On a visit to my old school not long ago, I found myself confronted by my former PE teacher, now the deputy head. She fixed me with an icy glare. ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘I’ve forgotten my note.’
The icy glare froze completely so I explained: ‘You remember? I’m the one who came to every single PE and games lesson with a note from my parents saying I had neck ache.’
Icy glare. To her, it still wasn’t funny. More than 20 years later, and on the night I was invited back to present the prizes, my lack of enthusiasm for school sport still made her look me up and down with a stare that said, ‘You are a dangerous subversive.’
At my alma mater there was nothing you could do to compensate for being useless at sport. You could get straight As in every academic subject, win Young Musician of the Year, spend your holidays volunteering at feeding centres in Africa or photographing hitherto undiscovered Amazonian tribes, but they wouldn’t sign you off a report that said anything other than ‘could try harder’ unless you looked lively when handed a purple vest bearing the legend ‘Wing Attack’.
I resisted to the bitter end. When ordered to run around a track I sat down and feigned sprained ankles. Before hockey I stuffed heated pads in my gloves and two sets of shin pads on each leg.
During water polo I all but drowned. At ‘survival’ classes I swallowed life-threatening amounts of water by spending the entire time making jokes, between gulps of chlorine, about the scenarios which would require us to stage an emergency swim wearing pyjamas.
I couldn’t see why girls shouldn’t learn the rules of cricket, sitting somewhere nice and warm as someone explained them using a blackboard. That would be much more use in later life.
While the jolly hockeysticks bashed each other’s shins to smithereens on the playing fields, my bookish group of friends and I bunked off whatever physical activity we could and headed for the piano practice rooms to play Bach two-part inventions and discuss T.S. Eliot.
School sport is a state of mind. You cannot thrust it on to sensitive people. Post-Olympic suggestions that we should launch some sort of fascistic bid to make Britain a nation of sporting heroes by indoctrinating children into the vagaries of netball, hockey and shot put (why are school sports always the least interesting?) are deeply misguided.
If you force more children to do more sport, you will not end up with more Olympians. You will end up with more bookish types with a deep, festering grievance against the establishment.
Kids who love sport will always volunteer themselves to be drilled. And in any case, as the success of the US and China demonstrates, it’s a numbers game. If you really want to boost the UK’s chances, the best way to go about it would be to have unlimited immigration and tax incentives for Brits to churn out more than two offspring.
I don’t begrudge the baby adrenaline junkies their after-school clubs, and it does make sense for independent schools to share their sports facilities with the state sector. But please leave the national curriculum out of it. School is a place to discover a love of learning, not a boot camp where intelligent but slightly weedy children are forced to do star jumps until they become so traumatised that when they leave school they vow never to take another stroke of exercise again. Rather than PE lessons, we would do children far more good with hour-long nature walks, or trips out into the country if they are stuck in the inner cities.
I was lucky. When I left, I sank gratefully into a stupor of physical inactivity for some years; then I was able to put the trauma behind me and discover a love of horse-riding, walking and skiing. Team sports still bring me out in hives, however. The memories are still too raw of those rounders team selection sessions where I was left standing on my own at the end and then forced onto one of the teams by the games mistress as the captain protested bitterly. No child should be forced to endure that kind of torment.
What we have to ask ourselves, though, is why we are so keen to have a sports revival in our schools anyway. Why have our imaginations been so fired by the Olympics, or our ‘golden summer of achievement’, as it is now known? What do politicians mean, exactly, when they proclaim that we should ‘capitalise’ on Team GB’s performance? Why do we desire to breed more gladiators to send out into the ring and cheer on as they slog around a race track? The answer is that we are a nation of armchair commentators. Spectator sport is the perfect way of convincing ourselves that we are achieving something, when we are not.
Some of the Olymptators watching those athletes became so excited you would think they were chucking javelins and performing somersaults off diving platforms themselves. This is not helped by the ludicrous and mawkish jargon telling people at home that they are a vital part of the proceedings.
At one point, a friend of mine told me she was booing a French showjumper on the television so frantically that she actually believed she had made his horse knock down a pole, helping our brave chaps to win.
Yes, we really do love sitting down on the sofa with a big bag of crisps, pretending we are achieving something by watching someone else run 10,000 metres, or kick a ball around a pitch. In the meantime, our own lives grind to a halt. I dread to think how many bills haven’t been paid since 27 July.
If this isn’t bread and circuses I don’t know what is. And before you condemn me for not even trying, I went to the Olympics. I watched the women’s basketball quarter-finals. After two matches, I was so bored I wanted to throw myself down from the stands in a suicide bid. My friend was so absorbed she nearly made us miss the last Tube home. I wanted to get back at a decent hour so I could be up early enough to walk the dog and ride the horses. But according to her, it was more important that we sit on our backsides watching some other people being active. And cheer hysterically while we’re doing it. This is called being a good sport, apparently.