Opinion: What impact will extra compulsory school sport have on LGBT pupils?

Chris Ward August 16, 2012
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The last couple of weeks have been undoubtedly fantastic. As a new Londoner my initial cynicism quickly disappeared after the perfectly British opening ceremony, the remarkable display of athletics and most importantly, the unity and amiability shared by sportspeople from all nations.

The latter is contrasted against the sobering and disappointing reminder that after the games, the BBC sports cameras will return to covering the likes of John Terry. The Olympics gave many of us a renewed passion for sport, untainted by the scandal and the corruption we normally experience with our country’s “primary national game”.

So of course it’s only natural that our politicians seek to capitalise on that success. The Olympics hadn’t finished before Boris Johnson demanded a minimum of two-hours PE a day and it didn’t take long after the closing ceremony for Prime Minister David Cameron to demand compulsory competitive team sport for school children.

For the likes of Boris and Dave, it’s clear to see why this might seem a good idea. The country has an increasing problem with child obesity so it makes sense to promote the virtues of exercise, particularly with a competitive streak that theoretically inspires individuals to constantly better themselves. The more cynical-minded might suggest that politicians who enjoyed vastly superior sports facilities to the majority of the country will of course jump on whatever bandwagon is doing the rounds at the moment. Either way, it’s a win-win situation for our glorious leader to demand, “more of this sort of thing”.

Oddly, rather than concentrate on the sports Britain excelled at in the games, reports suggest that the curriculum changes will require compulsory participation in sports like football. For those of us whose experience of PE amounts to little more than a humiliating twice-weekly ritual, the prospect of having to endure more seems to be an excellent way of putting kids off sport for life. Although I realise I don’t speak on behalf of all gay men, my experience of physical education was a degrading tortuous environment where the aggressive vicious students who regularly disrupted other classes ruled the sports field, liberally smacking the rest of us with vicious homophobic slurs (and sometimes just smacking us).

Although I’m sure things have changed in the last decade, we still constantly hear reports of homophobia within sport. Failure is met with insinuations about sexuality or typical sexism. “He throws like a pansy”; “He runs like a girl”; “learn how to catch the ball, gayboy!”. All things I heard on many occasions on the school sports field; all things the PE teacher turned a blind eye to.

These are not just slurs thrown at gay students of course – they were directed at anybody who couldn’t kick or throw a ball. It’s certainly the reason I avoided typical team sport like football for many years after my compulsory education ended, opting for things like climbing, hiking and endurance running instead. I apologise to women reading this article – as much as I would have loved to have done PE with the girls (I rocked at hockey), my experience of physical education is was solely with other boys.

I’m hesitant to single out sportspeople for their sexuality, but there were some fantastic LGBT athletes competing in the games. This normally wouldn’t matter, but as many of us experience sport to be a hostile environment for LGBT individuals, to see athletes who’ve got through it and excelled was quite refreshing. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who found a conflict of loyalties between Team GB and the very inspiring Matthew Mitcham. This is why getting the “Olympic legacy” right is so imperative. Simply pursuing a vote-grabbing gimmick post-games will not fix the endemic issue of homophobia that seems to be prolifically worse on the school sports field than it is in any other classroom – you don’t ever get called a “faggot” or a “queer” when you answer a question wrong in maths. As politicians often do, Cameron and Boris have fallen into the trap of just demanding “more”, rather than evaluating the options available.

The answer is not two hours of PE a day. For a start, Boris hasn’t detailed which lessons should be cut back in order to cater for this – or how schools will be able to cope with the vast increase of timetabling with already minimal facilities. It’s also not in making children play more football or rugby. I would have hoped that one conclusion we could all draw from the games is that there is a whole plethora of sports out there. Politicians should acknowledge that the child who can’t kick a ball could quite well be the future Olympic diving medallist.

The Olympics gave many of us a renewed passion for competitive sport. We must not waste that with more of the same.

Chris Ward is an LGBT campaigner and former school governor. Follow him on Twitter @christopherward

More: Boris Johnson, David Cameron, football, John Terry, LGBT sports, matthew mitcham, olympics

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