It is the dead of winter. Snow carpets the ground. Somewhere, a whistle shrieks and a woman closely resembling a Staffordshire bull terrier barks orders at the shivering girls who are running laps around the perimeter of a large metal cage. One asthmatic girl lags behind and the woman descends on her. “Put your back into it!” she screeches as the girl struggles to contain her tears.
What is this dreadful scene I have just described? Is it a Siberian women’s prison camp? No, dear reader. It is just one of the many sports lessons I suffered through during my five years at a girls’ grammar school.
Time and time again, while I endured icy winds, driving rain and unflattering outfits, my PE teacher was snugly wrapped up in her thermal-insulated tracksuit. I wondered what heinous sin I had committed in my previous life to explain why I was going through this ordeal. The same words, drummed into me so many times, resounded through my head. Exercise is good for you! It boosts your endorphins! It decreases stress! It allows you to live longer!
None of this can be denied. In light of the current obesity crisis and the record numbers of students with mental health problems, exercise is perhaps more important than ever. But I’d like to suggest that forcing students to participate in sports against their will, and promoting ‘Sports Wednesdays’, as other universities do, is not the answer to our problems.
Let me get something straight: I don’t actually dislike exercise. I love dancing and cycling and going for long walks with my friends. But after enduring fourteen grim years of government-prescribed Physical Education, I never want to join a sports team again.
I can’t bear the thought of playing sport for ‘fun’ because I associate it with humiliation and misery. A long time ago, when I was a carefree Year Seven, this was not the case. In the folly of my ignorance I signed up to after-school athletics sessions. My reward for this was being forced to run around the athletics track three times with one other girl who had also happened to be ‘late’ as the aforementioned sadistic PE teacher stared at us and screamed like a howler monkey if we were slacking.
Everything associated with sport still has the power to make me shudder with horror, just as that PE teacher did all those years ago. The muddy-wet-grass-and-sweat smell of changing rooms, nauseatingly masked by Impulse strawberry spray; the insidious shuffling sound made by mats as they were dragged along the hall floor; the animalistic, murderous instinct I felt whenever I happened to be holding a javelin and saw the PE teacher walking past. All these experiences continue to evoke that feeling of horror.
However, this is more than just a personal phobia. I maintain that sport can be bad for our health. Forcing us to run through the snow was a health and safety hazard that would not have passed the risk assessment if the PE teachers had ever bothered to conduct one. In the summer they made us jump into a sandpit which smelled suspiciously like cat urine. Worst of all (if we weren’t so lucky as to have an ear infection or a period – yes, not having to do sports makes even periods bearable) we were forced to swim in a dated, lukewarm pool, a perfect breeding ground for germs, in which there was always at least one clump of hair and a free-floating used plaster. And it isn’t just school sports that are unhealthy: my brother’s friend spent so much time practising his bowling action as a child that he now suffers from scoliosis, while my mum’s midwife died falling off a treadmill. Really, they would have been better off spending their leisure time lounging on the sofa scoffing crisps and watching Fat Pets Fat Owners.
Not only this, but sport can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem. In swimming lessons, students who were constantly comparing themselves to their peers in class and on social media were suddenly lined up next to them in swimming suits which had the magical power to transform even the most stunning of supermodels into a blobby lump. And if this were not cruel enough, we were forced to wear swimming hats not dissimilar to the bald caps used for the rubber-headed aliens from Star Trek. Depending on our house colour, we looked like globules of snot, blood clots or bald chickens as we floundered around in the pool.
And that was just swimming. Can you imagine how it felt for the asthmatic girl in our class to be repeatedly told she was lazy? Or the girl for whom a new grade was invented because the PE teacher thought the lowest mark didn’t accurately reflect her tennis ability? The trope of being picked last for a sports team is often used in a humorous context, but its implications are serious: people are shamed for being bad at sports. The athletic children are at the top of the social hierarchy while the lesser mortals are left with burning cheeks and a feeling of inadequacy as they are sent to the team with the fewest people.
I know that what I have to say won’t convince everyone. Many people have fond memories of jolly days spent whacking lacrosse balls and lolloping gaily across the tennis lawn. Yet I beg you, please spare a thought in your smug happiness for those of us who skipped with joy when our final rounders lesson was over, who spent two terms stuck at the bottom of the class table tennis league, who are delighted to be at university where we can finally be free of all such tortures forever and get on with doing those things that truly interest us.