I hope you are enjoying the Paralympics which have just started in Rio, and I hope you enjoyed the able bodied Olympics earlier in the summer. I know I did … except a got a nagging feeling towards the end.
Now don’t take this the wrong way, I have enormous admiration for all the athletes. They dedicate their lives to hard training and tough competitions. But as a country, we bought those medals. There were 67 of them they cost us, on average, £4 million each. That’s the cost of funding professional athletes and the backroom staff for four years.
The cycling team were fantastic again, weren’t they? And yet they didn’t perform so well at the international championships in between Olympic Games. In my mind it’s a classic problem of managerialism – you are measured against target. The target was Olympic gold medals, so they made sure the team peaked every four years. If you truly loved sport, surely you would want to win in every competition – like Usain Bolt.
I know I’m always knocking people for looking back to the ‘good old days’, but I grew up when athletes were amateurs and competed purely for the love of the sport. My heroes growing up were David Hemery and Mary Peters and most of all the fictional Tupper of the Track.
Tupper featured in my brother’s Victor comic. He worked in a factory and did his training running home along the canal eating his fish and chip supper. He ran because he loved running.
In those days you got involved in a sport you liked. If you were good at it you got encouraged, offered extra training and coaching and worked up through local, regional and national squads. Now it seems you go for aptitude tests and they tell which sport you are best suited to. Or which sport you will be most efficient at (note the management speak) and most likely to win a medal.
I have to confess to a difference of opinion with my Other Half over this. She said that if she’d been told to switch to cycling, say, when she was a teenager she would have jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps it was because I was a podgy youngster and always last to be picked for lunchtime footy, but I bought into the Corinthian ideal of playing for the love of the game.
In my mind, I keep coming back to a slogan you saw all the time in the 1970s – Sport For All.
Now we talk about Olympic legacy. The administrators pump money into elite athletes and keep their fingers crossed that some of us will be inspired to get off the sofa and take up a sport. I’m not sure it’s working.
The most inspiring sports person I’ve ever come across was not an elite athlete. She was a middle aged, slightly dumpy woman I used to work with. We’ll call her Cathy. One January I said to no one in particular that I was going to go for a run every Tuesday lunchtime and did anyone want to come with me. Cathy said she did, but she wasn’t sure how far or how fast she could run.
The first outing was more of a walk than a run, but gradually she ran more and more. I would go round once with her and then again on my own at my pace. What was inspiring was that she stuck at it and in the September I watched her cross the finish line of the Kirkstall 10K race. She was last, but she had completed it and she was elated.
The experience of the Parkrun movement shows you don’t need invest a lot to boost grass roots sport, but you do need investment, particularly for sports that need pitches to play on.
Take another example – football. Just before the Olympics England crashed out of the Euros beaten by Iceland. England hosts, although increasingly doesn’t take part in, the richest league in the world. We spend our money on over-inflated (yes I know that’s a tautology, I use it for emphasis) players wages and agents fees. Iceland spent its money on all weather pitches in every community. I know where I would rather put my money.
I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.