Rona Dougall: Taking part matters, but winning’s better

When the Olympic Games finally begin, hopefully the furore surrounding the security arrangements, the airport staff strike and the outcry about the so-called Zil lanes in London will all be forgotten, and everyone will focus on what this is all about – the magnificent spectacle of elite athletes competing on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

The chairman of the games, Sebastian Coe, told those gathered in Greece at the Olympic torch lighting ceremony last month: “This reminds us of the core mission and responsibility of London 2012 – to inspire young people.”

Organisers of the 2012 games have said the games will be a “symphony of inspiration” – uplifting and unifying.

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These are noble thoughts, but I wonder how much this sporting extravagance will actually inspire young people when we live in an age where some schools in Scotland hold “non-competitive” sports days. Surely this is a contradiction in terms?

Many schools adopt a policy of not having individual winners – the children compete in teams and an overall winning team is announced at the end of the event.

That’s all very nice and touchy-feely, but the reality is that there will always be winners and losers, in life as in sport, so the sooner children get used to this idea the better equipped they will be to cope with the inevitable knocks they’ll suffer when they grow up.

At my daughters’ sports day, I am always the embarrassingly loud mum screaming my encouragement from the sidelines. I know some people probably look at me with horror, but I want my kids to try their very best, and yes, I want them to win. At the moment they think my support is great, though I’m sure they’ll change their minds in years to come though, and ban me from these events.

There is no lack of competitive spirit in the parent’s races though. The atmosphere before the fathers’ race last year was tenser than an Olympic 100 meters final. The struggle for supremacy resulted in my next door neighbour being trampled to the ground. The poor chap broke his collarbone – who knew parents’ races could be so dangerous?

Former Olympic 400 metres runner Brian Whittle has strong views on the future of competitive sport in Scotland. On Thursday he will appear in an Olympic special on Scottish Television’s Scotland Tonight.

In his report he questions whether Scottish athletics is on the right track. He believes school sport north of the Border has been decimated since the mid-1980s with the teachers’ strike and subsequent demise of extracurricular sport.

“Non-competitive sport?” he says, “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life. Is it OK to lose? Well, yes, as long as you have tried your damndest to win.”

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He blames a lack of investment in coaches and school sports for poor Scottish representation in the Team GB squad. There are no men in the British Olympic track and field team for the first time in 50 years. And Brian fears that we are in danger of missing out on a legacy from the London games – and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

He also points out that there are kids who want to participate in sport, yet we have waiting lists at clubs.

When I was a child, sports day was like a gladiator’s arena. Everyone took it very seriously, and yes, there were winners and losers. We were an extremely competitive family, so my parents always wanted us to come first – none of this, “it’s the taking part that matters” in our household.

I remember my mum’s bewilderment the time my sister and I took part in a primary school running race when we were about seven. My twin was way out in front, the gold medal was within her grasp but as she approached the finishing tape, she slowed down, turned and waited for me. It later transpired she didn’t know whether to go over or under the ribbon and thought she’d better confer with me about what to do.

I’m looking forward to gorging myself on the weeks of sport ahead. It will be fantastic to see the world’s best athletes performing at the top of their game, having trained so hard for so many years.

Hopefully children around Scotland will get into it too and realise that striving to win is a goal worth aiming for.