Sport is just capitalism as farce

Play up! play up! and play the game! Send your kit to the laundry, get out your jockstraps and sports bras, restring your rackets, oil your bats and polish your boots. The government has a "vision for sport". It is taking steps, forming strategies, drafting action plans. Lack of mental toughness - which makes us miss penalties, drop catches or serve double faults at the vital moments - will soon be a thing of the past. A competitive ethos and a will to victory are to be instilled. We are to pick out winners (a filthy old Labour habit when applied to industry but not, apparently, in other areas) and fast-track them. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, has been to China and seen the future: national training centres with huge gyms, full of children striving for excellence under a banner with eight-foot-high characters: "Never forget - the cup is still in Indonesia."

Sport as we know it is almost entirely the product of industrialised societies. Physical activity, along with excitement and spontaneity, was drained out of everyday life and banished to fixed times and fixed places, governed by fixed rules. Now, sport at all levels is the tool of voracious commercial interests. Governments prepare bids for major events with all the solemnity that they once prepared armies for war. Fit young men attend football matches in a frenzy of passion and hatred, stimulating adrenalin flows that were intended to make them run for their lives across the African plain. Middle-aged executives drive expensive cars through traffic jams, raising their blood pressure and stress levels, in order to reach expensive exercise gyms where they can restore their bodies to health. Small boys play more games on their computer screens than they ever do out of doors in the fresh air. This is capitalism as farce, not tragedy.

The only sports in which the British excel nowadays are snooker, darts and some women's events, in which politicians remain mercifully uninterested. But new Labour, convinced that any problem is soluble from Whitehall, is undeterred. Inspired by his visit to China, pained by British sporting underachievement, Mr Smith promises £60 million and 600 "active school co-ordinators" (not, heaven forfend, teachers who might actually organise matches or instruct children in, say, batting technique) who will be "deployed" across the country. They will try, presumably, to carry out Mr Smith's wish that children do not "play on bumpy pitches" or on wickets "full of cracks and crevices" - though whether Mr Smith believes that Sir Donald Bradman or the footballing stars of Brazil became world-beaters without ever encountering a bump, crack or crevice remains unclear. But there is, or could be, more. Mr Smith outlined his ideas at a conference organised by the influential Institute for Public Policy Research, which has published Sporting Lives, a 36-page report. With a truly awesome belief in the improving power of bureaucracy, this document wants plans, targets and priorities. Every sport, it says, should be scored for cost-effectiveness, international standing and emotional importance so that ministers can decide if it deserves official support.

The truth, however, is that no number of co-ordinators, national plans, targets or any other paraphernalia of new Labourism will make the slightest difference to British sport. Our children grow up into couch potatoes because they have nowhere to play. And that is all there is to it. Our streets are clogged with traffic, our parks are grotty and unsupervised, our school playing-fields have been sold off, our sports centres privatised, our urban spaces turned into pretty little flower beds with "keep off" notices. Pastoral farmland - on which generations of children played ball-games while dodging angry bulls and farmers - has virtually disappeared, and much of England turned into a vast prairie.

To be fair, the IPPR report makes some of these points. But it fails to understand (and so does Mr Smith) that the nub of the problem is cultural, not technical. As a society, our attitude to physical exercise is perverted. We have almost lost the art of spontaneously kicking a ball around, and even walking (particularly to school) is becoming obsolete. Exercise and play ought to be as natural a part of our lives as reading, talking or eating. Instead, they have to be packaged, organised, bought and traded. Here truly is a case for joined-up government. How can we restore natural play spaces to our cities? How can we make streets safe for children? How can we turn walking into a routine part of our lives once more? If they can find answers to questions like these, politicians will likely find that they have no need of planning and co-ordinating.

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job