As predicted, the hand-wringing and appeals for yet more money have begun on the back of a performance way below expectations at the London Olympics. Besides yet more public money, one suggestion is to broaden the pool of potential “talent” by making all kids engage in sport at school. Putting aside the question of time, training and facilities in an already overcrowded curricula — is a sporting boot camp at school the answer to our golden woes?
Without a doubt, kids (and we bigger ones) need to engage in more physical activity. But that desperate need for more activity to address our sedentary lifestyle and maintain fitness does not need organised, competitive sport. In fact, compulsory sport is probably the worst thing we can force on all kids if we really want a healthy Australia.
The distinction between sport and play is profound. Sport is a special activity that is defined by the assumption that everyone plays by the same rules (but pushes them to the limit), has a time limit or time measurement component, and there is a winner and a loser. Modern sport has also become a commercial activity — money buys victory and victory begets more money in terms of sponsorship, advertising, marketing and gate revenue. The money also breeds corruption and cheating and absurd outcomes such as a football club’s share price going up after a match-fixing scandal.
The ugly side of sport makes it a poor medium to encourage more activity. The win-at-all costs mentality, characterised by the sense of failure felt by athletes who won “only” silver (you are the second best on the planet — and you feel the need to apologise?) is not the message our kids should learn. School already has constant competitive testing — do we really need to make kids feel they are being trialled in sport as well?
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The increasing complexity and difficulty of sport means that to become an elite, kids have to train for hours on end, week after week, with parents ferrying from training, to game, to carnival and back. Some children train and compete for up to 40 hours per week, plus school and sleep. Leaving little time for actually living. Over-training is a serious problem for kids — pushed by parents, coaches and that perception in Australia that sporting success is the only thing we value.
Sport is a misogynist activity — women are consistently belittled or ignored for their sporting achievements. Witness the infantilsing use of “girl” to refer to so many of our Olympic women, followed in the next breath by oohs and ahhs because they are a mother and can find the time to train.
Many kids don’t want to play sport and may be ill-suited to the specialised demands of rules and conflict. For every kid picked first, there is another picked last — with all the social stigma that attaches.
We need kids to be more playful — exploring their world without rules, time limits and arbitrary “winners”. Physical activity is about movement and the child becoming comfortable with how they move — not being trained into a specific way of running, jumping or throwing. Bring on more physical activity at school — but not as a way of training and trialling future medallists.
If kids want to play sport, then make that easy — give the struggling and desperately poor grassroots of the sporting world the largesse lavished on the top. Then some kids might flow through to gold — but if they don’t, does it really matter?
Activity is what is needed, not every school as a training and testing lab.