Tom English: A generation truly inspired by triumphant Olympics
AFTER a majestic fortnight that showcased sport and the nation at its best, the real challenge now is to ensure legacy is fulfilled
London has been like a parallel universe this past fortnight; same city, different vibe. It’s as if the Olympics Fun Police swept the city clean of every miserable sod, every stressed-out and weary soul in the place and replaced them with an occupying force of smiley-happy people with their good mornings and their can-I-help-yous and their singing and their dancing. Yes, their dancing. Yesterday morning at King’s Cross St Pancras, a member of the public asked a volunteer about the Javelin train to the Olympic Park and was literally danced all the way to the platform. It was the kind of heart-warming and vaguely bonkers spectacle that was a constant feature of the Games. It seemed at times that everybody in the vicinity had inhaled some kind of laughing gas. Everybody was higher than a kite.
And no wonder. These Olympics hit every emotional button in the body – and kept hitting them for two whole weeks. In the beginning there was embarrassment about the flags at Hampden and the lost keys at Wembley and then fury over the empty seats all over the Olympic Park – and, of course, the medal famine of the opening days, the ‘long’ wait for gold. And when the golds started coming there was muffled grumbling about the gold not exactly being the right kind of gold that would resonate with the ordinary kids these Games were supposed to inspire, it was rowing gold, equestrian gold, the gold of the privileged classes with their private educations, their elite families and their multi-million pound horses.
Then along came the posse of working class heroes and blew those doubters away. Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford; Louis Smith, Gemma Gibbons, Nicola Adams. On and on it went, from Bradley Wiggins to Andy Murray, people with normal backgrounds who had made abnormal sacrifices on their way to glory and whose stories touched a chord with everyone. These athletes taught us that Britain can get it right, that plucky losers and moral victories don’t have to be the way of things. The name Eddie the Eagle still has a significance in this land. It speaks to the national psyche of lauding honest tryers, but maybe these Games have changed all that. Maybe. The gold medal haul was astonishing, the overall medal count compelling proof that given the right backing and the right dedication athletes from this island are as phenomenal as those from, say, Australia, a place we have looked to in the past in the search for a template for breeding sporting excellence.
In Scotland, you would hope that the message would hit home with an even greater force than it might in the rest of the UK. The Scottish sporting climate is largely a negative one, dominated by football with each day bringing the doom and gloom of failure in Europe, falling attendances at home, declining standards, bitterness and rancour. This is what we have immersed ourselves in. This is what defines Scotland as a sporting nation. Football. You wish it could be different, but it’s a constant disappointment. It drags us down.
Us in the media are partly responsible for the obsession. We give acres of newsprint to bog-standard Old Firm footballers – but not just the Old Firm – who half the time speak with a begrudging reluctance. The fact that they get so much coverage and others, like the Scots who have represented Great Britain so wonderfully here, get so little is Scotland’s sporting tragedy. You would hope that this will change now with the emergence of so many fine Olympic role models but we’d need a double dose of the laughing gas to believe it will happen.
The Olympics ended last night, sent on their way by a brilliant finale. We are now into the realms of legacy and the great question about what happens next. These athletes were the ones who dug out the foundations upon which the legacy is going to be built. Or, at least, that is the popular view. It should happen, but will it? The heroics we have seen from Team GB should make kids head for the bike and the high bars and the judo mat and the running track. There has to be many, many children out there who have been inspired by what they have seen over the last fortnight and what they will see him again when, you would hope, the battalion of medal winners will start to bring their prize and their stories around the country to school after school in an attempt to fire imaginations. It’s like Katherine Grainger says: “Everybody should have a moment with an Olympic medal. I’m going to bring this gold around the country, to every school and every club until such time as they’re absolutely sick at the sight of me.”
That’s the way it should be. That’s what makes you believe that these Games can make a difference, can do as the slogan says, Inspire A Generation.
But is that just romance taking over from reality? Legacy, writes Jeremy Paxman, “is the sort of word that politicians love to reach for when they’re sticking their hand in your pocket.” If Sir Chris Hoy was running the country with a cabinet of Murray, Farah, Ennis, Grainger, Wiggins and others, then the delivery on legacy would stand a hell of a chance coming good. The problem is that the key players now are not the athletes. They’ve done their bit. They’ve teed it up. The important people now, the decision-makers, are the politicians and, Lord, you have to be worried about that they have first clue about what to do.
The one sound move David Cameron has made is to appoint Lord Coe as legacy ambassador with a seat close to the heart of government. (Alex Salmond could do a lot worse than getting Judy Murray on-board in a similar role for the Commonwealth Games.) The rest of what Cameron has done has shown that he doesn’t get it. In a look-at-me moment, Cameron wore the Team GB T-shirt at Downing Street the other day. His office took a picture and sent it out into the world as proof of Dave’s support, that in the mind of the PM the business of running the country can take a back seat when there’s dressage gold to be won.
Nice PR stunt, but it was just a shame that Cameron then went and opened his mouth to speak about his understanding of what legacy meant. His vision is to use the power of these Games to create a culture of competitive sport in Britain’s schools. It’s hard to know what Salmond intends to do – apart, perhaps, from banning the Union flag when the Scottish Olympians are given their homecoming reception in the coming weeks.
So back to Cameron and legacy. He wants to bring an end to the culture of “prizes for all” and wants to talk about “winners” who bring home a “ton of gold”. He said that he’s “backing competition – and rewarding those who try and then succeed.” As opposed to the vast, vast majority of those who try and don’t succeed? He wants to school sport compulsory with no opting out. All his focus on the endgame. Medals.
It’s elitist claptrap.
We can see the politicians squabbling now. Labour don’t agree with the Tories and the Tories don’t agree with Labour and the political football of legacy is kicked around merrily. Surely the point of the Games – and Lord Coe gets this more than anybody – is not just to breed champions but to get kids to play sport who wouldn’t otherwise have played it if it hadn’t been for these Olympics. Inspire A Generation, they say. They don’t say Inspire A Generation As Long As They’re Good Enough To Make The Olympics.
Cameron represents a party that sold off thousands of school playing fields in the past, not just in Margaret Thatcher’s and John Major’s day, but here and now. Twenty one school sports fields have been sold off since the coalition assumed power, so the prime minister’s words on what should happen in school sports should be tempered somewhat by the fact that he hasn’t stepped in to stop the sale of the facilities to builders and supermarket developers.
The Tories have also cut funding for school sports. They abandoned the respected School Sports Partnerships programme. Peter Keen, a much-regarded adviser at UK Sport and a former national cycling coach, spoke about this the other day. He has his own thoughts about legacy. “What we’ve seen in the last two weeks is the ability of sport to move people, at least for a brief period of time. People have been nicer to each other.
“This is the angle that people miss because when we speak of people being involved in sport we think of physical literacy, getting fitter, losing weight but equally important is the sense of inclusion. There is a social gradient in this country, the haves at the top and the have-nots at the bottom and it is too steep. If we could more people involved in sport, allow them to feel engaged, included, we could give a lot of people a sense of belonging. We don’t address the question, ‘What is stopping you coming into sport’.”
Keen has nailed it. The whole drive in a nutshell is right there in his words. Cameron says kids should be made to play sport. So many others would say that they need to be encouraged. The hope here is that Coe can put in their box the squabbling politicians who really have no clue how to inspire a generation and leave it to those who do. Even then, it’s a huge task, the window of opportunity so small.
“There’s an opportunity,” said Keen, “but it won’t last.” From Westminster to Holyrood, those are words that should be heeded.
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