What on earth has come over our aimless, feckless, hopeless youth?
Shurely shome mishtake, I keep saying to myself. They must have the wrong country.
As the news has rolled in from Beijing, and as the world’s televisions have throbbed incessantly to the strains of God Save the Queen, it has been increasingly obvious that some kind of apology is owed by press, pundits and politicians to the youth of Great Britain. I mean, this is us, for heaven’s sake: the Brits.
Only the other day, it was confirmed that our kids are the fattest in Europe. We have so many nearly-spherical children that local councils have announced their intention to take them systematically into care.
We drink so much, and so incontinently, that our bladdered ladettes are the scourge of every Mediterranean resort from Faro to Faliraki. We beat all-comers when it comes to teenage pregnancy, and we have the edge over much of the developed world in illiteracy and innumeracy – and yet look at our team in Beijing.
If you believe the British press, the youth of today is aimless, feckless and hopeless, addicted to their PlayStations, lacking in respect and lacking in the emotional discipline needed to cope with a big match occasion.
If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness.
And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is. Do not adjust your set: that really is a collection of smiling, well-balanced young British people, giving pleasingly self-deprecating accounts of how they have managed to haul in medal after medal after medal.
At the time of writing, we seem to be hovering between third and fourth place in the league table, and we deserve it. Some of these British competitors are showing fantastic guts and determination.
I don’t know if you were watching the coxless fours, when our guys started to fight back against the Australians, but there was a moment when the commentator lost it completely.
His voice went all squeaky, and in the tones of a trod-on frog he started urging us all to hurl encouragement at the television set – and we did, didn’t we? We yelled at those rowers to eat up that Aussie lead, and it worked.
In fact, the only sport at which we do not currently appear to be excelling is the national sport of running ourselves down. The armchair cynics – and I have occasionally been one – have been taking a terrific pasting.
There are some voices – and from time to time I may have been among them – who have caustically observed that the British athletes are “brilliant at sitting down”. By this they mean that a large number of our medals have been won in financially intensive sports such as riding, rowing, sailing and cycling, where victory can be achieved in a sedentary position.
It has been observed that these sports have high barriers to entry, in the sense that horses and bikes and boats are expensive, and that Lottery-fuelled British athletes have an advantage over competitors from poorer countries. Well, whatever the truth of that argument, it simply does not apply to so many British achievements over the past few days.
Rebecca Adlington knocked an amazing two seconds off the 800m freestyle, a record that has stood for 19 years; and I have to say that when she finally took her head out of the water and flung her arm up in the air, I had a lump in my throat, and my feelings could be described as sentimental incredulity.
She doesn’t come from some sun-drenched Californian sea-resort. She hasn’t spent her childhood amid the balmy breezes of Bondi beach or Surfer’s Paradise. She comes from Mansfield, which is not the kind of place where you walk around in a swimming costume, even in August.
I suppose the sceptics will protest that excellence in swimming is still reserved for those who can find a swimming pool, and that the real test is track and field. But even there the Brits are no slouches. Everybody has been talking about Usain Bolt, and the dominance of the Caribbean countries in the sprints.
A learned article in the Financial Times has suggested that the West Indian climate is helpful to sprinters “because muscles like to be kept warm”.
Well, if that is the case, how do you explain the achievement of Britain’s Jeanette Kwakye, who came 6th in the women’s 100m? She hails from Chingford, and, whatever the delights of Chingford, it is not famous for keeping your limbs warm.
We have just won our first medal in gymnastics for 80 years, a demonstration of geo-politics at work. This event used to be dominated by the blank-eyed children of the Warsaw Pact, drilled to perfection by the threat of the gulag.
Now the Soviet Union is dead, the politburo is no longer demanding medals, and Britain is leaving the Russians trailing in the medals table. Why? Is it because our young athletes want to please Comrade Gordon? I don’t think so. They just seem to want to win, for any number of reasons, and in so doing they cheer us all up.
Let me conclude with one of the most astonishing of all the statistics about Team GB.
Roughly 58 per cent of the contestants we sent to Athens in 2004 were educated at independent schools – schools of a type that educate only seven per cent of the general population; and, in the past three Olympics, the independent sector has walked off with 45 per cent of the medals.
Now there will be some who find that a sad fact, a depressing commentary on the relative lack of investment in time and sporting facilities in our schools. But let us look on the bright side. What that statistic tells me is that there is a huge untapped reservoir of potential athletic genius in the maintained sector.
Imagine if we ensured that children had better access to the facilities they need. Imagine if we stamped out the last vestige of the politically correct nonsense that for so long dominated the educational establishment, and militated against competitive sport, and its indispensable concepts of winning and losing.
Imagine, in other words, if we could use the inspiration of this Olympic success to encourage children throughout our educational system. Think what they could achieve in 2012.
[Ed: This article was first posted in the Daily Telegraph on 19 August 2008 under the heading, “ What on earth has come over our aimless, feckless, hopeless youth?”]