Flying into Heathrow at the weekend, I was struck once more by the beauty and the power to inspire of the nascent Olympic stadium. If it can do that now, a year and a half ahead of the event, imagine what it will feel like to be an athlete flying in from overseas in the summer of 2012, as the pilot says ‘if you look out of the left-hand window, you will see the stadium’.
I was particularly lucky on Sunday. Cold but sunny, a fabulous light, to the left the Dome, beyond the stadium the City, then the Gherkin and beyond that a succession of bridges towards Parliament. It really was stunning.
Yet if there is a cloud hanging over the whole thing, it is the coalition government’s decision to axe the £162million budget for school sport. David Cameron and Michael Gove are being utterly dishonest in their misuse of statistics on the issue. And the planned school Olympics will do next to nothing by comparison with the 450 School Sports Partnerships being axed.
I return to the subject because of the letter from Olympic medal winners which has been sent to the PM asking him to rethink. I hope it has as powerful an impact on him as a previous collection of sporting letters had on his predecessor a few years ago.
The decision to go for the Games was never black and white. There was a lot of Cabinet opposition. The costs were likely to be considerable. There was a good chance we wouldn’t get it. Tony Blair’s instincts were always pointing in the ‘go for it’ direction, but not without the occasional flicker towards ‘play safe’.
A brilliantly produced collection of letters from top athletes, which I put in with his weekend reading for Chequers, helped to stop the flickering. He came back on Monday morning convinced we had to go for it, and after that we did. As anyone on the IOC will tell you, his personal commitment thereafter was a huge factor in seeing off the French.
It was the sheer unadulterated passion of the athletes, their powerful belief that hosting the Olympics would inspire a whole generation to put sport at the centre of their lives, that so moved TB. I hope Cameron is now similarly moved. Because the truth is his government’s decision shows that while the Olympics are a great bandwagon for them to leap aboard, their commitment to sport is less than skin deep.
Well done to badminton player Gail Emms for organising the letter, and to the likes of Denise Lewis, Tessa Sanderson and Jason Queally for throwing their weight behind the campaign. ‘We cannot stand by and watch as your government threatens to destroy any hopes this country has of delivering a genuine London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic legacy,’ they say. ‘The future health of all our children is at risk if you axe this funding’. Hear hear, and let’s hear more of the same from MPs of all parties when the subject is debated in the Commons today.
If Cameron fails to land the 2018 World Cup for England, a lot of fuss will be made about last night’s BBC Panorama programme (which I missed because I was watching Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 in one of the best team performances of all time.) But if I was working for one of the rival bids, it is the decision on school sport I would be putting in front of the Fifa powers that be. It is not the action of someone who cares about sport, or understands its potential.