Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Play up, play up

Readers of this blog will know that we keep a close watch on developments in the sporting world, particularly on developments in the EU sporting world. As we pointed out some time ago, sport is to become an EU competence under the terms of the constitution.

Whether that will involve the Commission dealing with British footballers and football fans remains to be seen. We suspect President Barroso will balk at that.

In the meantime a conference was hosted by the King Baoudoin Centre and the European Policy Centre in Brussels on sports participation in the EU. Well what else can one do about sport but to hold a conference? We presume there were no compulsory physical jerks at the beginning or running on the spot in the middle. In fact, it is curious that, given the subject, we have heard nothing about the content and amount of food consumed during and between the intensive discussions.

Curiously enough, this week’s Sunday Telegraph ran an article about children playing games in school playgrounds or, rather, not playing them because of the endless health and safety regulations. One might think that this would worry the great sports wallahs that gathered for the conference.

Not so, but far from it. Health and safety regulations, many of them products of the EU regulatory machine, were not discussed. Instead Dr van Bottenburg from the W.J.H. Mulier Institut in the Netherlands (honest!) presented a paper on sports participation in the EU.

Unfortunately, the study seems to have been marred by loose definition of sports participation and insufficient data, particularly from the new member states. But Dr van Bottenburg was less than sanguine.

It seems that the situation has actually been getting worse even in the old member states:
“He observes that there there was a significant rise in the number of people taking part in sport between the 1960s and 1990s but that over the past ten years this development appears to have stagnated in a number of countries (Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Portugal, Spain and Slovenia), or has begun to decline (UK and, possibly, France; among young adults in Sweden and, as regards time devoted to sport, the Netherlands and Denmark; in a competitive and championship context in Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy).”
It is one of the oddest things about the European Union that the more money and effort is put into a project the worse it performs. Until the 1990s before the EU decided to take interest in the sporting activities of its citizens, they seemed to get on quite well, doing all sorts of useful and healthful things.

Since then the numbers have been falling though, unquestionably, most people have enough leisure time to indulge at least in walking.

Clearly, what is needed is a constitutional decision that sport “can and should be dealt with across government ministries and across EU departments”. Whether this is sport as practised by professional competitors or physical activity by ordinary folk is unclear. Knowing the EU and its fanatical desire to control everybody’s life and to centralize all activity, probably both.

At the same time the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) – one wonders how many four course lunches they consume – has issued a statement that they think that obesity in Europe has been underreported. 200 million adults across the EU may be overweight or obese.

One wonders what that means. Obesity is a scientifically defined term based on body mass, height and weight. But overweight? That can be anything from slightly plump to quite fat and happy. After all, do we actually want everyone to be stick insect thin and possibly suffer from eating disorders? (Presumably there is a separate task force that deals with that problem, also peculiar to the developed countries.)

As for obesity, well, most of us know the solution to that: eat less and move more and have nothing to do with international task forces.

Meanwhile, the Commission has announced that the number of obese children is rising by 400,000 per year and something must be done about that.

The Health Commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, has launched the EU’s Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, explaining that
“… he will act together with industry and consumer groups, health experts and political leaders to tackle obesity. The Platform will pool expertise and act as a forum where good practice from one country is disseminated and replicated across Europe.”
Whether there is an obesity problem or not, its notional existence is to be used for two things: an attempt to interfere even more in people’s lives and to integrate health, diet and sport policies across the European Union.

In fact, the Commission is not ruling out the possibility of legislative approach if the present voluntary one does not work. Given that, as we have said above, the situation has been supposedly getting worse in tandem with greater interest both by individual governments and the EU in the subject, it seems we shall not avoid legislative action, for which there is a judicial basis in the constitution.

What, one asks oneself, would that legislation be? Compulsory sports for all? A diet police knocking on people’s doors and counting the number of potatoes they eat with their meals? And, above all, will the Commissioners show us a good example and lose some of their own surplus flesh?

After all, we know from the fragrant Margot that their lives are beset with temptation in the shape of enormous lunches, dinners and many, many drinks parties.

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