Monday, 20 August 2012

Sport for all?

Sporting activities have certainly captured the popular imagination this summer. Top of the list no doubt has been the Olympics. Anticipated for many years the Games finally arrived, a real festival of sport that swept the nation along with it.

The security worries proved fruitless, as people from across the world came together. Even the vice like grip of the corporate world seemed to be pushed into the background from the start by Danny Boyle’s excellent “peoples” opening ceremony.

The Olympics did have the effect of bringing everyone together. The opening ceremony ensured that the whole nation and its history was represented, not just the military or entrepreneurs. The theme of peace played a prominent role and received a really positive response from those present in the stadium. This was not something that those watching on the BBC’s transmission would necessarily have picked up.

Then there were the games themselves. The real feeling of camradery that surrounded the participants, the winning of medals and falling of world records. No doubt the enthusiasm of the crowds lifted the performance of many athletes from across the world.

Sport has the ability to lift people out of the humdrum of daily life. Earlier this year I attended the play off final for a place in the Premier league between West Ham and Blackpool at Wembley. There was the usual media obsession with materialism, hyping the value of this one game to the winners but the enduring memory was of people coming together. The atmosphere was incredible.

In some ways, sport has become the new religion for many in the modern world. The strong emotions and coming together seen at the Olympics certainly have parallels with some religious occasions. There is also though a slight discomfort at these occasions. The fanaticism seen in such crowds, that in the case of the Games no doubt flowed from nationalism. This was helped by the relentless nationalistic approach of the BBC coverage, which dwelt almost entirely on the home athletes and the medals table.

It is this nationalistic fervour that causes the discomfort. The motivation for the fans enthusiasm at the Games was sporting success – nothing wrong there. But go back to the rise of Adolf Hitler, who had the power to bring similar fanaticism amongst millions of people, and a far uglier scenario develops.

Hitler managed to plug into the underlying economic hardships of most of the people in his audience to engender a nationalistic fervour that was turned against minorities in Germany and later nations across the world. He also ofcourse tried to use the Olympics for his nationalistic purpose.

In the case of the Olympics and sport generally this summer, the focus has been the opposite. It has been all about escapism, getting away from the hardships of daily life.

Attending the Games, watching the European Football Championships or Wimbledon has been an escape from the growing hardships. Job losses, the fate of the Euro and the banks have all been quietly shephered aside for a few weeks.

In this context of sport as escapism, it is interesting to note the total hand over of the TV schedules by the BBC to the subject. At times it has been almost macabre, as beaming news readers told of the latest team GB medals before moving onto the “other news” which related to things like the death of hundreds of people in Syria. A real case of bread and circuses, an exercise in total escapism for the population at large.

Sport is a good thing, no doubt about it but it is not the only thing. There are millions of people in this country who cannot stand sport. Many kids at school don’t like participating in sport. It is not everybody’s thing and this must be respected. The TV coverage of the Olympics for example went totally over the top, taking no account of those with interests other than sport.

But for those who like sport, it would be great to see the legacy of this summer being a reversal of policies that have seen thousands of school sports fields sold off. More swimming pools need to be built across the country. Above all the cost of access to these facilities must be reduced to the minimum or ideally nothing.

The real legacy must be participation, not winning at all costs. Few can win but many can take part –this is the true message of the Olympics. If things move forward in this participatory way then a real legacy of community can be built, without pandering to some of the more dangerous nationalistic tendencies that have been seen at times over recent weeks.

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