[Guest post] A physical education for Liz Jones

Joel Snape is features editor of Men’s Fitness, and he think Liz Jones is wrong about sport

Firstly, let me say that I think Fatima Whitbread is awesome. Secondly: Liz Jones has written one of those Mail columns where she vacillates between self-pity, uninformed opinions, countrywide psychoanalysis and contradictory statements so fast that you finish reading it confused and vaguely angry. Normally the best thing to do in response to this sort of thing is snort and post something cynical on Twitter, but there were enough echoes of things that I’ve heard normal people say about exercise in it that I thought it was worth responding to properly.

I hated sport at school, and now I can run a 22-minute 5k and deadlift double my bodyweight, and I’ve never been happier. I feel bad for people who went straight from hating sport as a child to hating physical movement as a grownup, and I’d like to reassure them that there are still ways not to waste away in your later years without joining a five-a-side team.

So. Liz kicks off by talking in generalities about Fatima Whitbread looking a bit too muscular, and how Kelly Rowland is maybe too muscular, and how girls aren’t interested in athletics but in looking sinewy. Then she wrenches the literary wheel into a U-turn and gets the article proper going with a massive go at athletes in general:

“Athletes are always being commended for the hours they spend at their discipline. But you really wonder whether they could have spent their time more productively: reading perhaps, or studying maths. Or helping people.”

Obviously I haven’t got room to list Liz Jones’ contributions to quantum string theory here, and we all know that every waking hour that she isn’t fretting about her cats, coercing money out of old people, stealing sperm from unwilling suitors or writing ill-informed think-pieces for the Daily Mail, she’s scouring the British library in the pursuit of knowledge.

But when you start to throw around the wouldn’t-your-time-be-better-spent-helping-people argument, then every job, calling, pursuit or hobby that isn’t about helping people starts to look faintly ridiculous. Why have you got a job in a mobile phone shop, when there are starving children in Africa? Why are you playing chess when you could be working in a soup kitchen? Why aren’t you trying to make people’s lives better, instead of actively making them worse? Actually, that last one’s mainly directed at Liz Jones.

But the fact is, everybody tries to live a life that they enjoy, and for some people that means working in a phone shop or writing deliberately provocative columns for a tabloid, but for others it means striving to be the best they can possibly be. Is training for six hours a day, doing press appearances, fighting for sponsorship, and having the chance to be the greatest in the world at something the absolute best way to spend your limited time on the planet? Maybe not, but I can think of loads worse. Should you compare the detrimental aspects of living your entire life in pursuit of once-every-four-years sporting glory to the things a normal person who gets into sport might encounter? I’m going to say definitely not.

I’m also puzzled by this line:

“You can’t tell me top athletes eat healthily or even look that attractive.”

Maybe Liz has been misled by reports about Michael Phelps’ 10,000 calorie breakfast or somehow doesn’t think that Brad Wiggins is a damned handsome man (although later on she does rhapsodise about Mark Spitz’ moustache), or maybe she simply gets her benchmarks for beauty and sensible nutrition from the fashion industry, but I’ve met a lot of top athletes and eating healthily is pretty important to most of them. Yes, some of them eat a lot (like Phelps) and some of them eat badly (like Bolt, if you believe him about the chicken nuggets), but generally they eat better than the majority of the population.

They’re also hotter, because they’re more in the sort of condition that would you let you run away from a sabretooth tiger or defend their young than the average person, and my caveman genes go crazy for that shit. But enough of that, because it’s at this moment that Liz chooses to peel the lid off her own brain and reveals that, actually, the reason she doesn’t like sports is because she went to the worst school in the history of the world:

“Rather than being promoted as life-enhancing, health-giving and a fun way of giving you a fantastic body, sport is turned by school, and the frankly pervy gym mistresses who police it with really loud whistles, into an assault course to be avoided at all costs. Hockey at my high school in Essex was always performed in winter, in a sea of mud, with us wearing flimsy navy culottes, with bare legs and no gloves. Cross-country running was cold, vomit-inducing and involved being humiliated in public.”

