A real Olympic legacy.

There’s much talk of Olympic legacy at the moment – the carrying of the torch – and the bluntest minds jump on the bluntest version of that legacy. In their unseemly rush for column inches (another competitive boys’ sport, of course), Boris and Dave have floated the idea of two hours’ mandatory PE per day, for children.

It seems absurd to make compulsory a thing which a child is either naturally gifted at, or not. For the sake of the success of the top 1% of the top 1% (sic), we appear to be about to set up an “Olympic legacy” that makes the bottom 10% wretchedly unhappy.

The drive to make children more physically active is a good one. The drive to focus specifically on competitive sport is wrong. It is as wrong as forcing a child with no aptitude for maths to do two hours’ competitive pure maths a day. At least if you’re bad at history, you aren’t required to fail spectacularly at it on a day when all your peers and their parents are there, watching. While intellectual failure remains a private matter, the experience of the three slowest, weakest and shyest children in any given year is a public kind of hell. I write this as someone whose entire life was informed, as a child, by a leaden lump of dread that occupied my gut from the end of one PE or swimming lesson, until the wretched thing came round again a week later. Had I been forced to endure two hours a day of them, every day, I have no doubt that I would have hanged myself by age eight.

Do we really want to put a lot of perfectly nice little kids through this?

What we are putting in place is not a fitting tribute to the last two shining Olympic weeks – nor indeed to the Paralympics yet to come. What we are laying in place has more in common with the principles of Hitler Youth. Everyone must do it! Even if you don’t like it! If you’re slow or bad at it, tough luck, this is a nation only for the physically strong, now! There is no place for you, bookish child. There is no place for the physics geek or the congenitally weak-kneed, no room for the cautious or clumsy, no room for intellectualism here!

Two hours a day leaves precious little room or energy for actual – you know – education. That old fuddy duddy stuff with the books, the rulers, the langauges, the literature, the stuff that lays the founding stones upon which we build our adulthood, and then our society, if we are not destined to be sports superstars.

Let’s keep this in context: we have 28 medals out of an island with a population of 66 million. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty chuffed with that. I think those 28 medals are amazing. I don’t think making PE mandatory for little kids for two hours a day would change in any way the chances of anyone winning a medal. You either love PE or you don’t. You either have parents who can afford to buy you the kit and put you in clubs, and who have the time (which means the money) and disposition to drive or escort you to them every night, or you don’t. It’s that simple. To reduce this to the issue of whether little kids are running about enough is insulting to the medallists. It says nothing for the colossal effort that they and their families have put into making their careers successful. They didn’t get where they are by doing two hours’ PE in primary school. They got where they are because they sought out trainers, specialist clubs, facilities, and went to them. Every day. Because they loved it. And they were supported and fed and people shelved their plans and stood behind them. Every day. Because of love. That, dear political muppets, is why we cry when they win.

The Olympics deserve a legacy. The greatness of the athletes we have all watched over the last two weeks should inspire a generation – but the legacy we ought to be striving for is an altogether more thoughtful one than the literalist sound-bite scramble we’re seeing from Boris and Dave.

Over the last two weeks I have watched people change from being insular and glum, to being outgoing and talkative. For two weeks, we in London have had something in common with almost every stranger we encountered. This has manifested itself in helpful timetable discussions at bus stops, in spontaneous conversations in Sainsburys, in the completely unfamiliar sight of very little kids bombing down the street on trikes with cackling parents in tow, in a readiness to smile, instead of to shy away.

We have not spent the last two weeks watching rubbish crime dramas and hospital dramas and soaps – where somehow the point of every show is contention between people, someone’s death, someone’s pain. Instead, we have watched brilliant people being brilliant. Somehow that light has kindled something inside us. It has reminded us what a great source of pride it is to be human, what a great heritage we have as a species, what strengths we have, what unity, what grace.

A great legacy for the Olympics would be that we instate a mandatory two hours of “whatever you are best at” for each child. Imagine a world where children loved going to school, where instead of being forced into a double period of fail every day, each child went skipping into a double-period of win? A great legacy for the Olympics would be television channels and a media that focus as much on telling positive stories and news, as the eye-catching pain-and-death soup we are normally drip-fed.

Is that too broad a vision to expect from Eton-educated boys? Our great Olympians of politics, making their greatest effort on our behalf – is “two hours’ mandatory PE” really the best they can do?

I’ll leave you with this, which has been echoing uncomfortably around inside my head ever since Boris and Dave started stamping all over the concept of “Olympic legacy”. I hope you find it chilling, because … well, because it is.

Vitai Lampada
(“They Pass On The Torch of Life”)

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote –
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938)

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10 Responses to A real Olympic legacy.

  1. John Potts says:

    Lovely bit of writing and spot on about the ‘legacy’ nonsense, Dave and Boris are such hypocrites, even by Tory standards. I speak as someone who hated playing sport at school and was made to feel unwanted and not good enough. Always enjoy reading your observations. Regards and best wishes.

  2. As always, brilliantly thought provoking, true, charming and a point well made. Your observations are always spot on. I don’t think I’d be here now if P.E was compulsory everyday. Nevertheless, inspirational and so very true 🙂 xxx

  3. Journo24blog says:

    An excellent post, making some very good points. In my school the term PE was a euphemism for humiliation of the bookish ones. I refer to this in the PS of my own post on the subject of the “legacy” – http://journo24blog.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/todays-lesson-real-life-isnt-full-of-olympic-golds/.

    • chiller says:

      An excellent post. I loved the heartfelt cry of “FUCK NOOOO!” that went up on Twitter over this idea. You can kind of tell there’s a whole generation who were put off sports for life by school PE.

  4. Nile says:

    Is this the finest legacy our Etonian rulers can conceive?


    Walk around the town you live in: it won’t take you long to find a notable legacy of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Try the same for Queen Elizabeth.

  5. Pingback: An Olympics legacy? How about something meaningful? | Liberal Conspiracy

  6. Lilian says:

    I totally agree with you on this. As someone with (a) a congenital heart defect and (b) the coordination of a brick, I would never have survived school if we’d any more PE than we had back then. I, too, lived in dread of it, most of the time, and I’m pretty sure that the majority (or at least a large minority) of my peers did too. This is NOT the legacy we should be giving our society. A mandatory two hours of “whatever you’re best at” sounds much better.

    • chiller says:

      We can dream, eh? I genuinely don’t think *anything* will change as a result of the Olympics, much less 2 hrs of PE a day, when so many schools have precisely zero facilities or funding for it, and the government is hardly about to pony up the cash.

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