Excellence emerges just a little washed out
"Physical activity or sporting excellence: what should we teach our children?" was the core of a debate staged by a detergent company last week.
A false dichotomy, as the two are surely not mutually exclusive; but Persil, which created its Funfit reward scheme in 1993 to promote physical activity for three to 11-year-olds, gathered a galaxy of sports pundits chaired by BBC2 Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman to stir up a bit of controversy.
He had a hard time. Only two of the 100-odd audience voted for excellence at the beginning of the debate and no hand was raised in favour at the end.
There was general agreement that children fail to take enough exercise. Neil Armstrong, professor of health and exercise at Exeter University, produced a barrage of statistics showing that most eight to 16-year-olds don't get their heart-rate up to the equivalent of 10 minutes' brisk walk a week. Boys are more active than girls and girls do even less physical activity than boys as they get older.
Sue Campbell, chief executive of the Youth Sports Trust, asked why Professor Armstrong's research had produced those findings? "Was it a failure of the PE teacher to interest children, a question of leadership from the government - where was the support from the Department of Health or investment from the Home Office to keep idle young hands occupied in crime-ridden inner cities?"
Did we lack structured pathways to achieve excellence? Or was it down to cash?
She wanted more lottery money spent on investing in talented people than in buildings.
In what Mr Paxman called "an elegant display of how to sit on the fence", Anita White, director of national services for the Sports Council, said all young people should be active and develop their talents. The council's National Junior Sports Programme was designed to achieve these goals.
"We need a quality, balanced PE curriculum from five to 16; a strong and varied extra-curricular programme with competitive opportunities at all levels; leisure centres and commercial operators keyed-in to the needs of young people; sports clubs offering a chance to learn to play; and a structured system of talent development."
But Matthew Parris, columnist for The Times, a "wild card" on the panel, would have none of this. He questioned the right of people like Professor Armstrong to test children's heart-rates - it was none of his business, nor that of any Government, Mr Parris argued. "I don't believe in structured policies: they only provide structured careers for these speakers."
It transpired that he'd had a rotten time at school with PT, rounders and rugby "which produced such an intensity of despair I've never experienced before or since". But when the captains of cricket and athletics were expelled from his school for smoking marijuana, he was put in charge of athletics and discovered a talent for long-distance running.
"All structured opportunities inculcate a hatred of physical education. If you wanted to kill off disco-dancing you would only have to provide a structured national plan for teenagers. I love sport. We need to provide good facilities, but no national plans."
Dr Campbell disagreed. "We need structures otherwise it is a matter of chance whether a child gets an opportunity to try a different sport. We are creating experiences, not dictatorships."