COLLAPSED in a heap, the reaction of the indomitable Leeds brothers-in-arms Alistair and Jonny Brownlee best captured the spirit of the Rio Olympics – and the power of sport.
As they stretched out their weary arms, the victorious Alistair’s two hands clasping his beaten brother’s left arm after this famous triathlon one-two, they whispered to each other ‘We did it’.
For many, it was the moment of the Olympics when Team GB eclipsed all expectations – and records – to surpass its successes at London four years ago and finish second to the mighty USA with 67 podium finishes.
For me, it was how these unassuming brothers started using their moment of triumph – once they had caught their collective breath – to implore people to take up a sport.
“Give it a go – we are passionate about encouraging young people,” pleaded Alistair who became the first triathlete in history to defend an Olympic title.
“If you’re inspired by the Olympics, take it a little further. Join your local swimming club, join your local running club, join your local cycling club.”
They’re profound words as the all-conquering Team GB return in triumph.
For while they have been doing their very best to uphold Olympic founding father Pierre de Coubertin’s creed Citius, Altius, Fortius – Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger – Britain has been becoming slower, lower and weaker as the world’s number two sporting country becomes a nation of couch potatoes.
It came to a head at the height of last week’s Olympo-mania when Theresa May’s government was taken to task for watering down proposals to cut childhood obesity by dropping plans to ban the advertisement of junk food and supermarket two-for-one deals on unhealthy snacks and so on.
Yet, while proceeds from a proposed sugar tax on soft drinks will be re-invested in school sport, there is a belief that the response is too timid – Leeds GP Richard Vautrey notes that one in 10 pupils at primary schools in the city are obese, while academics report just £30m a year is spent on initiatives to tackle obesity, a condition which costs the NHS at least £6bn a year. A false economy?
However calls for the Government, supermarkets, public health officials and others to do more miss one crucial point – what has happened to the neglected notion of personal and family responsibility?
Though health education is important, it should not be the duty of Prime Minister Theresa May to tell families how to lead up their lives. Quite the opposite. First and foremost, it should be up to parents to make sure their children eat healthily, switch off the omnipresent PlayStation, enjoy the great outdoors and follow the example of our great Olympians. At the very least, mothers and fathers have a duty to make sure their offspring can swim and ride a bike.
It’s what the Brownlees did – they came to regard the Yorkshire countryside as the best playground in the world. They didn’t wait to be told what to do and others should not be afraid to venture outside.
Look at cycling heroine Laura Trott, now Britain’s most decorated female Olympian. She only took to her bike to provide moral support to her obese mother Glenda who, to her embarrassment, was deemed too heavy to go on theme park rides in America during a family holiday. Again they did not wait for orders from Ministers or the so-called nanny state – the Trott family took responsibility. If they can do it, why can’t others?
And don’t say sport is the preserve of a privileged few. Team GB’s medal-winners have come from all walks of life – and were supported by a small army of volunteers who are the lifeblood of those grassroots clubs opening their doors this Saturday as part of the Lottery-backed I Am Team GB initiative.
One only has to witness the celebrations of GB’s gold medal-winning female hockey team to see how sport can forge lifelong friendships. Then there’s Mo Farah, Britain’s greatest-ever long-distance runner. Born in war-torn Somalia, he did not speak a word of English when he moved to England at the age of eight when he harboured dreams of being a car mechanic. Now he’s an all-time great after completing the ‘double double’ by winning the 5,000m and 10,000m at both London and Rio. There’s nothing to stop other ethnic minority youngsters following in his footsteps.
As Sir Hugh Robertson, the former Sports Minister noted, grassroots participation is linked to sporting success – and the Rio schedule has meant previously overlooked events like gymnastics, badminton, diving, hockey and taekwondo have enjoyed prime-time coverage on the BBC as part of 3,000 hours of coverage by the self-congratulatory broadcaster. Let’s hope Britain doesn’t have to wait until 2020 for these sports to be showcased again on terrestrial television – Britain won golds in more sports than any other nation.
In the meantime, it is the words of Alistair Brownlee which resonate most of all as the triathlon becomes Britain’s fastest growing sport. “You never know where it might take you,” he added.
It’s the same with those youngsters (and their relatives) who need to lead healthier lifestyles. They don’t need to be Brownlee-like athletes – few are – in order to take responsibility and become leaner, fitter and healthier as a result.
If they succeed, they too, will be able to say ‘We did it’ just like Yorkshire’s own champions, heroes and role models.