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