It's the taking part that counts, isn't it?

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Emmanuel Ohajah argues: sport is about winning - and that's a good thing

It seems that the Olympics is no longer just about winning medals. The regeneration of east London, a halt to the closure of tatty public swimming pools, and an increase in the number of municipal playing fields are the extra-curricular goals assigned to the 2012 games. Others want the Olympics to reduce social exclusion, eliminate child obesity and halt youth crime.

I always understood the Olympics to be about excelling in track and field events by pushing at the boundaries of human physical achievement. Should the Games be expected to resolve society's ills as well?

These days, modern sport is seen as either an all-powerful force with the potential to change the world, or part of an evil commercial empire, hoovering up talented athletes at increasingly younger ages and quickly dropping them if they don't make the grade.

Simon Jordan, chairman of Crystal Palace football club, summed up the growing cynicism surrounding football's hunt for 14 and 15-year-olds with talent. "Looking for fresh meat", he called it. Theo Walcott, 17, is the latest prodigy to steal the headlines, recently signing for Arsenal for pound;12 million. Sure, he might not make it, in which case Arsenal will drop him and start the search for the next young hopeful, leaving the Walcott family to pick up the pieces.

You could argue that professional football clubs should not have access to young children in schools but, to me, there seems little wrong with allowing or even encouraging kids to pursue their sporting dreams. If they fail, so what? Learning to pick oneself up after a fall is part of life, part of growing up, and an essential part of being an adult. The transition from childhood to adulthood is bound up with learning to cope with disappointment and the experience of failure.

Working with leading athletes or premiership football clubs at an early age is surely a boost for the confidence and aspirations of any young child.

Even a couple of weeks at Arsenal is likely to have a positive bearing on anyone's ambitions.

My advice for young Theo Walcott? Remember the experience of Chelsea's Shaun Wright-Phillips. He was told, aged 16, that at 5ft 6in and 10 stone, he was too small to make it in professional football. Rather than go to pieces, he and his family managed that rejection, and he carried on practising and honing his skills. Six years down the line he was sold to Chelsea by Manchester City for pound;21 million.

Schools sport should be about enabling as many children as possible to experience success, to come to terms with defeat, and to be better, more rounded individuals for it.

Emmanuel Ohajah is a writer and producer

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