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Is this really keeping the flame alive

20 July 2012

Trevor Barnes wonders whether sport has been a casualty of Olympic hype

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 doughnuts.

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, as

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 spiritual ills.

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 broadcasts

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