Why Britain versus the US is no contest

26th November 2004 at 00:00
My youngest son loves basketball. He never tires of shooting at the hoop fixed to the tree in our garden. Two years ago, he joined a club and plays every weekend and at sports camps in the holidays. You can imagine his excitement when we announced we were going to the US in the summer. It would be outside the basketball season, but he could still soak up the atmosphere, go shopping and shoot some hoops with the locals.

Near to where we stayed, builders were completing a sports complex for the local high school that included a soccer pitch, baseball diamond, athletics track, American football pitch, as well as outdoor basketball and tennis courts. About a mile away there was another high school with similar facilities, all beautifully maintained. Within easy reach of our temporary home, there were any number of free facilities for children and schools to use.

I can only contrast this with the experience of my two elder children, whose secondary school had the use of a run-down sports hall, and a "football pitch" which was a meadow where people walked their dogs.

Last season, my son's basketball club were turfed out of their sports hall for three weeks to make way for a soccer referees' course, and there was nowhere else for them to go. Tennis enthusiasts used to be able to play on the local courts until they were taken over by a private club. All those games I used to see as I jogged by on a Sunday morning have disappeared.

The club players have moved in and only one or two courts are ever in use.

Goodness knows where the children now play.

Our area school athletics competition is normally a showcase for the local runners from eight or nine schools. This year only four schools took part.

Why? Because it relies on teachers giving up their own time to prepare and organise the event. And teachers don't have much spare time these days. In addition, key organisers have found jobs in other authorities. Whether pupils will have the opportunities in athletics next year remains to be seen.

Can you imagine this state of affairs being tolerated in the US or Australia? In the States I saw at first hand how committed they are to giving young people access to sport. The comparison with this country is embarrassing. Free and readily available facilities simply don't exist in the UK.

The image that we have of the US as an overweight society, its citizens slumped on couches munching burgers as they watch the ball game, is also wide of the mark. I've never seen so many joggers as I did in New York's Central Park at 7am. In California, cycle trails and running paths snake through the landscape. The investment brings dividends. If we want healthier people we have to establish a healthier culture.

Bob Fletcher

Bob Fletcher is head of Hobbayne primary school, west London

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