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A sporting chance?

It is the height of the couch-potato season and the Prime Minister has launched yet another attempt to heave the nation's children out of their armchairs and on to the sports field. He may be wise to assume that the instant Atlanta images on the TV screen will not be enough to galvanise many little girls into the gymnasium, or to inspire enough future Paul Palmers to go for silver in the pool. Given this week's reports (page 1) on the abysmally low levels of physical activity observable in British schoolchildren, something inspirational and practical does need to be done.

But although John Major has a word or two to say about providing opportunities for all young people, rather than just an elite, his new package emphasises more chances for specialist colleges to select, more sporting scholarships at university, and a new golden pot of lottery money for the national academy which will cater for potential stars.

This may go some way to meet the criticisms of Palmer himself, who stepped off the podium after collecting his silver medal for the men's 400m freestyle with a plea that the Government shouldn't "only think about swimming and gymnastics every four years when the Olympics come round".

The truth is that both Mr Major and his junior heritage minister Iain Sproat are confused about whether they want to improve the fitness of all children, or to produce future Test cricket, soccer or Olympic stars to restore England to its former (or mythical) greatness. They were also both pretty ignorant about how far you could fit a set number of hours, for a given number of team games, into a national curriculum which already prescribed for more hours than existed in the school day, and seemed to have no idea at all that it was Government policies which had done more than anything to drive competitive sport out of both timetable and after-school activities.

Lottery money for a British Academy now is all very well, and so is imposing a Sports Council gateway on future sales of playing fields, But too many fields disappeared for ever under bricks and mortar while Ministers were in more unbridled entrepreneurial mode, and it was Kenneth Baker's prescription of teachers' working hours - as well as national curriculum hours - while he was Education Secretary that turned many teachers off coaching team games for ever. No wonder that his successors, John Patten and Gillian Shephard, have been so lukewarm about the sports initiative.

Most children clearly do need more physical activity in their lives, though the extra qualities of team spirit and discipline attributed to competitive sport might equally well be fostered through music and the arts - to which the Prime Minister offers lip service rather than lottery money. Either field of activity, however, is best fostered by dedicated teachers rather than gimmicks like Sportsmarks. Politicians should ponder that before the next Olympics.

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