South of the River – playing the game


Compass-SouthComment logo 2So well done Lizzie Yarnold. Five years of hard work paid off with a gold medal at the winter Olympics this week.

I was struck by her interview after the event and her back story. She said she was inspired by Denise Lewis. We all need our sporting heroes, when I was young I was inspired to play football (badly) by Booby Moore and Pele and to start cross country running (as we called it then) by David Bedford and Steve Ovett (never by Seb Coe).

Denise Lewis was a terrific athlete, in fact a heptathlete, an all round track and field star. I don’t remember her on the Skeleton or the Luge though. It seems Denise inspired Lizzie Yarnold to be an Olympic champion, but not necessarily in track and field. By the way, if you haven’t been watching the Skeleton is a glorified tea tray that you slide on down the bobsleigh track at speeds of up to 80 mph and yes, it was invented by the British.

Now I do understand that that unlike me, sporty people can turn their hand to lots of different sports. Many footballers seem to play golf, for example. I have a friend who I remember picking up an American Football for the first time saying “So what do you do? Just throw like this?” He then proceeded to throw it 80 yards at his first attempt in what our cousins across the water would call a ‘tight spiral’.

But there is something else going on here. Lizzie was following her inspiration, she wanted to be a track and field athlete and she was very good. She attended a Girls4Gold ‘talent identification’ event and was matched to the Skeleton. There is administrative machinery that matches athletes to the sport they should be best at. This increases their chance of ‘medalling’ (a verb that shouldn’t be allowed) and so provides the best return on investment for Team GB.

Contrast that to the other big sporting story last week, the death of Tom Finney. Tom Finney is reckoned to be the finest British footballer of all time by those who saw him play. He played his entire career at Preston North End scoring 210 goals in 473 appearances (and 21 goals of England in 43 appearances), he was never booked or sent off in his career. His highest achievement – the only time he ‘medalled’ – was winning the old Second Division.

Tom Finney played in a different time. He didn’t work a as a part time plumber out of desire to keep commercialisation and the market out of football. He worked as a plumber because of the maximum wage of £14 a week imposed on players by the League. But still he seems closer to the Corinthian ideal, “Play up! play up! and play the game!”, than today’s top athletes.

Maybe it’s because I could never make my living as an athlete, but I do think there is something nobler about amateur sportsmen and women. It’s not that many years ago that athletics and rugby union were amateur sports. Of course that meant that you had be middle class to compete at the top level, you needed money behind you unless you were Tupper Of The Track in my Victor comic.

It’s not just the money, it’s the importance of winning that worries me. I am not against competitive sport, but winning isn’t everything, taking part is just as important. We hear terrible reports of competitive dads watching their children playing football. Shouting at them to hoof the ball upfield, or worse to kick their opponents. There are incidents of referees being verbally abused and threatened. It does nothing for children’s development as human beings, or as footballers. There is good evidence that keeping children away from competitive matches until they ate older leads to increased footballing skills, which is surely something that this country needs.

I once ran the 1500 metres at Crystal Palace, it was schools event and I got a large round of applause as I came down the final straight. I was last, by a long way. The crowd didn’t know it, but I’d just achieved a personal best (PB). They applauded because I hadn’t given up.

I didn’t hear applause again until my fitful appearances at Parkrun. For the last year, volunteers have been turning out in Cross Flatts Park at 9am on a Saturday to supervise a free 5km run or walk for all comers. Everyone is encouraged and everyone’s achievements celebrated. Breaking the course record is great, but numbers participating and numbers of PBs are more important.

Jeremy Morton Aug13Isn’t Parkrun how sport should be played? Surely it’s better than pushing athletes into sports just because they are more likely to win, or overpaid footballers, or dads shouting at referees and kids on the park. What do you think?

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.