Offside, 22 May

Non-competitive sports days aren't 'political correctness gone mad' - they're government policy.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Maney Hill Primary School in Sutton Coldfield has banned parents from attending its annual sports day and scrapped competitive events such as egg-and-spoon races and three-legged races.

Why? To spare children the humiliation of defeat. ‘Taking part in traditional races can be difficult and often embarrassing for many children’, explained head teacher Judith Wressel. ‘We decided to trial this year a new activity-based sports day to ensure all our children take part and enjoy the experience.’

Perhaps they will follow the lead of Woolpit Primary School in Suffolk, whose sports days include non-competitive activities like jumping over a pole or crawling under chairs. Mind you, crawling under chairs is not as inclusive as it sounds. What if a fat kid gets stuck under a chair? Maybe sitting on the sofa gorging on chips and pizza should be elevated to the status of a sport, to include chubsters.

But then again this would exclude the anorexics. It’s a minefield when you think about it. Actually, as I recall, the fatties excelled in the traditional playground game of ‘bundle’, but I suspect that bundling won’t find its way into the non-competitive sports day roster.

Parents were understandably outraged by Maney Hill’s decision. ‘It is political correctness gone mad’, declared Rob Busst, whose two sons attend the school. ‘Children do not become scarred for life if they lose the egg-and-spoon race’.

I can vouch for that. I suffered a school sports day humiliation in the 100-metres hurdles. My hurdling technique was flawless but it was the running bit that let me down. I was trailing so far behind the rest of the field that I gave up and walked across the finishing line, much to the amusement of the spectators. Was I traumatised? Did I suffer any lasting damage? Do I wake up at night sweating and gibbering? (Okay, maybe I do but let’s not go there.) No, like most kids I was pretty resilient and got over it.

The complaint that political correctness has gone mad is all too familiar. Two years ago the South Bucks Mini-Soccer Conference banned the publication of league results on the grounds that ‘Serious competition at too early an age has been shown to be damaging to players’. Cue Vince Saunders, who runs Thame boys football club. ‘It is political correctness gone mad’, he protested.

Or take the case of the Sedgley Scorpions’ under-nines football team, who were ordered to change their logo – Stuffem, tankem, ‘ammerem – because it was deemed to be ‘violent and offensive’ by Birmingham County FA. ‘This is political correctness gone mad’, hissed Scorpions chairman Gary Davis.

The notion that political correctness has gone mad is a strange anthropomorphism. The implication being that political correctness was once a perfectly sane and reasonable chap who only concerned himself with sensible pursuits, such as hounding Nazis and kiddie fiddlers. But then he suffered a breakdown, perhaps triggered by a humiliating sporting experience, and now Mr PC is a twitching, bulgy-eyed loon who has started stalking innocuous targets such as egg-and-spoon races.

But in truth political correctness hasn’t so much gone gaga as gone mainstream. The scrapping of competitive sports is the logical consequence of our therapeutic culture that assumes that children are vulnerable creatures whose self-esteem will be irreparably damaged by sporting failure.

Non-competitive schools sports cannot be blamed on a few loopy head teachers because it is actually government policy. In 2002, culture secretary Tessa Jowell launched Sport England’s Primary Sports Day Toolkit to promote ‘inclusive sports days’. The toolkit contains instructions for 28 different ‘problem-solving activities’ such as ‘bean-bag pick up’ and ‘stranded sheep’, which are designed so that ‘pupils of lower ability are not exposed’.

‘The trouble with the traditional sports day is that too many youngsters are left out as spectators’, said Sport England chief David Moffett. ‘The kit is about getting all the kids involved.’

I’ve no idea whether it’s fun to play these glorified party games. They sound about as enjoyable as being cajoled into joining a Mexican wave. But, fun or not, please don’t pretend that they have anything to do with sport, which is essentially about competition and winning.

The government would of course deny the charge that they are against competitive sports. Last year Tessa Jowell proclaimed that ‘competitive sport is good for all young people’. However, her commitment to competitive sport sits uneasily with the government doctrine of inclusion.

Sport is inherently exclusive. It’s about running faster, jumping higher, and scoring more goals than your opponents. It’s tough on the losers and lard arses. But our children have got to learn to deal with life’s hard knocks. Bundle anyone?

Read on:

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Topics Politics


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