The dark side of sporting success

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Expressions of concern about the health and fitness of children and young people are heard on a regular basis. Many contributory factors are given as explanations - the consumption of junk food made from poor ingredients complete with nasty additives; too much time spent watching television or sitting in front of computer screens; the reluctance of parents to let their children walk to school for fear of sexual predators.

Encouragement to participate in sport is seen as part of the answer. Quite apart from the contribution to health, it is argued that involvement in sporting activities helps to build confidence, develops skills of teamwork and promotes general well-being. I have no quarrel with the argument so far. Despite my advanced years, I take a moderate amount of exercise myself - mainly swimming and walking - and certainly agree that it brings physical and psychological benefits. I also enjoy watching a wide range of sports.

However, I have a number of reservations about what might be called the culture of sport and the cult of personality which often accompanies it.

Elite sport is not particularly healthy. Leading athletes and other sportsmen and women enjoy periods of supreme fitness but also suffer extended periods of injury brought about by the intensity of their training, the pressures of performance or, in the case of contact sports, clashes with other players.

Sometimes these injuries cause permanent damage and curtail sporting careers. There is a price to pay for the desire to win at all costs. For Scots, football has to be a test case, emblematic as it is of elements in our national psyche, not least the capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I can admire the skill of top players and be drawn into the excitement of a closely fought match, but there are many aspects of football I deplore.

There is the crude tribal loyalty it encourages which often manifests itself in ignorant crowd behaviour. Then there is the glorification of some stars whose unpleasant conduct on and off the field is conveniently ignored.

And what about the way certain managers behave? Their obsessive, driven personalities would produce interesting results if they were required to undergo psychological tests. "Healthy" is not a word that springs to mind in describing their attitude.

One mustn't forget the commercial exploitation of fans, many of whom are, of course, willing victims - inflated prices, regular updating of kit targeted at the youth market, publications that fuel mindless partisanship.

I find the sight of toddlers wearing team colours particularly offensive and wonder whether the parents give any thought to the message they are conveying.

I could go on to consider other features - the widespread use of drugs in many sports; allegations of fixing in boxing and horse racing; the failure of regulatory bodies to clean up their act; the effects of rich businessmen taking over clubs as new power bases.

Politicians jump on the bandwagon and use sport for jingoistic purposes to deflect attention from their failures. Britain's success in securing the 2012 Olympics is already being exploited in this way.

My point is that sport at the highest levels has an ugly side which shouldn't be ignored. I am all for young people being encouraged to become more active and to depend less on the vicarious satisfactions of watching so-called sporting role models and more on their own efforts.

But we need a more honest debate about the tensions between "sport for all"

and the "win at all costs" philosophy which now seems to prevail.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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