Going nuts over sport

31st August 2012 at 01:00

With all the excitement of the Olympics came the exhilarating news that David Cameron thinks sport is the way to give Britain back its "competitive edge".

No doubt this belief stems from his schooldays at Eton, upon whose famous playing fields many a proverbial battle was won. With its emphasis on fair play, dedication and hard work, competitive sport can help Britain get its mojo back, so the thinking goes.

Now, I'm a strong believer in the beneficial nature of sport for pupils. Without the opportunity to expend my excess angst by knocking lumps out of my peers twice a week after school, I would have been even more of a terror for my teachers. But I have to confess that my memories of school sport are less wholesome than Cameron's narrative suggests.

I once attended a university lecture on the atrocities committed by UN peacekeepers. The professor's hypothesis was that the single-sex make-up of these forces acts to suspend the conditions of civilian society, creating a morally skewed environment where the unthinkable becomes acceptable. The same is largely true of sports teams.

Indeed, far from just honing a "competitive edge", youth sports can help to cultivate a far broader skill set. As an avid rugby player, I developed a range of abilities and knowledge: from how to neck a pint at the age of 14 to learning the hard way to never fall asleep on a bus.

At my club I was known as Captain Conscience because I was (1) the team's captain and (2) keeper of its intermittent collective morality. Still, compared with other captains, I had it easy. At our local rivals, players developed competitiveness through a game appositely entitled Peanuts. Beautiful in its simplicity, the aim of the contest was to stuff as many salted peanuts into your foreskin as possible. Following several rounds, the player judged to be the least capacious would then be forced to eat all of the nuts "in play".

A salty foreskin notwithstanding, being ragged around a rugby pitch undoubtedly plays a huge role in developing character. Yet as much as I value sport, it isn't the deus ex machina Cameron wishes it was. Despite gallons of competitive spirit, the more fortunate of the lads I played with are now working for the minimum wage. The less lucky are stuck in the dole queue and one is in prison for GBH. The only competition that remains seems to be a race to the bottom. You see, competitiveness is an asset only when it's twinned with opportunity. I suspect Eton's First XV have enjoyed both.

I think Cameron would enjoy the game Peanuts. It encapsulates everything he likes about sport: ribald competition, rewards for winners and the salty taste of shame for losers. Yet as any rugby player could tell him, the best teams understand that strength and weakness are ultimately interchangeable.

In our team the physically strong shifted bodies and wrought destruction to create space on the pitch. In doing so we turned our teammates' slightness into agility, their lightness into lethal acceleration. By working together we made a virtue of what could have been a weakness.

And that's my problem with Cameron's new enthusiasm for sport. Competition is fine as far as it goes, but only if it's channelled correctly. In sport, school and society, we are only ever as strong as our weakest links. The most important thing to realise is that we're all playing for the same team.

Son of Thrope is the offspring of Anne Thrope (Ms), a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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