"The death of competitive sports" is the right's favourite Straw Bogeyman

There's nothing wrong with having fun while getting fit, as this picture of David Cameron playing Badminton demonstrates.

David Cameron has been wearing a tracksuit top. Think about that for a moment. David Cameron, a man for whom a white tie and tails probably makes him feel a bit chavvy, has been dressing in a tracksuit.

In this, the year that the John Terry meme gained so much traction it began turning up in a Chelsea football kit ready to accept the glory awarded to other memes, our Prime Minister has taken a leaf out of the loveable Chelsea captain’s book and decided to try and claim the Olympics glow as his own.

Since we’ve become accustomed to ‘medalling’ and ‘podiuming’ as verbs in recent days, why not ‘johnterrying’ too? One could say: “David Cameron really tried to johnterry his way to a boost in the polls by wearing that Team GB tracksuit”. 

Sure, he might look as comfortable in that tracky as William Hague did in that baseball cap all those years ago, but he’s going to give it a go. Not so much the Iron Lady as the Polyester Chap, Cameron has gone further, too, and pressed a few Tory buttons by demanding that there should be a ‘competitive ethos’ in school sports.

It’s a favourite strawman of the Right, this idea that somehow children are kept from competitive sport at school, that somehow the Namby-Pamby Laughless Liberals and their PC Brigade are squashing the joy of splintering a fellow pupil’s shins with a cricket bat, all in the name of Anti-Fun Egalitarianism.

It’s not true, as parents can testify from the mass of muddy debris coming home in sportsbags of an afternoon, and pupils can testify from the lumps, bumps, grazes and bruises they sustain in trying to get a bladder over a line or into a net.

Yes, there are other, less competitive activities now being offered in schools as part of physical education – but no, it doesn’t mean that our cotton-wool-clad babes are being BANNED from WINNING at games because it might hurt their FEELINGS. Some children just prefer keeping fit by activities that require a different kind of discipline, concentration and skill. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s wrong with sport for the purposes of enjoyment? Fun?

There’s something of the “Never did me any harm” attitude about all this, as there is about so much of this Government’s education policy. Let’s face it, this is hardly a cabinet of Jocks who were first to be picked when it came to making teams; these were the losers who got told to stand at silly mid-off in the hope a stray cricket ball might shatter their skulls. Because they suffered, and succeeded (if you deem success as ‘not quite winning a general election despite spending vast millions of pounds’), children today must suffer in order to succeed.

But wait a moment. Who’s this joker, prancing about the gardens of Number 10 Downing Street in his shirt sleeves, wafting a badminton racket around as if he’s trying to swat a fat, asthmatic fly? Why, it’s a pre-tracksuit David Cameron, having a laugh and a joke while playing sport.

Look, that’s a fine and praiseworthy thing, but... well. Odd. It’s almost as if this person is playing sport not with a “winning is everything” attitude in his mind, but for the purposes of... well, enjoyment. Fun. There doesn’t seem to be that ‘competitive ethos’ there at all. What a terrible example to set to children!

That’s the problem when you try and johnterry your way into things that you don’t really know enough about: you’re going to end up looking rather silly, sooner or later. Let the kids have their fun, and not worry about victory or defeat. They don’t want to end up the kind of real loser who wears a tracksuit, just to try and steal a little glory. 

David Cameron in a tracksuit. Photo: Getty
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad