Published:

It has been a strange fortnight, and no-one predicted the outcome. Two weeks ago, everything seemed very different. It was widely assumed that London would be in the grip of chaos and cock-up. Affluent foreigners would sweep by on the ZiL lanes while infuriated gridlocked locals shook their impotent fists and British athletes flopped. Fascism on the streets, failure in the stadium: fury all round. None of that has happened, thank goodness. In the course of a long, perceptive and sardonic life, in which his salty – and peppery – comments have concealed an immense amount of idealism, Prince Philip has talked a vast amount of sense, and never more so than in his comment on the Olympics: "it should be about young people having fun". So it has been, and about older people having fun watching them and cheering them on. Let fun prevail.

But politics always creeps in. Two weeks ago, everyone was writing as if the UK could not run a wine-tasting in Château Latour. Now, it seems that we have found the easy solution to all our problems: sport. As always with sudden enthusiasms, the truth, more complex, is to be sought somewhere between the two extremes.

In this search for truth, we should start by paying tribute to Sir John Major. He pushed ahead with the National Lottery, partly in order to create funds for sport. It has worked. As the Marxists would say, it is no accident that the UK has done well in the expensive sports: cycling, rowing, horse-riding. Comparisons have been drawn with the old days of the Soviet Empire. But our endeavours are legitimate. We are not parading the bearded ladies of Steroid-istan. It may be that some of the expenditures take one a long way from the amateur spirit. It may also be that amateurism is virtually extinct.


Apropos of that, there is an obvious cavil. In Olympic sports, only the finest should participate. Four years of discipline and sweat and time and sacrifice and grunt and effort, racked by the constant anxiety that as a result of a quarter of a second's lapse, you will emerge as only fourth in the world. Footballers are different. The best were not playing. As long as that is true, they should be barred. In the Olympics, only the very best should be allowed the lung-bursting privilege of striving to be the golden best of all.

There is a further reason for keeping out the footballers. Our ones should have won gold, on one condition: that cretinousness had been been an Olympic sport. We do not expect much from footballers. We understand that in most cases, their brains are to be found below their boot-laces, But it ought surely to be possible to explain the difference between playing for Wales, and for Britain. Anyone who refuses to sing the National Anthem should not be in the national team. Fortunately, they did not last long. Incompetence rescued us from embarrassment. But one friend of mine who – unlike me – knows a bit about football claims that our sides will never prosper in international competitions as long as any Brit with an IQ in three figures feels unwelcome in a dressing room.

There is a further cavil. I did not watch any of the nudge-nudge girls' volleyball. It sounds a charming digression from the more serious events. But girls' boxing: no. That sounds indecent. In the nineteenth century, we prevented females from working as coal-miners. That was an advance in civilisation. Now, we are allowing female boxers. That is regression. The whole notion is deeply squalid. Above all, it is nothing to do with feminism. Feminism insists that women should have the right to stand alongside men in scrutinising the farthest frontiers of the universe, the tiniest sub-atomic particles. Feminists should demand equality of opportunity in the arts, in commerce, in law, in politics. Not in the boxing-ring, lest they lose contact with femininity. Any girl who feels uncontrollable pugnacious impulses need not despair. She could always try to emulate Margaret Thatcher.

To return to truth, and complication. Once the Olympics are over, the athletes need a chance to get their breath back. So do the politicians. Everybody should have a holiday. Holidays allow people to think: always a useful exercise. We have had corpore sano. It is now time for a bit of mens sana.

We ought to build on success. Those who are good at sport should have the chance to play it. Those who are superlative at sport should have the backing they need to try to beat the world. Those whose health would benefit from exercise – no names, no pack drill – should be encouraged to take some. In the inner cities, otherwise aimless youth, drifting towards criminality, should be enticed to the playing fields: if there are any. This is a big agenda. Sir John Major, the man who set everything in motion, might well be the right Chairman, to ensure that the momentum is not lost.

Above all, there is an enduring national challenge: indeed, national necessity. Two weeks ago, I was taking no interest in the Olympics. Then President Hollande tweaked the British Lion's tail. "A frog, he would a-gloating go"; he had the insolence to believe that they could defeat us. It then became an overwhelming national necessity. We had to crush the French. But they will be back, racked with envy, seeking revenge. They must be denied.

There may be nobler purposes which sport can assist. None is more important than thrashing the French. 

Comments are closed.