Why we made the bid in the first place

…and now we arrive at the slack time, that couple of weeks between the end of the Olympics and start of the Paralympics where everyone gets a chance to relax, wind down a little, and take time away from being as resolutely enthusiastic and patriotic as we have been required to for the last two weeks (or a lot longer if you factor in the Royal Wedding and Queen’s Jubilee). However, it’s also an undoubtedly good time to reflect on what have been, whatever your viewpoint, a very eventful last couple of weeks.

To my mind, and certainly to those of the Olympic organisers, these games have been a success. Whether you feel that it was all a colossal waste of money (although how anyone can think that of an event featuring the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter alongside James Bond is somewhat puzzling to me), or the single most amazing thing to grace the earth this side of its existence (in which case you could probably do with a nice lie down at the very least), its motto has been to ‘Inspire a Generation’. From a purely numerical perspective, it appears to have worked- sports clubs of all sorts up and down the land, even in niche areas such as handball, have been inundated with requests from enthusiastic youngsters after membership, and every other sentence among BBC pundits at the moment appears to include the phrase ‘the next Mo Farah/Usain Bolt/Ben Ainslie/Chris Hoy’ (delete as applicable).

However, I think that in this respect they are missing the point slightly, but to explain what I mean I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent. Trust me, it’ll make sense by the end.

So…, what is the point of sport? This has always been a tricky one to answer, the kind of question posed by the kind of awkward people who are likely to soon find an answer flying swiftly towards them in foot-shaped form. In fact, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to exactly why we watch sport, apart from that it is for some unexplained reason compelling to do so. But even if we stick to the act of participation, why do we bother?

Academics and non-sportspeople have always had a whole host of reasons why not, ever since the days that they were the skinny, speccy one last to be picked in the dreaded playground football lineup (I’ve been there- not fun). Humans are naturally lazy (an evolutionary side-effect of using our brains rather than brawn to get ahead), and the idea of running around a wet, muddy field expending a lot of precious energy for no immediately obvious reason is obviously unappealing. Then we consider that the gain of sport, the extent to which it contributes to making the world a better place is, in material terms at least, apparently quite small. Humankind’s sporting endeavours use up a lot of material for equipment, burn a lot of precious calories that could be used elsewhere around the world to help the starving, and often demand truly vast expenses in terms of facilities and, in the professional world, salaries. Even this economic consideration does not take into account the loss in income presented by the using up of acres upon acres of valuable land for sports facilities and pitches. Sport also increases the danger factor of our lives, with a heavy risk of injury ranging from minor knocks to severe, debilitating disabilities (such as spinal injury), all of which only adds to the strain on health services worldwide and further increases the ‘cost’ of sport to the world.

So why do we bother with it at all? Why is it that the question governments are asking themselves is “why aren’t enough kids playing sport?” rather than ‘why are so many of them doing so’? Simple reason is that, from every analytical perspective, the benefits of sport far outweigh the costs. 10% of the NHS’ entire budget is spent on dealing with diabetes, just one of a host of health problems associated with obesity, and if just half of these cases were to disappear thanks to a healthier lifestyle it would free up around an extra £5 billion- by 2035, diabetes could be costing the country around £17 billion unless something changes. Then there are the physical benefits of sport, the stuff it enables us to do. In the modern world being able to run a kilometre and a half in four minutes might seem like a pointless skill, but when you’re being chased down the street by a potential mugger (bad example I know, but it’ll do) then you’d definitely rather be a fit, athletic runner than slow, lumbering and overweight. Sport is also one of the largest commercial industries on earth, if not on a professional level then at least in terms of manufacture and sale of equipment and such, worth billions worldwide each year and providing many thousands or even millions of jobs (although some of the manufacturing does admittedly have a dubious human rights record). The health benefits of sport go far beyond the physical & economic too, as both the endorphins released during physical activity and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are known to increase happiness & general well-being, surely the ultimate goals of all our lives. But perhaps most valuable of all is the social side of sport. Whilst some sports (or, more specifically, some of the &%^$£*)@s involved) have a reputation for being exclusive and for demoralising hopeful youngsters, sport when done properly is a powerful force for social interaction & making friends, as well as being a great social equaliser. As old Etonian, heir his father’s baronet and Olympic 110m hurdles finalist Lawrence Clarke recently pointed out in an interview ‘On the track it doesn’t matter how rich your family is or where you’ve come from or where you went to school; all that matters is how fast you can get to the finish line’ (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist). Over the years, sport has allowed mixing between people of a myriad of different genders and nationalities, allowing messages of goodwill to spread between them and changing the world’s social and political landscape immeasurably. This Olympics was, for example, the first in which Palestinian and Saudi Arabian women competed, potentially paving the way for increased gender equality in these two countries.

