Children and the Olympic century

I’ve had blogger’s block. I’ve been brewing a post, waking up with fully formed phrases ready to write here. But my own words make me choke and I don’t know that you’ll want to hear them either.

I’ve been thinking about children and their future, after their abandonment by the politicians at the Rio+20 Summit. When even scientists like Stephen Emmott give their considered opinion that ‘we’re fucked’, how can we say we love them and carry on destroying their world?

It’s the kind of thinking that raises hackles a little because it can seem sentimental. There’s too much love in it. I’ve started this with a picture of my lovely daughter, her hair all caught in a burst of sun, and a picture like that can only convey a tiny fraction of parental care. That kind of warm expression can make some people feel uncomfortable, mainly because they think we should protect children by keeping those feelings private and certainly offline. Or maybe there’s a sense that if you express love for your child too openly that you’re somehow expressing negative emotions about other people’s children. There’s also a strong established belief that we best love our children by not loving them, as it were. (Or rather, that we should formalise relations and prepare children for a challenging world by withdrawing affection tactically. There’s an element of effectiveness in this approach but the emphasis is usually too weighted on control and also affection can be withdrawn too early. This early withdrawal is part of the damaging notion that if children need to learn anything we should start teaching them as early as possible.)

Whatever the reason, we’re uncomfortable talking about loving our children. But beyond the discomforts around love, and much more critically, given that our planet is on fire in parts and slippery with melting ice already, there’s too much fear in what I need to express. There’s just far too much of both love and fear in the topic of children and their future to discuss it comfortably in front of other adults, let alone the children. I thought it was about time to discuss it, gently. So we hosted a house concert as part of a European tour of Transition Towns by a friend from Canada, Michael Holt. His own blogpost about the evening is here. He combines live music and cabaret with a conversation about Transition. We decided to focus on the question of what children need from adults to help the transition. We invited some families from the home education community and Transition New Cross and had a full house. We talked in fairly gentle terms about some future threats – scarcity of resources, rising sea levels and extreme weather. The adults in the room generally felt we shouldn’t lay anything frightening or gloomy on children’s shoulders and focus on being happy and well here and now. They agreed that we should talk about a different future, not a difficult one. We asked the children what they thought about that. One of them very strongly said ‘tell us the truth’. Another said ‘you should lighten up’. We’re prepared to accept that telling the truth is the correct thing to do but we don’t admit the truth to ourselves or between ourselves as adults. And maybe that depresses us.

I talked a bit about the Leysdown tragedy, the centenary of which was on 4 August this year. Nine boys drowned heading from Southwark to the Isle of Sheppey for a summer scout camp, overturned by a freak storm wave. They were poor boys from Walworth scout troop, learning how to sail. Their deaths touched a nerve for the public, due to the impending build-up to the 1st World War, and allegedly over a million people turned up to their funeral procession all the way from Leysdown to Nunhead Cemetery in Southwark. I did a memorial walk and photography exhibition/book on 4 August 2010. The coast of Sheppey is very fragile and eroding as storms cause more damage due to climate change. Old Second World War military buildings are being tossed onto the beach, making a playground for (older) children. I also saw younger children being overly protected, shouted at not to take their shoes off in the mud. It all raises intractable questions about how we prepare children for a difficult future, with eroding certainties and lands, whether we prepare them through protection or challenge, or a careful balance of both.

In the run up to the 1st World War, there was a build up of anxiety about impending war because of the naval arms race between Germans and British over the new Dreadnought warships. There were worries too that young people lacked the right skills and fitness for modern warfare. In response there was Baden-Powell’s publishing of Scouting for Boys from 1908 and the introduction of the Sea Scouts in 1909.

London hosted the Olympics in 1908. Baron de Coubertin had been mortified by France’s defeat by the Prussians in 1870, had looked at the lack of sport in French schools and dedicated himself to creating a highly motivational international games as both a preparation in case of, and an alternative to, war. The Olympian values are paradoxical: developing fitness for war and a strong emphasis on competition between nations, while promoting peace. I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t more direct ways of promoting peace, like reducing dependence on fossil fuel supplies and a more active implementation of the International Crimes Against Peace. But, perhaps there is a good deal of symbolic power in having face to face challenges with people from different cultures, which get such a mass of spectators? Perhaps that spirit will be significant in its effects? See this defining image of an Iranian and an American, embracing, for an example.