OK Liz, I’m sorry that you went to school at the same place as the kid from Kes. And honestly, I’m starting to realise that pointing out logical fallacies in a Daily Mail piece is like dynamiting koi carp in a koi carp pond, but: 1. One person’s experience of a subject at school is unlikely to be the same as everybody else’s, 2. If sport is really like that everywhere then all you’ve done is made a case for changing how it’s taught, and 3. Just because you’re taught a subject badly or aren’t good at it doesn’t mean you and everybody else should neglect it for the rest of your life. I hated French at school, but does that mean I should shun the French language, France and all of its people forever? Well, possibly, but speaking French isn’t going to help if I fall off a sailboat or stop me getting osteoporosis.

Finally, Liz simply ricochets around between points in her wrap-up sentences, almost like she’s got a wordcount to fill and can’t quite come up with anything coherent. First she talks about how worthless sport is, then about how much she liked it in the old days when it was somehow undefinably better. She talks about how it’s “not normal to make the human body perform gymnastic feats”, then she professes her love for child gymnast Olga Korbut. She crescendoes by using her pathetic, untrained arms to wail on a classic strawman, claiming that “The Government and Seb Coe might want us all to run around of a Sunday morning, freezing,” as if that’s the only sort of exercise that’s available to anyone, ever.

Look, Liz. I know your job description is ‘ubertroll’ and you haven’t always got time to think things through properly, but if your article reassures one person that their hatred of physical exercise is justified, it has negatively affected the quality of that person’s life. Physical exercise can let us discover things about ourselves that we didn’t know, or push us to limits that we didn’t know we had. It lets us live better from day to day, and it’s one of the best things we can do to maximise our chances of an enjoyable old age. Like maths and reading, having a minimum of physical capability is fundamental to living a decent life.

If you weren’t good at it at school, or don’t enjoy it now, there are different sports you could try, things that you might enjoy, ways to make it easier. If you want to make it more inclusive in school, there are ways to do that. Liz, if you need suggestions on where to find a personal trainer who won’t make you sad, I’ve got some ideas. But for fuck’s sake, do some press-ups.

Text © Joel Snape, 2011; photo by The University of Iowa Libraries, used under Creative Commons

15 thoughts on “[Guest post] A physical education for Liz Jones

  1. Wonderful response (and very funny!)

    “Obviously I haven’t got room to list Liz Jones’ contributions to quantum string theory here, and we all know that every waking hour that she isn’t fretting about her cats, coercing money out of old people, stealing sperm from unwilling suitors or writing ill-informed think-pieces for the Daily Mail, she’s scouring the British library in the pursuit of knowledge.”

    Made me chuckle! It’s sad that she is so, well…. “Daily Mail-y” about the issue (though I’d expect no more from her). A few years ago another British tabloid ran a double page spread on how exercise actually makes you fat, based on a gross misunderstanding of a scientific paper which found the opposite. The fact that these papers reach a widespread audience with rubbish like this makes me sad.

    Whether exercise programs in schools need reform is an interesting issue, it is a shame she had to bury it in ranting about how useless athletes are, with complete disregard of the wonderful social, psychological and physical benefits of exercise.

  2. Thanks Reds!

    I think that ‘exercise makes you fat’ stuff actually got as far as the broadsheets, and although there’s a sliver of truth to it – Gary Taubes, for instance, claims that getting fat is largely due to which way your body shuttles calories – it’s a massive oversimplification. And anyway, there are so many positive benefits to exercise that don’t involve weight that the press would be better off emphasising them, which they NEVER DO.

    From what I know (not much) about sport in schools, there are already efforts afoot to improve how it’s taught and how it prepares kids for an active lifestyle. Obviously you can’t expect the Mail to go into these sorts of subtleties, but Jones really overstepped the mark that time.

  3. Very well observed Sarah, and witty too you clever old clog! My only point – being close-ish in age to Liz-I-hate-myself-so-I-will-make-you-hate-me-too-in-the-manner-of-a-five-year-old Jones – is that those culottes were far from ‘flimsy’. Only a Daily Mail writer could remove the obvious word ‘sturdy’ and sex-up a hockey uniform in an article prologued by an attack on sexism!

  4. FANTASTIC piece, Proper belly laughs in there! In fact it made me laugh as much as the original piece made me fume so consider my equilibrium restored.

    However it does reinforce the fact that everything women do relates back to our appearance, whether it is sport, having children or heading the IMF. It’s a constant source of annoyance to me that an enormous percentage of media coverage given to sportswomen is to either leer or laugh at them – witness the coverage of Wimbledon for example. A couple of the sportswomen I follow on twitter felt that the Liz Jones piece meant they had to talk about how great their boobs are, which I’m not sure helps the cause.

