting views of economics or ideology, feel obliged to confront each other bodily. Those Chinese gymnasts are expressions not just of an individual, concentrated asceticism, but also of the conviction of the ancient imperial Middle Kingdom that it alone possesses the key to all human perfection.

In America sport is even more intensely cherished. On the one hand, there is the world of the super-rich gods such as Michael Jordan, but, on the other, there is the world of the high school game. This world - simple, innocent, direct - is now being carefully resurrected by a people anxious to recapture the older, gentler America that preceded Vietnam and urban decay.

In the movies the best thing that can happen to an American dad - like Steve Martin in Parenthood - is that his underachieving son can make a heroic catch in baseball. And the supreme image of familial stability is the basketball net in the yard. This is not just a lowbrow phenomenon - John Updike's miraculous four-novel chronicle of modern America ends with its hero, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, dying of a massive heart attack while reaching to sink one final basket - "Up Harry goes, way up towards the torn clouds."

Can we, even after the Prime Minister's initiative, hope to compete with this? In sport, we neither have the Chinese imperial conviction, nor do we have that fierce American cultural desperation. Instead our triumphs tend to come from islands of individual eccentricity - such as those rowers with their weeping cox in Barcelona. We may feel that such victories spring from some gritty, specifically British character. But we never feel they are organic products of our system. If anything we feel they happen in spite of our system.

But, thanks to the National Lottery and John Major, a sports system is what we are going to get. It might work. But we shouldn't worry too much if it doesn't. Sport is, after all, an illusory and even dangerous absolute. Soul matters more than body and the last time an ideal of physical perfection was so worshipped the world had to go to war and six millions Jews had to die.

The Americans with their high school games are right. They want sport to exist as a reinforcement of small town values, peace and security; they want it to be part of, not the whole of, a culture. For the truth is that more subtle and complex absolutes are required of us if we want to die as well as Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.