As TeamGB chalked up more and more medals, we’ve heard Cameron and Hunt capitalise on their success by denigrating schools for their (supposed) ‘all shall have prizes’ culture. We’ve heard them think on the fly to cancel their cancellation of a compulsory amount of sport in schools, and to announce a new school sport scheme.

It’s 100 years since the Leysdown Tragedy and the obsession with youth fitness of the 1908-1914 era. We are still hearing the same kind of anxieties via the media and Government about young people. Are they fit, skilled and disciplined enough to ensure that our nation can compete on a global stage? To ‘compete on a global stage’ means to grow the economy at the expense of others and protect our global resource supplies, through war if necessary. Parental worries are stoked by these public discourses, by the insidious messages of an achievement culture in schools and by a celebrity culture in the media.

To nurture this national competitiveness the Coalition Government is following the last regime in investing in many schemes all about ‘pegging’: GDP measures, Key Performance Indicators, streaming by ability, League Tables, schemes to promote social mobility, awards for individuals, Performance Related Pay in public jobs. The list goes on and on.

Then there are endless debates about how fair, evidenced and inclusive these measuring systems are. Of course they aren’t fair on the whole. Applying success measures to most activities is extremely difficult, because most things in life are so very contingent and interconnected. Seeing semi-arbitary rewards for a few leads to demotivating feelings for the rest of us. The measures of success can be too narrow. Adulation can focus on too few characters. Certain skills (football, money hustling) are overly rewarded while others (design, caring for others, growing food) are neglected. Success is usually built on access to resources (which can be sourced unethically e.g. a country that has grabbed land or oil, a male rower who has been given a BMW etc) making the factors of talent, innovation and hard work less significant than they may seem.

Sport is one area where measures of success are pretty clear, so we can genuinely celebrate it. There’s uncertainty in not knowing who will win, but the chaos is well constrained within limits. Because judgement of success isn’t based on our subjective preference (unlike music, say), we can feel at one with the whole crowd. The more formalised and official the sport system, the more certain we are that there has been fair play. There isn’t a media channel in the UK right now that doesn’t have at least one article saying that our Olympics success shows that we have every reason to be optimistic about the future. They are asking ‘what can we learn from sport to apply to culture/economy/education etc?’ But sport and these other domains are just not the same.

Those of us who raise critical questions about the Olympics or about competition are not being cynical, but rightly critical. Those of us who are impressed and pleased by excellent performances while asking those critical questions are not being hypocrites either. Most of those who raise critical questions are hardly being critical enough in my view. It’s right to ask about the legacy, the sponsorship and the cost but we mostly need to ask: Is winning lots of medals going to make a material difference (outside continued investment in sport) for the UK? How is practice and prowess in sport actually transferrable to other domains in ways that will ensure continued human thriving?

The only one transferrable outcome I can see is that it may result in more people doing physical activity (recognisable sports, unrecognisable sports, and just moving your body in work or dance). Better fitness means a more resilient population as food becomes scarce and challenges increase.  I’d rather see people get fit by using their own bodies for transport and growing food, though.

There will come a year when we will have to consider reducing the Olympics. There will also come a year when we will have to consider cancelling the Olympics. We’ll look back on the 20th as the century of Oil and Olympics. The 21st will be a century of chaos. We may love to watch sport ever more as it creates a utopian world of certainty. But also it will become less relevant. The games children are forced to play in compulsory school sport will seem less and less relevant.

So if we do love our children enough to prepare them for a difficult/different future, what training do they need now? What would a new Resilience Olympics look like? What activities would be included?

Here are some suggestions:

Aikido – it isn’t an Olympic sport (yet) maybe because it’s key principle is concern for the wellbeing of your attacker, and its second principle is chaos, or coping with the uncertainty of unknown attacks from any direction.

Maybe we need extreme road cycle safety and competence, to cope with increasingly aggressive road conditions.

I also found out about this new game called Switchball, being developed by Play for Change, which helps you cope with changing rules.

The Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World played forest football and other games during their FluxOlympics this summer, linked to their Games People Play exhibition.

I’d like to hear your ideas. Could we make a Resilience Olympics happen?

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2 thoughts on “Children and the Olympic century

  1. Pingback: “The Resilience Olympics” | Steady State Manchester

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