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
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