Why winners need game losers

He leapt up and down by the rope, yelling encouragement. "Go, go go !" We all joined in, howling the niece's name. She is, after all, the standard-bearer for our extended family, none of whom in recorded history have previously done well enough in heats to feature in the athletics events of a conventional school sports day.

Well, I tell a lie. My daughter did throw the discus once, but it shot off in the wrong direction once too often and she was binned. Otherwise, we belong to the proud yet obscure tribe who, by losing in the preliminary heats, enable the athletes to feel good about themselves. Without us game losers, there would be no victories, would there?

Anyway, the fleet-footed niece, being the smallest and youngest in her event, arrived at the tape second last. Her leaping father was not depressed by this. "Wa-hay! Fantastic! You didn't come last! You beat that other one!"

"Dad," said the runner, patiently, trotting over towards a hurdle appointment, "she did her hamstring in yesterday. That's why I beat her."

They have a sternly realistic approach to life, do children. It's the parents who are so deluded. We all went back to our picnic, knowing that the proper way to enjoy a sports day is not to give a damn about trophies, but to keep the strawberries and sneaky cans of readymix Pimms coming, meet your children's friends, gossip with other parents, and enjoy an occasional shriek of pretend excitement when someone you know streaks past with a reasonable number of others behind him.

I see that the Daily Mail has been having a go at Tessa Jowell launching Sport England's latest wheeze of a "toolkit" for "inclusive" sports days in which there are fewer winners and more people get exercise.

"Egg and spoon are axed as schools bring in soft-boiled sports!" shouts the headline, although the toolkit is a voluntary exercise. The paper's political correspondent (note, not the education correspondent) announces the "death knell" for traditional races, as Sport England suggests problem-solving exercises and all-ability team events instead of the usual system where, as a spokesman put it: "a small proportion of children take part in activities while the majority sit around and spectate".

Oh, it's a hot one, this: the Campaign for Real Education is frothing at the mouth, and the Tory MP Andrew Rosindell says, "competition is a vital element of everyday life", although the suggested games actually seem to be quite competitive. I would have thought that being in a stroppy team forced to complete damn silly assignments is just as much like life as wobbling along with an egg on a spoon.

It's a hot issue for two reasons. First, because we suffer a massive collective guilt at the sheer lack of exercise inflicted on modern battery children. Driven or bussed to school, banned from running and biking on the streets from fear of traffic and paedophiles, deprived of playing fields as government after government cavalierly sells them off, short of public adventure playgrounds which even when they exist are becoming dumbed down for fear of lawsuits, they then have their school PE squeezed to almost nothing. Next to this epidemic of under-exertion, it is ludicrous to worry about whether or not sport is competitive enough. Get the little beggars jumping, running, rolling and stretching, and that'd be a good enough start.

The second reason is more complicated, all tied up with class and ethos and the legacy of empire. To some honest, well-meaning educationists the very idea of winners and losers is still anathema. A generation that was bellowed at in draughty shorts does not forget lightly, not when the memory is all jumbled up with adolescent discoveries about revolution and utopias and the superiority of intellect over brute muscle as exemplified by PE teachers.

There is still a generation - quite a lot of them headteachers by now - who turn purple and throb with indignation and shame if you creep up behind them and hiss provocative words like "Victor Ludorum". They are not, as a rule, personally responsible for the utter decline in school sport - shortsighted greed by local authorities and government stupidities have more to answer for there - but this generation did, at the very least, fail to fight for games because to them - OK, to me - games were pretty ghastly unless you were a star.

Now we fight back up the slippery slope, with difficulty. That reluctance needs overcoming. Probably the younger teachers and heads and parents don't have it at all, because theirs is the leisure centre generation for whom sport and games hardly happened at school, but are fun things you do at weekends. But the winning is still a problem to many.

Sports days in the future will probably be more fun, and use up more children. But until we all accept with a cheery shrug that there have to be losers in order to have winners, we shall have more of the present outbreaks of loopy overreaction to simple, helpful ideas. We have to grow up.

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