Sport for All

The majority of people in the United Kingdom were very excited when London was awarded the Olympics and Paralympics seven years ago. I, like many, really enjoyed watching many of the sports. My wife and youngest were even lucky enough to go and watch some kayaking and hand ball; sadly I was marooned at home recuperating after surgery on my right leg.

Throughout the great summer of sport the news of sporting achievement was so often tragically juxtaposed with news of famine, bombings, drought, flooding, poverty and financial problems. Sadly, I can still vividly remember watching in horror on
7 July 2005 as the news of the London bombings appeared on our screens.

Recalling the more tragic events is not to lose sight of the wonders of sporting achievement but to remember that we can get ‘caught in the moment’ and lose sight of the troubles going on in the world. I was reminded of this vividly on 11 September when we were celebrating Andy Murray’s win at the U.S. Tennis opening – in the same city they were remembering the loss of those who died at the twin towers eleven years ago.

Television and the media captured so well the achievements of the elite athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics– focusing on a microcosm of life. However, the Olympic village was only a stone’s throw away from one of the poorest parts of London.

The success of the regeneration of parts of the East End of London shows what can be done. However, the poverty within our midst is not going to go away by building large national infrastructure projects, something that was so graphically illustrated on a BBC Panorama programme on 11 September. The latter focused on a run down estate in Blackburn and was entitled Trouble on the Estate, a very troubling account of life for a significant number of people that will, sadly, be replicated across the country. What was so worrying was that for many people there was no hope and without hope there was despair. Yet some were coping and surviving; a few against the odds were able to survive develop and grow.

One of my abiding memories of the Olympics and Paralympics was not just the fantastic achievements of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, David Weir and Ellie Simmonds and the like but the stories behind some of these achievements. What we can see with so many of these athletes is their ability to get up after defeat, cope with the unexpected or recover from adversity that is crucial; elite athletes have to have not only supreme skills but also resilience, discipline and inner self-belief.

In a recent article the journalist Patrick Barkham writes about how the swimmer Michael Phelps, like a number of Olympic athletes, had Attention Deficit Disorder and how sport had provided him with an outlet for his energy and gave him discipline to be able to cope with the rigours of elite sport. I also stumbled on another article about this amazing swimmer which talked about how his coach used to make him “familiar with chaos” by arranging hurdles for him at smaller events, for instance, arranging for him to be picked up late or on another occasion cracking his goggles so that he could cope if they filled up with water, which they apparently did on one occasion during the Beijing Olympics when he went to win the race . I am still not sure about the ethics of that particular approach but there is something in the fact that we have to be able to learn how to cope with both uncertainty and failure. As Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire once sang in one of their movies, at times you need to be able to “pick yourself up; dust yourself off; start all over again”.

What has been extraordinary during the Olympics and Paralympics has been hearing the stories of immense courage and perseverance that would have caused most people to give up. Perhaps my most abiding memory of all will remain the courage shown by Martine Wright, who was caught up in the 7/7 bombings and competed for Paralympics GB in sitting volleyball. Unlike most of us she did not appear bitter but felt it was a journey she was “meant to make” .

I am more and more convinced that we need to teach children to learn resilience, providing them with skills to cope with the uncertainties of life and inner strength to be able to thrive in difficult situations; so often we focus on the problems rather than providing children and young people with skills and inner strengths to cope with adversity. What the summer of sport has shown me is that sport could play a significant part of this educational process because sport provides exercise, discipline, team work, achievement and on occasions failure. Sport, however, does not have to be merely about football, which still seems to be a national obsession – it could be handball, cycling, beach volleyball, or even wheelchair rugby. Equally, it is not just about elite sport or competitive school sport but working out your own goals and achieving your own level.

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