Bob Lethaby brings Olympic lies to account while lamenting the slow death of sport in our schools.
I was at my cricket club meeting the other day and the subject of an alarming decrease in youth participation came up on the agenda. When you are a member of a sports club, you get drawn in to the illusion that because you participate, everyone else does, so you can imagine my surprise to discover that cricket is 17th on the list of participating sports in the UK.
Don’t ask me what sports, apart from the obvious ones like football, come ahead of cricket, but I would put a wager on it that many of them are games like darts or snooker that somehow, somewhere down the line, became acknowledged as sports rather than a form of entertainment whilst down the local boozer.
I don’t mean to knock darts and snooker as they are entertaining games, but let’s be honest with ourselves here, they are not going to have an impact on a national obesity crisis are they. Before you scoff and say “Well cricket is hardly exercise is it?” I am proof, even with my moderate, albeit stoical ability, that playing cricket in the summer encourages weight loss as well as, by late August, a head that resembles a Malteser.
My instant and understandable reaction was that, pub games apart, cricket, which is not an Olympic sport, had fallen behind events like rowing, cycling and athletics courtesy of London 2012. If you can remember, this was when for three weeks, Britain went sport mad, with people (including me) losing all sense of sanity, pacing their living rooms with nerves as the drama of the dressage competition unfolded.
However, despite the £9.3 billion pounds of tax payer’s money being spent on the Olympics and Seb Coe’s salary, London 2012 did nothing to arrest the decline in participating sports. Not that it was expected to by the way. A report by an Olympic study unit set up by former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, strongly suggested that huge televised events do not encourage greater participation in sport.
So a bit like the war in Iraq (but not as deadly) Tony Blair went to the Singapore Olympic Committee on the back of lie, claiming, contrary to his own study, that London’s bid was based on a legacy of higher participation. Neither Blair, or Lord Coe, who received all the plaudits for creating a legacy that never happened, have been held to account for their failure.
There are winners of course, notably West Ham United and their opportunist owners, who will be paying only moderate rent for a stadium built and converted for football with £640 million from the public purse. David Gold, David Sullivan and their nauseating Chief Executive Karen Brady (who stands up for femininity by working for porn barons) must have almost wet their pants at the fantastic boost to their share value.
A recent study shows that 39% of the wealthier classes participate in sport, which is 1% up on when the Olympic bid was won in 2005, whilst 26% of the less well off in society (1.5% down on 2005) do any form of sport. Blimey, that means 75% of the lower wealth section in society are sedentary. No wonder we are sat on a public health time bomb.
I don’t mean to keep reeling off figures but overall, 64.5% of the population over 16 years old are involved in absolutely no sporting activity at all. It is also worth noting that the inequality in sport was also evident at London 2012, with 41% of the GB athletes coming from private education compared to the national statistic of 7%.
Throughout state schools, sporting talent is going to waste due to lack of facilities. Cricket for example, is not taught in any of my local state schools (apart from tenuous interest). We are lucky that there are several village clubs and the Dummer Cricket Centre that was set up to bring cricket to all classes, ironically, by an Old Etonian, Sir Ronald Ferguson, who demolished a load of his own cash in the process.
However, unless you get an exceptional group of kids with parents who have deep pockets, it is very difficult for a comprehensive child to compete against a tie and a crest. Compare the pristine sports facilities of the Private Education sector to those of a state school and you will see British inequality at its most shocking.
After all the Blair bashing I did earlier, it is worth noting that New Labour made substantial inroads into sporting activity in state education sports which had been severely neglected by Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher then John Major. When New Labour came to power in 1997, just 25% of state school pupils were doing over two hours exercise a week but this had risen to 93% by 2010, which you have to say, is impressive by anyone’s standards.
Sadly, perennial bastard, Michael Gove, in one of his first acts as education secretary, cut the school sport partnerships and also abolished the requirement for schools to document the amount of hours of exercise undertaken. David Cameron said that the number of pupils doing competitive sport under Labour was “pathetic” so why then, has he allowed the documentation of it to be abolished?
The truth is, in a party that is packed to the brim with Old Etonians, there is negligible interest in making the masses healthier, stronger, or better at sport, just as long as the lads on the fields of the Parks of Oxford and Eton are doing well and dominating sports like Cricket, Rugby and Rowing. It would be the ultimate insult if a group of unruly kids from Basingstoke were to roll over Eton College at cricket.
If you think I am having a go at the class system you would be correct, but I am only stating the facts. If you ever go to Oxford, take a walk around the parks where the Universities play cricket. They are visions of beauty where every blade of grass is the same length, the markings are painted with precision engineering and the wickets are fit for Lords (the home of English Cricket).
Then take yourself to Brighton Hill in Basingstoke, where kids don’t really play cricket unless they really want to and if they do, it is on a piece of land that hasn’t yet been sold off by the Government, but is also used as a football pitch and a running track. The sports cupboard features some knackered old balls, a few bats made of balsa wood and loads of plastic cones…state schools love plastic cones. They must be cheap, or perhaps Michael Gove is a director of ‘Plastic Cones R Us’ and has signed of contract to supply all the schools in England.
Tracey Crouch, the new Sports Minister, is apparently “very disappointed” and has pledged to do something, taking “a more joined up approach to sport and physical activity.” If that is the case, I would like to be a fly on the wall when she has a conversation with Chancellor, George Osborne, because £12 Billion of cuts is going to have a savage impact on public sports facilities and see more staff laid off.
I don’t envy Tracey Crouch, as even if her intentions are the best ones, she is going to slamming her head against a brick wall, because the majority of her party will see state funded sport as disposable. It’s just the way it is when you have a Government that is self-serving first, public interest second.
There are two reasons why I feel strongly about state funded sport, or should I say, the lack of it.
1/ Sport played at every level of ability and taught from a young age, is vital for any nation to be successful. To keep the wheels of an economy going, we need fit and healthy people, not NHS hospitals bursting at the seams with obesity and diabetic disorders. Governments must invest in the health and the well-being of the masses, not just their buddies from Oxbridge. Their job is to have a classless responsibility to the nation’s health, not a self-serving one.
2/ Cricket and Rugby has made strides to become more appealing to the masses, but with cut backs and lack of funding (Sport England receives just £300m a year) there is a threat they will step back in time as games only affordable to the elite. This is not healthy for international sport, because history will tell us that whilst a jolly bunch of chaps called Horatio, Tarquin and Cecil can dominate national sport, when they come up against some hardy chaps from South Africa, Australia or New Zealand, they get their rosy cheeks rubbed in to the dirt. To be a success, national equality in sport is the be all and end all.
I am not asking for miracles. I am not looking for a day when a woman on a sink estate is shouting out of her window “Wayne, stop playing Polo NOW…your seared hand dived scallops with courgette and basil purée is ready!!”
I am just saying that to make our nation healthier, stronger and proud of its sporting ability, Tracey Crouch has to convince George Osborne to create and ring fence investment in state funded sport for all abilities.
Sadly, all that money has been used to bail-out his mates, who, with pitiful irony, have kids who go to all the best schools, with the best facilities.
Read more of Bob’s writing here