The Olympics didn’t inspire a nation to get fit – and neither will Boris Johnson’s encounter with coronavirus

As the PM pledges to get Britain fit and healthy, pause to note that his government is also subsidising trips to McDonald’s at £10 a time

Boris Johnson says he 'struggles with his weight'

You’d think that launching a campaign to get the nation fit eight years to the day from the opening of the London Olympics would be an anniversary worth noting, not ignoring.

Can it really be eight years since Boris Johnson stood outside Buckingham Palace, heaping gleaming hero-worship upon the country’s gold-sodden sport stars for having “inspired a generation”? So inspired were we all, it turns out – so inspired was Johnson himself – that a mere eight years later he would personally be having to save the nation’s health once again, this time in direct response to his having been hospitalised with Covid-19 after allowing himself to reach a truly inspirational 17 stone.

Sometimes, you see, and this really will shock you, the words that politicians say turn out to be rubbish.

To take but one example, when Seb Coe and friends promised, in 2005, to “inspire a generation to choose sport” through the London Olympics, what they had done was spot that the extra-large blazerati of the International Olympic Committee were having a bit of a wobbly about the haemorrhaging youth audiences for the Olympic Games. And if the kids aren’t watching, the sponsors aren’t happy – those sponsors being Coke and McDonald’s.

So Coe sensibly made his pitch all about the kids – music to the fat cats’ ears – and shocked the world (but mainly the French) by winning the bid. What he knew then, and what remains true now, is that no host of a major sporting event has ever been able to use it to build a lasting increase in sporting participation in their country. It’s just the noise that the Big Mac middlemen want to hear.

In some ways, the government back then was remarkably far-sighted. It must have known that its promises to “inspire a generation” were meaningless noise. Why else would it have sold off school playing fields all over the country, if it hadn’t already worked out that it wasn’t actually doing anything meaningful to get people to use them?

And so, as Johnson pledges to get Britain fit and healthy, as he did eight years ago, it is at least worth pausing to note that his government is also currently subsidising trips to McDonald's at £10 a time.

Ah, you say, but this is different. This time Boris is spending £2bn on cycling and walking programmes. If the government actually puts the infrastructure in place, people will use it.

“The evidence is clear that when governments provide the infrastructure, regeneration follows.” Those are the words said by one Boris Johnson, also in 2012, at the opening of a cable car connecting two bits of industrial wasteland in east London, which was recently shown to be used by six commuters and now sells booze at night to try to stay in business.

If you really want to ride a bike and get fit, the best thing you can do, as it happens, is get a job working for Boris Johnson. When I followed him around what felt like every primary school in London in the agonisingly long build-up to the 2012 Olympics, it was not uncommon for him to arrive by the cycle-hire scheme introduced by Ken Livingstone, but which Johnson named after himself. One of his aides would make no secret of the fact that they were also compelled to come by bike too, but that Johnson was an extremely slow cyclist and would be annoyed if they arrived before he did, so they would regularly do several laps around the block waiting for him to catch up.

This was also not long after Johnson’s response to Jamie Oliver’s campaign to make school dinners more healthy was to write columns in The Daily Telegraph praising the pioneering parents who had responded to the change in the school menu by pushing pork pies through the gates at lunchtime. “I say let people eat what they like,” he said at the time. And they did. And so, self-evidently, did he.

But things have changed now. Johnson is clearly aware that coronavirus passed through the corridors of power, taking down Matt Hancock, Chris Whitty, Jenny Harries, Nadine Dorries, Dominic Cummings and a fair few more – and yet it was only for him that it became a matter of life and death. Trouble is, that is his own very personal issue. And cycling is his very own personal passion. Trying to infuse the nation with your own personal interests is all very well, but it rarely works.

It is, however, easy politics. Inspiring a nation to get fit is as easy as a promise as it is possible to make. Very hard to actually do, however. And you don’t even necessarily need to have seen the man doing the promising make all the same promises once already before, and fail to live by a single solitary one of them.

Still, every little helps.

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