Recently, John Prescott and I disagreed.
The Olympics were nearing a close, and a tweet from Gaby Hinsliff about compulsory PE in schools set us off. His stance was that “we need competitive sport” since “learning how to lose gracefully is just as important as winning”. I was unconvinced, as I was four days previously, when David Cameron demanded, “a revival of competitive sport in primary schools”, saying “we need to end the “all must have prizes” culture”.
I told John Prescott that my experience of competitive sport in P.E. lessons was more about humiliation – gracefully, mind – but I want to say more here than I can on Twitter. I came out aged twelve in the summer of Year 8, and particularly after that, P.E. lessons slowly ruined how I felt about myself.
Like the so called War on Christmas and laws against cross-wearing, Cameron’s “all must have prizes” culture seems little more than an invention of the British right wing press. Certainly, I never encountered it. At primary school I dreaded sports day: uncoordinated, hay fever-afflicted and unable to breathe through my nose, I was universally incompetent. Because participation was mandatory, I usually opted for the hundred-metre sprint – my rationale for this, aged seven or eight, was that it would be over quickly. While this was true, choosing the shortest race also meant unmitigated defeat by the quickest runners, before the entire school and their parents.
It might seem absurd today, but that hurt. I ended up in tears twice, and later faked illness to avoid it – presumably teachers knew I was lying, but took pity on me. Where I excelled at art projects and English, the kids who struggled at that weren’t made to enter contests where large crowds cheered for me and they finished last. I enjoy watching certain competitions now, even ruthlessly dog-eat-dog ones – RuPaul’s Drag Race springs to mind – but I know everyone involved is present by choice. Making anyone, particularly children, compete publicly and against their will in something for which they’ve no skill or enthusiasm seems deeply cruel. (Yes, I have issues, but when I tweeted about this it struck a chord, so perhaps many do.)
My secondary school was a comprehensive, but with its maroon and bottle green uniform, ridiculous Latin motto and expansive playing fields, it would never have admitted it. I got to know and hate those playing fields over several years, each of which involved a games curriculum of traditional team sports doubtless approved of by David Cameron: rugby in the autumn term, football in the spring and either tennis or cricket in the summer. (These were the boys’ sports. Activities were split by gender, with girls getting a mostly different and equally traditional schedule – hockey, rounders and so on.)
During lessons, especially once out, I faced just about all the unpleasantness you could imagine: coming last or next to last, depending on the group, I got called a colourful range of names including literally dozens – I once made a list – of homophobic slurs, from “freak” to “faggot”. In the winter, when rain had muddied the ground, I got pelted with dirt, and it wasn’t unusual for people to spit on me. I still remember how that felt. Then the physical bullying: kickings, in particular, or being hit with sporting implements; the hard edge of a tennis racquet once gave me a black eye. This was a rare occasion when teachers intervened.
I’m not sure if they otherwise didn’t know what was happening, or if fear of acknowledgingthe gay thing meant they didn’t step in. It certainly stopped me from saying anything. Not all my P.E. teachers were conventionally nasty, but some made things more difficult than they already were. My twelve-year-old self once lost control of his breathing and fell to ground, unable to stop panting, after being made to run 1.5km. The teacher who set the task responded to expressions of concern with, “Oh, Alex is just being silly.” She later said, “More effort, next time”.
Though I couldn’t then articulate it, P.E. lessons made me feel that my body belonged to someone else. From mandatory activities I was bad at and which hurt, to the physical punishments some teachers used – forgetting shin pads meant lapping both football fields five times – to having to undress in front of people who hated me, exposing a body I’d started to hate. Then, of course, the fascistic “bleep test”. I wondered, and still do, why authorities needed to know how long I could sprint for before being exhausted. After one test, a boy in the class said I should kill myself. Several times, I tried it.
P.E. apologists often echo the severe Mr. Hume, who once told us, “There are too many unfit kids today.” But who put him in charge of my body, and what gave government the right to deem it inadequate? If P.E. really created fitter kids, wouldn’t decades of increasingly strict requirements have evolved children into Adonises by now? Between my first and last P.E. lessons, no-one’s fitness level seemed to change.
I don’t believe this is really the motivation. If it were, why object, as Cameron does, to “Indian dance, or whatever”? Students who excel at sport should clearly have facilities at school, and primary schools need P.E. to identify them. But why not stress dance, Pilates, or martial arts as much as the public school sports he grew up around? I don’t know how common my experience of P.E. lessons is, but the syllabus did make it harder for me as a gay-identifying teenager: to fail at things so traditionally masculine as playing rugby or throwing heavy objects, especially in single gender classes, is often to encounter explicit homophobia.
For many, including me, this subject is emotive, and those who defend compulsory P.E. – especially post-primary school, and in the shape of traditional competitive sports – often do it powerfully. But to me it never seems to do much good, and can sometimes do unspeakable harm.