That night, and during the 16 days of competition that followed before the Spice Girls closed the show by roaring around the stadium perched on the top of London taxis, it all felt great. A friend of mine was a Games Maker and had one of the best times of his life, but he identified a dissonance buried beneath the euphoria. “In a sense, it was volunteering for an organisation that takes hundreds of millions of pounds from broadcasting organisations,” he said this week. “I mean, would you volunteer for Amazon?”
Eventually other dissonances emerged, ranging from the relatively trivial – a legal dispute, settled out of court, over the creative inspiration for the cauldron – to the great thundering falsehood employed to persuade a sceptical British public that the whole enterprise was worth the vast expense: the claim, endlessly repeated by Sebastian Coe and others, that hosting the Olympics would ensure a legacy of physical health for future generations.
So where are we now? With a plague of obesity, diabetes and other symptoms of ill health among young people, exacerbated by Michael Gove’s destruction of the School Sports Partnership. That vile decision deprived children at state schools of probably the most effective scheme devised to guarantee them physical exercise, with only the half-baked Schools Games and an unsatisfactory primary schools scheme offered in compensation. And now this week’s warning from Public Health England that a sharp rise in the level of vitamin D deficiency – the sunlight vitamin – among children has led to a resurgence in infant rickets, a condition associated with Victorian slums.
To watch the opening ceremony unfold all over again, and to listen to the recollections of the participants, was to be reminded that sport can indeed sometimes provide a good example to wider society. “We all felt so excited to be part of something so much bigger than us,” one volunteer performer said, remembering the secret rehearsals at a disused Ford plant in Dagenham. Another spoke of being tempted to withdraw, but changing her mind because it would mean letting people down. Those are the life lessons sport can offer.
In terms of real legacy, however, it was all a gigantic waste of time and money. Less than a year ago, the Children’s Society reported on the high levels ofunhappiness shown by English schoolchildren. In a survey of 53,000 children aged 10 to 12 in 15 countries, including Ethiopia, Germany, Israel, Estonia, Turkey, South Africa, Poland, and Algeria, English children came next to bottom in the happiness index, ahead only of South Korea. “We are one of the richest countries in the world and yet the happiness of our children is at rock bottom,” the charity’s chief executive said. “They are unhappy at school and are struggling with issues around their appearance and self-confidence.”
At around the same time, researchers at Essex University tested 300 children of similar age and discovered plummeting levels of physical fitness. “It has got to the stage now that if we took the least fit child from a class of 30 we tested in 1998, they would be one of the five fittest children in a class of the same age today,” Dr Gavin Sandercock, the lead researcher, said. “These are the children who had free swimming taken away, who lived through the demolition of the Schools Sports Partnerships and lost the five-hour offer of PE.”
These are issues that regular physical exercise – whether actual competitive sport or the “Indian dancing” derided by David Cameron while defending Gove’s axing of the SSP – could have addressed, had Coe’s pledge actually meant anything.
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