John Major has announced academies for the elite, but what can be done to give ordinary pupils a fair chance to do well at sport?
British children don't get breathless often enough - not even on Saturdays - because many of them get little sustained exercise. Only just over half of schools do even the recommended two hours of PE a week - putting Britain in the bottom division of the European exercise league. And there was the trauma of the Atlanta medal famine . . .
As an avowed sports fan, the Prime Minister is grieved by all this, so he has been trying to increase the amount of PE and competitive team sport in schools. With the sometimes imperfectly synchronised help of his sports minister Iain Sproat, John Major has volleyed a series of initiatives and incentives at schools and pupils.
The Office for Standards in Education is to report annually on the state of school sport and PE. Schools must now state their sporting aims and what facilities they have, and report yearly on which games they play, how their teams do in competition, and what training their coaches have.
Last week Lottery money was raining down on elite sports people - Pounds 40 million in all and up to Pounds 28,000 a year for individuals. Then there's the Pounds 100 million earmarked for the National Academy of Sport, the matched funding dedicated to specialist sports schools which raise their own sponsorship. Add to that the Sportsmark scheme for schools, and it becomes clear that the nation's inactive youth is getting rather a lot of the Government's attention and cash.
But the problems, as teachers know, are deep-rooted. Will this rash of initiatives help with fundamental aims of giving all children more exercise, a chance to play more team games (the PM's pet project) and the means to excel in them?
John Morton of North Westminster school, has been a PE teacher for 25 years and is chairman of the English Schools' Football Association. At his inner-city school in London, he admits that his pupils don't get their two hours of PE a week. But the school does have football and cricket teams - despite having no playing fields of their own and having to bear the cost of hiring pitches and travelling to them.
He has been on deputations to Downing Street. From his viewpoint, as a hard-pressed teacher, the Government initiatives are "all talk and no money". He sees funds going to the elite level, but is concerned that talent and enthusiasm has to be first identified and then nurtured at an earlier stage - even as early as in the primary school.
He gives courses for primary teachers and understands the difficulties they have. "Their problems lie not in organising the children into learning situations, which they're generally very good at, but with the actual skills involved. But very often, if they can find a PE INSET day, their school can't afford the time or the cost." He also thinks many governing bodies of sports don't understand the constraints when they plan coaching courses. "One FA official suggested a 45-hour football course for teachers," he remembers, chuckling.
The Sports Council is very much aware of the problems that teachers face. It has been doing practical things like introducing its Junior Sport programme ("Playground to Podium") which aims to put 3,500 sports bags - containing a variety of equipment - into 7,500 primary schools by the end of next year. More than 5,000 teachers have already been trained to use them. The Council is automatically consulted over any proposals to sell off school playing fields and it is trying to ease the key transition between school and club, where many promising sports people drop out. "Clubs can be very cliquey and hard to get into," said Jonathan O'Neil for the Council. Their Top Club initiative is designed to make clubs more sympathetic to young people of all abilities.
Nigel Hook, head of technical services at the Central Council of Physical Recreation, is sure the Prime Minister is a true believer in the value of exercise, but feels that the current initiatives do not get to the root of the problem. "The kids don't have enough time in the curriculum for PE and there's no guarantee that their teachers are qualified. Only 7 per cent of teachers in primary schools are qualified in PE and 20 per cent in secondary schools are unqualified."
He feels that these fundamentals have to be addressed with more resources. But to him "it's quite clear that the Department for Education and Employment doesn't share the PM's enthusiasm for sport. That's where the log-jam is". And he's alarmed that even now, in the two months since the Sports Council has been acting as a statutory consultee, no less than 80 playing fields have been referred to them for a possible change of use.
In Scotland a combined Scottish Sports Council and local initiative points one way forward. At Tayside (now Perth and Kinross) an Impact scheme has drawn thousands of children into playing eight sports - athletics, badminton, basketball, cricket, hockey, rugby, swimming and tennis.
The children start as early as 10 when they go to development centres and then on to area and regional squads where they may continue up to the age of 20. "We've managed to get better pathways for children to follow and we believe we've brought the governing bodies of the sports closer to the local authority," says Jacqueline Whitelaw, development officer.
She's also pleased with the way clusters of primary and secondary schools are getting together and forming joint links with clubs. She believes they've made a start, but that in future it may be necessary to begin even earlier - in Primary 1 or even before that. "In the end though," she says, "to make real improvements we'll need proper funding."
A co-ordinated mixture of local and national initiatives would seem to be necessary to get PE and school sport out of the slough of Despond. But in the end it will cost money. As John Morton puts it: "What we need are more resources, more places to play - particularly for those in inner-city schools - and a better quality of teaching and coaching." The Prime Minister would probably quibble only about the first of these requests.