    We need greater coverage of female sport in the mainstream media, and we need tone vigilant that this carries on after the Olympics.

    Again, great piece.

  5. I posted Liz’s article on my facebook page as i was so angry about it and received a barrage of reposnses from my sporting (and not so sporting) friends. Everyone agreed she was talking complete tripe. In particular my female firefighting friend commented that if she didn’t have her magnificnet muscular arms, she wouldn’t be able to save lives.
    As for atheltes not being well educated? Our British Rowing Team are the most successful in the world. If Liz would care to list all of their academic qualifications she would find they are far from stupid. The majority are graduates and some continue to study whilst being World and Olympic Champions.
    If Liz cared to do any journalistic research rather than basing her article on nothing but her own opinions, she would find that a lot of athletes go into communities and introduce children to sports they too can aspire to be good at. In a era where the youth of today have apparently nothing to aspire to due to lack of jobs, is there no good in at least offering them some hope that they are allowed to have some ambition?
    I hated PE at school. There is still a lot of work to be done to make it a better. I like your argument about French lessons. It makes a lot of sense. Thankfully I found a (non-traditional) sport I was good at and went on to achieve great things as part of our national squad (whist doing my A’levels (for which I gained 4 As). Now in my late 30s I have taken up running and completed the London Marathon this year and raised £15k for charity too. But according to Liz, my love of physical activity doesn’t help anyone?

  6. Brilliant response, using humour but not missing the underlying point, which Liz Jones clearly did. Shame on her for the piece in the first place and how depressing that the Sub Editors and Editor actually let them print the drivel.

  7. It angered me that in the article the stupid Mrs Jones says that Fatima is not attractive. Or that all women who do sports end up looking like her. Rubbish.
    Women come in all shapes and sizes. It is only the Daily Mail who think there is one size and shape suitable for all. Some are more muscular than others, and just as beautiful. In my rowing crew (not a most “feminine” sport) some looked like models (tall and thin) and some were more stocky and muscular. We were all gorgeous. In fact those less naturally thin found great source of self fulfilment in displaying an athletic and powerful physique. Young girls these days are under such huge pressure to conform to the only look acceptable by the media and fashion industry. As I was reading the article I was thinking “perhaps she thinks that all girls should aspire to look like Cheryl Cole” and how healthy is that? Anything that challenges the anorexic-stereotype is good by me.
    We need more girls who do sports and fewer girls who want to be Kim Kardashian.

  8. Good stuff. I’d also like to point out that “being active” can be achieved without partaking in actual sport. I cycle to work – it’s transport – but do very little sport these days (three kids, not much time).

    Yes, kids need to be encouraged to be active, but if their transport experience is being shuttled around in Mum/Dad’s Taxi, then it’s all for, if not “nought”, then a lot less than it could be.

  9. I totally agree with previous comments and would like to add that joining a rowing club and getting into excellent physical shape helped repair my body after previous abuses and allowed me to have my 2 beautiful children. My husband is a rower with a masters in physics and I would quite like him to stay the way he is. Too many children are encouraged to starve themselves stupid to look like Cheryl Cole or do nothing and are seriously over weight. I don’t think children should be pushed into major physical exercise at an early age, but they should all be encouraged to see sport as an enjoyable experience. Athletes do contribute positively to the world they are role models that if you apply yourself and work hard you can achieve and that you should not be ashamed of winning, just be gracious about it. Liz your an idiot!

  10. I have a kid Liz, and I care. This is why I am writing this. When I leave him at the school door every morning, I hope his teachers will ignite his passion for many things. I hope he enjoys every minute he is using his brain and his body and I hope he develops as a confident, competent and most of all healthy individual. I hope he competes in sport to learn about winning and losing, to learn about respect and hard work, to admire other people’s abilities and develop his own to his maximum, to make friends, to travel and see the world and to meet other people which share his passions. This is what sport gave me and I never got anywhere near winning an Olympic medal as an athlete.

  11. Didn’t even touch on this in the post (I thought it was getting too long already) but I completely agree. Win or lose in sport, you benefit from the lessons it teaches you.

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