Clearly, when we all get behind it, sport has the power to be an immense tool for good. But notice that nowhere in that argument was any mention made of being the physical best, being on top of the world, breaking world records because, try as one might, the value of such achievement is solely that of entertainment and the odd moment of inspiration. Valuable though those two things surely are, they cannot begin to compare with the incalculable benefits of a population, a country, a world united by sport for the good of us all. So, in many respects, the success of an Olympic games should not be judged by whether it inspires a new superstar, but rather by how it encourages the guy who turns up with him at that first training session, who might never be that good a competitor… but who carries on turning up anyway. The aim of top-flight sport should not be to inspire the best. It should simply be to inspire the average.

Rule Brittania

As I have mentioned a few times over the course of this blog, I am British (I prefer not to say English unless I’m talking about sport. Not sure why, exactly). The British as a race have a long list of achievements, giant-scale cock-ups and things we like to brush under the carpet (see the Crimean War for all three of those things), and since we spent most of the 17th-19th century either fighting over or controlling fairly massive swathes of the earth, the essence of Britishness has managed to make itself known in the psyche of just about every nation on Earth. Or, to put it another way, people have tons of stereotypes about the Brits, but not quite so many about, say, the Lithuanians (my apologies to any Lithuanians who end up reading this, but the British national psyche at least isn’t that good at distinguishing you from the rest of Eastern Europe).

British national stereotypes are a mixed bunch. We have the ‘ye olde’ stereotypical Brit- a top-hatted, tea drinking cricketer for whom the word ‘quaint’ was invented and who would never speak out of turn to anybody. Then there is the colonial stereotype- the old-fashioned, borderline-racist yet inherently capable silver-moustached ‘old boy’ living in a big house somewhere in the tropics with a few servants. He puts a lot of cash into the local public school down the road, paying for the cricket facilities. Or something. And then we have the hideously polite- just as obsessed about manners as his ‘ye olde’ cousin, but this time in a very subservient, almost Canadian, manner (I should clarify that I get this particular Canadian stereotype from the internet, since the only Canadians I know all seem… actually, I’ll get back to you on a generalistic stereotype)

However, modern Britain is, of course, not really like this- we are a very modern, incredibly diverse culture (despite David Cameron’s insistence that “multiculturalism has failed”- not one of his better lines) with a surprising geographical diversity too, for such a small country. So, since I am not really in the mood for anything particularly heavy today, I thought that this would be a good time to inform the internet as to a few new British stereotypes for you, just to bring you up to date.

1) The Chav
Used to be that inner-city Londoners all got classed as Cockneys- nowadays we have chavs instead. The chav in his natural state is a pack animal, rarely seen without company, and vulnerable when alone. His is the main market for bad rap music, oversized baseball caps and hoodies two sizes too big for them. They are a notoriously hard to become assimilated with, partly due to the natural verbal aggression of the pack, but also due to their strange tongue- officially known as London Street English (LSE), this bizarre dialect, calling from influences ranging from Vietnamese to Arabic, has now spread across large tracts of southern England, where it is generally confined to council estate, and has more recently been simply dubbed ‘Chav’. Despite a reputation for drugs, violence and vandalism, they are not to be feared by the confident, especially if numbers lie in one’s favour.

2) The West Country
The farming stereotype- round-cheeked, stick-bearing and (to complete the look) with a length of straw poking out of the mouth. Their dialect (a rather bumptious, heavily accented tongue where many a syllable may be lost beneath an ‘Aarrr’) can be no less strange and confusing than LSE, and despite being typically associated with the area west of Bristol (excluding, of course, Wales), is also to be found in East Anglia. Since we have progressed from the days of needing an army of bored young men to till the fields, leaving us to use combine harvesters and such instead, this tends to be a reasonably well-off group- there are no longer starving farmhands, only really farm owners & family. They tend to drive Land Rovers, and view science with roughly the same suspicion as an oncoming bush fire.

3) The Gap Yah…
The modern public schoolboy. Eton being a touch old-fashioned nowadays, the stereotype will now come from Harrow or Stowe (for whatever reason). Typically long of face, short of hair and severely lacking in both age and experience, these come in two subtly different classes. There is the overbearer- the one whose intense access to the very best that Daddy’s money can buy has left them better than everybody else at practically everything they care to mention, and will point this out to you at every opportunity. These may be recognised by the incessant and constantly nagging desire to break their face. The second is the wannabe- the kid who got bullied at Whitgift, who isn’t actually that good at anything but is still richer than you and likes you to know it. They are characterised by always pretending to be of the overbearer class, and endeavouring to be as competent as them, but always cocking up. Interestingly, failure provides the main distinction between the two classes- whilst a wannabe will just act cool and pretend that you cheated them, an overbearer will simply cut out all the timewasting and begin the vitriolic hatred then and there. Both classes are likely to drink heavily (of proper drinks of course- stuff like cider is for plebs and Muggles), travel widel, and hopefully meet their match one of these days soon.

That list was not what you’d call exhaustive, but it’s reasonably accurate from what I’ve experienced. Plus, it was quite nice and relaxing for me.

(If I have in any way offended you or the stereotype you represent over the course of this post, then please feel free to ignore it and laugh at the other ones instead)