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When competition takes the fun out of child's play

There was a certain happy irony in the fact that Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, found himself announcing an Olympic sports initiative for schools in the immediate aftermath of a national sporting fiasco.

"We have to realise that sport is a good thing," he said. "It does not damage your self-esteem." Well, up to a point, minister. I don't think it will have done a lot for Wayne Rooney's self-esteem over the last few weeks - or Fabio Capello's either. Perhaps he was thinking in a more sophisticated fashion.

It's certainly true that we've all been given a magnificent opportunity to indulge in self-deprecation, after all - and since this is a quality we esteem in ourselves you could say that Sunday's defeat had no real downside. But I think Mr Hunt was thinking like a Victorian headmaster as he said this - putting the case for competitive sport as a gymnasium for the soul, a place where you can meet those two impostors, Triumph and Disaster, and treat them just the same.

He was thinking also as a proud Conservative, self-consciously engaged in an act of restoration. It was time, he said, "to get rid of this myth that competitive sport is bad for children".

In saying this he echoed almost identical remarks made by his Labour predecessors in 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2008 - so you might wonder whether the myth is itself a myth, an opinion not actually held in earnest by anyone for at least 20 years but still useful as a cardboard monster. I think even I'd be prepared to admit that competitive sport isn't bad for children, and I speak as one personally scarred by games afternoons; a liberation from the desk for a lot of my contemporaries but a short consignment to purgatory for me and my two-left-footed, grudgingly selected, ball-blind kind.

I do hope, though, that nobody gets too carried away by the idea that competitive sports are necessarily good for children. Sport, maybe. Exercise undoubtedly. Any kind of apprenticeship in the slow acquisition of skill, yes to that as well.

But the idea that there is any simple equation between competitive sport and moral education must surely have been discredited by now.

You only have to look at the ethical wasteland that is a professional football field to see that - an arena in which mendacity, false incrimination and suppression of truth are virtually professional requirements.

And these are not faults that are inherent to the game of football, spontaneously generated by the dynamics of its rules. They are a symptom that the competitive element of the sport has turned tumourous, overwhelming its host.

The bigger the competition and the bigger the glory, the more likely it is that the virtues of sport will be eroded by the vices of competition.

If you wanted, for example, to eat away at the Corinthianism and unpressured joy in sport which I assume still exists in games played at local level, between regional school leagues, you might want to create a national contest instead, ending in a highly publicised final as a curtain raiser to the 2012 Olympics.

Pile on the pressure, turn the spotlights to full, make something other than simple sporting satisfaction ride on the result and the hairline cracks should start to appear.

Jeremy Hunt has started well.