Primary sport makes us a nation of losers

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
I BET I know what you were doing at half-past-midnight on Saturday, September 23. Not, you understand, because I was hiding in your shrubbery. It's just that the chances are that you were one of the nation's 6.6 million souls who stuck barbecue skewers in their eyes in an effort to stay awake while Steve Redgrave made history.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games have been a revelation. Not only did we all forgo sleep to watch the coxless fours, we were also glued to a myriad other, more arcane, sports like beach volleyball and musical dressage. Did we all take leave of our senses?

Regardless of whether you privately believe that, when Baron Coubertin was drawing up his list of "Things We'll Give Medals For", getting a horse to cross and uncross its legs was the last thing on his mind, the fact is these games have caused a sea-change in British sport.

Thanks to Redgrave, Pinsent et al, rowing clubs up and down the country have waiting lists as long as the Thames. Our Paralympic athletes have just enjoyed unprecedented exposure at long last and are returning from Sydney, covered in glory and an impressive second place in the medals table.

And the Government, anxious not to let this heady moment of sporting euphoria pass without wringing some PR gloss from it, has announced a raft of sport-friendly measures to make sure we kick ass more often.

So, the days of penny-pinching are apparently over. Playing fields willl no longer disappear, overgrown running tracks and dank, Dickensian changing rooms will be banished. A colossal pound;750 million for school sport - and sports facilities in particular - will see to that and make sure that those who hope to follow in Denise Lewis's footsteps will not have to spend all their waking hours on a bus, as she did, getting to and from training.

So is a new golden age of British sporting endeavour about to begin? Will all the dismal performances of past Team GBs be expunged by a new generation of world-beaters?

Well, not exactly. In fact, that's not very likely at all.

Although the lottery has helped to raise our sporting expectations by showing us that money can buy gold medals, there is a limit to this alchemical sleight of hnd. And that's because our ability to nurture children's sporting abilities is fundamentally flawed.

That is not to denigrate the skills or dedication of sports teachers and coaches, who are out there in all weathers, usually trying to coax a band of mutinous teenage girls into making at least a half-hearted stab at chasing a hockey ball around, even if both sides know that this is in the Premier League of pointless tasks.

It has been said that we miss out on international sporting success because we lack a fancy sporting academy, like Australia has, or queues of wealthy benefactors like the United States. In fact the problem results from a far more basic deficiency: our sports teaching in primary schools is completely inadequate.

The latest round of Government munificence is due to improve sports facilities and address the fact that only 17 per cent of primaries have access to a multi-purpose indoor sports hall. But far more pressing is the fact that primary teachers have had little more than the duration of a game of football to learn how to teach it. They have had similarly scant preparation for teaching cricket, gym, dance, and all those skills which are an essential part of every child's sporting literacy.

Fitness, strength and endurance can be put in place at a later date, but if a child has not developed hand-eye co-ordination by the time she gets to secondary school, then she's never going to threaten Serena Williams.

Initiatives like the Youth Sport Trust's Top Sport scheme, which gives kit and training to primary teachers are vital but are not enough. What is needed is structured investment in school sport at primary level, with appropriate training and resources for teachers.

If the country really does want to be taken seriously at international competitions, then it is crucial that investment begins before children have even thought about whether they fancy becoming a pole vaulter, a weight-lifter or a rower.

That way, they will have a better chance of following their heroes on to the podium rather than discovering that they have missed the boat.

Janette Wolf is the editor of, the online magazine for youth sport

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