“What’s your favourite sport, Mummy?” asks my small daughter on the way to Brownies.
I rack my brains, trying to think of which sports I can actually claim I do.
“Running,” I reply, from my list of one.
“What about badminton? Or football? Or tag rugby? Or tennis?”
She reels off some of the many activities she’s tried at school since moving up to the Juniors in September. At the small village primary school that she attends, her class has a PE rota, enabling the children to sample a different sport for three weeks at a time.
Her after-school schedule is equally varied. In the last couple of years, she’s tried ballet, tap, modern, country dancing, street dance, karate and gym. With a trampoline de rigueur in every modern child’s garden, she does quite a lot of random bouncing, too. Then there’s roller-skating at the leisure centre on Saturday nights with friends, swimming with Daddy at whichever local pool currently has the warmest water, and ice-skating whenever we encounter a rink. (She’s skated outdoors in Paris and Amsterdam so far.)
On this evidence, I don’t believe the newspaper hype that our children are growing up fat and unfit – not round here, at least, where we have so many open, safe places for them to play.
My childhood experience of sport was very different. For baby-boomers like me, PE in the Infants meant pretending to be a tree to the sounds of “Music and Movement” on the radio and learning to do bunny hops over benches. In the Juniors, my only real sporting memory is of the obstacle race on Sports Day, even though in the first year we were lucky enough to have a former national athlete as our class teacher. Mrs Stocking, formerly Patricia Kippax, had sprinted in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and a few years later, there she was, letting us chase her round the school field, much to the amusement of other staff.
At secondary school, the PE teachers were only interested in the naturally talented few who might make county standard. My best friend and I jogged round chatting at the back on our cross-country runs past the graveyard, trying to conceal American Tan tights kept on for warmth beneath our hockey socks. In the hockey season, I’d always volunteer to be goalie as I reckoned it might require the least physical movement.
Whenever the Olympics came around, the events were so alien to me that they might just as well have been on Mars. I did recognise I was witnessing history being made as the American swimmer Mark Spitz secured his seventh gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but only because my teenage sister had a crush on him and she made me watch.
But next year, when the Olympics come to London, for my daughter, as for so many other local children, the sports will seem real and tangible, because they will already have tried out so many of them for themselves. She’s won a few medals herself already for sporting activities, for reaching a certain stage in her gym club and for completing some sponsored walks and runs. She will watch the games as a fellow sportswoman. She will see herself as a contender.
And I bet when hockey comes up on her rota next autumn, she won’t be keeping her tights on.
(This article was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser, April 2011)
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