Alan White's Olympic diary: The Olympic legacy is too diverse to work under a single political ideology

Listen to the people who know about sport, not the politicians or the journalists.

Let’s talk legacy. What happens when the circus leaves town? Today the Guardian reports that the sale of 21 school playing fields has been approved by the coalition. You’ll forgive a rueful sigh on the part of your correspondent, but it’s for different reasons than you might imagine.

You see, many years ago, a young freelancer called Alan White wrote a story for the Guardian about the creation of new playing fields under Labour. He didn’t get the byline to himself, though he bloody well should have, and it took six months to get paid, but he was in the national press - yay! (Being a twenty-something journalist in a nutshell, there).

He’d landed this story because the press officers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had heard about some research he was doing for a postgraduate course. They offered him an interview with the then-sports minister, Richard Caborn, if he could break their bit of good news.

Alan got his story published, but things didn’t run to plan for the DCMS. A charity called the National Playing Fields Association, which was in the midst of a needlessly vitriolic war with the department, got wind of Alan’s story, and fed the Telegraph a front page splash about how 10,000 fields had been sold between 1979 and 1997. It ran the day before Alan’s story, and as you can imagine this rather took the gloss off the news that 72 new ones had been created.

Now this 10,000 figure (still cited all over the place; even in today’s Guardian piece) appeared to be the result of a methodology slightly less meticulous than that deployed at 10.58pm last Friday, when I dropped my change on the floor and begged the barman to accept I probably had enough down there for a pint. But we’re talking petty political power struggles here, not facts, so let’s soldier on.

The other problem was that Alan decided to sell the Guardian a full transcript of the interview. The Guardian published it online, but the DCMS created such a fuss that they ended up taking it down. They didn’t like the fact I’d actually done my homework beforehand. You’d think the Guardian wouldn’t be scared of the department that deals with all the stuff no one in politics cares about, but these were the days of Malcolm Tucker, for real.

Well screw you, DCMS press staff of 2005: I’ve put it up on my site. Now THAT’s sticking it to the man, even if it is seven years too late. I’ll save you the trouble of reading this incredibly dull interview, but here are some lessons you could draw from reading between the lines.

1. Nobody knows anything. Especially politicians, and certainly not journalists.

Despite all the headlines about them, no one at the time had a clue how many playing fields there were in Britain and whether or not there was a surplus or a shortage. Vague estimates could be made about how many had been sold (but not created), so was it a problem – and if so where? No one knew. An audit of sorts was ongoing: as a result Active Places now lists 50,000 different sporting sites. But now we have it, how useful is the information? Well, as you’ll see, it’s not just a question of numbers.

2. What’s new?

Labour did improve things. As I type this I see Andy Burnham MP (of whom more in a second) is tweeting about the 1998 Act that slowed school sales, and which was updated in 2004.

The sale of school fields is now governed by this strict Labour legislation, which says that the sports needs of schools must continue to be met, there must be clear evidence all other sources of funding have been exhausted, and the money must be reinvested in sport. Now if Gove’s somehow got round these guidelines and allowed the sale of fields that are genuinely needed, let’s give him a kicking. Believe me, I’ll be first in the queue, wearing my Tory-arse-seeking winkle pickers. But the Guardian story gives no evidence for this – and wouldn’t we have heard more from the communities involved?

3. Quality, not quantity, is what matters, dear boy.

What’s more likely is that the fields which have been sold are surplus to requirements. This was the key issue back in 2005 when the young (and, for the record, very likeable) Mr Burnham told me: “It would have been wrong to pass legislation which banned the selling of playing fields entirely, because that would have meant it was impossible to facilitate the development of sporting facilities...In some communities there’s a definite need for more space, but the issue is increasingly more about quality than availability.”  You can see on my site it was considered the priority by Caborn, too.

Things haven’t changed: if you’re a kid, do you want to play footy on your local club’s pitch, or on the shrub land round the back of the sports hall where a tramp’s just defecated on the half-way line? Assuming your school has a sensible deal with the local council/club, it’s a no-brainer. And – as with at least one of the sites mentioned by the Guardian or as with Leigh Sports Village, a constituency project that Burnham cited to me – the sale can mean it’s going to be turned into a better sporting facility for the community as a whole (one of the directions towards which current legislation attempts to drive schools and local authorities).

There’s a crucial lesson about the Olympic legacy here, which is that it’s too diverse a thing to work under the umbrella of a single political ideology. By all means rage at Tory cuts, say: but remember that the legacy will be delivered by local coaches who care about sport and the kids with whom they work. They’re the ones who know what the real threats to sport in their community are – what impact the scrapping of school sports partnerships (this really IS a huge deal, in my view) will have, whether there actually is an issue with provision of pitches, and so on.

Each will have a different set of challenges, and ideas to tackle them. And you’d be amazed how much impact a well-directed initiative can have – I choose this little tale as an example purely because I know the guy who runs it, but there are so many out there.

If you care about legacy, listen to and support the people in your community who really care about sport; not the ill-informed guff belched out by the political opportunists, be they in the lobby, the House of Commons, or some comedian on Twitter.

Odds and Ends

Meanwhile in Germany...a rower’s right wing boyfriend is the focus.

Stephen Feck messes up his dive, and it looks Fecking painful.

Usain Bolt, being great for a change.

Smashing analysis of the 100m dash.

Ah, the brownie defence.

So the obsession takes hold: another Olympics piece on thighs.

The first dunk in women’s basketball (via @alexhern).

 

School boys on a playing field in the village of Thurgaton, Nottinghamshire. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.