THOSE who are bracing themselves for a
gale of superlatives from track and field during the 2012 Games
experienced an advance gust recently - although the record in
question had little to do with sport.
The fast-food giant and Olympic
sponsor, McDonald's, unveiled its largest-ever hamburger outlet - a
3000-square-foot, two-storey establishment, constructed on the
Olympic site. It is capable of serving 1200 customers, every hour
of the working day, with cheese quarter-pounders, fries, and
You do not have to be a hardened cynic
to conclude that such an enterprise sits uncomfortably alongside
the promise, made as part of the original London bid, to reduce
levels of child obesity, and to get those of the salad-dodging
persuasion off the sofa and back on their feet again.
But the latest report from the
religion- and social-policy think tank Theos suggests that such a
grandiose claim is one of the many made on sport's behalf, which,
when scrutinised, tend to "over-promise and under-deliver".
That sport shapes behaviour is not in
doubt. But what Theos, in conjunction with the Sports Think Tank,
says is open to question is the assumption that the emergent
behaviour will always be positive. Think Premier League footballers
heading for the clubs on Saturday night, or intemperate soccer-dads
hurling abuse from the touchline. In other words, any moral climate
is created not so much by the game as by the moral code of the
coaches, captains, players, or supporters, who are just as likely
to be aggressive and mean-spirited as eirenic and generous.
As a force for peace and the common
good, sport is similarly found wanting. While the UN has put its
faith in sport as "an efficient tool in the pursuit of . . .
peace-building objectives", Theos cites the Berlin Olympics 1936,
and the Bahrain Grand Prix 2012, as evidence that this is not
always the case.
Those who are trumpeting the economic
legacy of the Olympics, it is argued, would do well to look to
Beijing, Athens, and Sydney, where more money was extracted from
the host nation than was invested in its infrastructure. And,
for health, Theos says, with such
dismally low levels of active participation in sport nationwide,
the benefits to the population as a whole are negligible.
For those who were never convinced of
the wisdom of the London bid, this report helps to crystallise
doubts. Perhaps £9 billion was a bit steep after all (£27 million
of it spent on the opening and closing ceremonies alone). Perhaps
the rampant commercialism of the event really is unpleasant to
those who love both sport and commerce. Perhaps the whole security
lock-down really does infringe our civil liberties, giving
self-appointed "security" guards in fluorescent jackets the right
to order us about, search, and manhandle us, should we put a foot
out of line (their line).
Of course, sport in itself is a good
thing. It can be a force for co-operation and co-existence, making
its practitioners healthy in body and disciplined in mind. But it
does so only when it is enjoyed for what it is rather than
prescribed as a miracle cure for all our social, moral, and even
When the sheer fun and exhilaration
are removed from sport and replaced by some ulterior motive
involving national pride, moral improvement, weight loss,
patriotism, or profit, we might all be better off heading for the
sofa and curling up with a good book.
Trevor Barnes reports for the
Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics