How good a role model ARE these Olympic athletes?
I happily confess to having enjoyed the Olympics much more than I ever thought I would. Indeed I have changed from my slightly sneery attitude on the first few days of competition (OK, so where are those medals we all heard about?) to being rather jolly when we win another one. Indeed I have the BBC live text commentary open on my laptop screen -- and I don't think I could ever get keener than that.
All the same, I do think we have got a bit over the top on whole sport thing, on how it is going to inspire the nation (to what??) .. and so on. Every newspaper, even the usually cynical, is just full of it.
So let me share a couple of these doubts.
DOUBT ONE. I think we can take it as read that the country's health and well-being would be improved if most people did more exercise, just a bit more. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. But are these hugely over-trained athletes really any kind of role model for that?
OK I realise that what counts as "discipline" and what counts as "cruel over training" is always a fine distinction. We're very happy to point an ethnocentric finger at the "fanatical" Chinese, while patting ourselves on the back for having made champions of the "girls next door". And I know it must differ a bit from sport to sport. But so far as I can see there is very little "healthy" in the normal sense of that word about what many of these sports-people have done to themselves. You only have to look at some of their legs and arms on the telly to see that they are not "normal" on any spectrum of normality, but that they have obsessively exploited the further reaches of the capacity of the human body, to turn in a minutely better time in some running race.
Take Jessica Ennis, for example. Actually I have quite a soft spot for her and am dead pleased she won. But a quick glance at her website shows just what a "worked on" machine she is: "Team Jennis" includes: a physiotherapist, a soft tissue specialist, a coach, a javelin coach, a physiologst, a biomechanist.. and that's before you get the the "management". Most of the athletes (even the shooters) are "training" at least 5 hours a day.
Now, sure, obsession comes in various forms. And there would be many peope who would say that my desire to spend 14 hours a day writing at my laptop was generally bad for my health both short and longterm. But God knows what the long term effect of all this athletic physical pressure is. (A quick visit to the Centre for the Study of Retired Athletes at the University of North Carolina is a bit depressing on that score, I can tell you!)
Frankly, it seems to me that if we all were to follow the model of our Olympians we'd probably cost the NHS a lot more eventually than if we all stayed couch potatoes.
So much as we love watching and cheering, can we stop thinking of these sports stars as "fit". At least, it's a bloody odd, and hugely immoderate form of "fitness".
DOUBT TWO, of course, is where they all come from. I'm picking up here on the many press reports that point to the "disproportionate" number who went to independent schools. Now if you teach at Oxbridge, you are used to this kind of thing. And I was seriously waiting for someone to attack the Olympic selectors for class prejudice.
But no, in this case it is the schools who get blamed. They should be doing more, we're told, for ordinary kids who want to excel at sport.
But all these finger-pointing exercise as always misleading. Just as it is silly to blame only universities for "access problems" in higher education, so it is mad to blame only schools for the progress of "ordinary" kids into high level sport. Money and resource is a great big factor for a start. But there are even more things at play.
Some of these sports pretty well demand high levels of family wealth anyway. I guess we can dream on about a time in the future when every secondary school has its own stables. But until then, I can't see many people getting on in equestrian sports unless Mummy and Daddy buy them a pony. And that counts the likes of me out for a start.
But there is something even more embedded going on here, and it's about family aspiration and support. Instead of counting up those athletes who went to independent schools, try counting those who have a parent who was a high level competitor in their own or a related sport. And I'm not just talking Zara Phillips. You'd be amazed.
Bradley Wiggins: Dad was a racing cyclist
Sophie Hosking: Dad was a world class rower
Nicole Cooke: Dad and uncle used to cycle race.
Steven Burke: Mum cycled for Britain
Ben Ainslie: Dad sailed in Whitbread round the world race
David Florence: Dad was a canoe racer
Naomi Folkard: Mum and Dad county level archery contestants
Eilish McColgan: Mum and Dad athletic medal winners
Now it's not an iron rule of course (Anna Watkins, didn't row till she was at university). But that's only a quick sample, and it's certainly a pattern.
Maybe you explain it by genetic ability. Or maybe, more likely, it's family expectations, encouragement and pressure. As usual. Have a family that values reading and books (or kindles), and after a few wobbles, you're likely to have the kids entering the world with a desire to read. Have a family that is always on the river.... etc etc . It's not difficult to see the link.