Sarah Todd: The back yard Olympics worth their weight in gold

DOPING, ticket touting and even a sex scandal involving a flag-bearer'¦ the Rio 2016 Olympic Games continue to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

British table tennis player Liam Pitchford is among those competitors inspiring Sarah Todd's children.
British table tennis player Liam Pitchford is among those competitors inspiring Sarah Todd's children.

Rewind to an untidy house in North Yorkshire and two children, aged 12 and 15, are scratching the paintwork and scraping the floor trying to put up an old table tennis table.

They have just watched what their mother (yours truly) embarrassingly calls “ping pong” on the BBC’s Olympic coverage.

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The table – a hand-me-down – hasn’t been played with for well over a year.

Within minutes they are impersonating the speedy, spinning serves of the top Chinese players. The sofa is shifted to make more space. Balls are flying around the room like bullets and the dog has headed for the garden.

Our canine friend doesn’t get much peace and quiet.

The young athletes have a drink and watch some beach volleyball and, within moments, exit the back door.

“What do you think of this?” one of them shouts across from the direction of the washing line as the dog quickly retraces his steps back into the house. “It’s a new game called garden volley ball”.

They are punching a ball backwards and forwards over the green plastic line (complete with several pairs of socks, their father’s shirts and a rather large pair of pants).

Absolutely fabulous; that’s what it was.

Our children get on well enough but three years is a big enough gap and it’s not often, just recently, that the older one ever really plays with the younger one. That alone, that they were doing something together, was wonderful to see.

But the icing on the cake was that they had been inspired by the Olympics.

They had watched two sports being played on the television and immediately had a go themselves.

This should be the very essence of the Olympic movement. Leaving a legacy and inspiring the next generation to get involved with sport. Put simply, to get off their backsides.

It might be rose-tinted rubbish, but something makes me think that my generation was more engaged with the Olympics. I can remember my brother getting his photograph taken with javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson at a school event.

We had the Steves – Cram and Ovett, Sebastian Coe (gone off him recently with his lily-livered handling of the doping allegations) and Daley Thompson.

They were celebrities on a different stratosphere to the Z-list reality television stars or YouTubers that our children are supposed to be impressed with. They actually did something.

It would be interesting to do a survey and find out how many Olympic athletes today’s youngsters can name. Back in the day, we knew them all. We knew what records they held and were aware of any injuries they were nursing.

This correspondent’s favourite film of all time? You’ve guessed it, Chariots of Fire.

In fact, thinking aloud, the video player must be dragged out – like that table tennis table – so we can have a family screening of the tape that’s gathering dust somewhere.

Of course, it’s a different world. There are so many other ways for children to spend their time these days.

My gut feeling though is that if they were actually left to get bored, with no mobile phones or computer games and just the Olympics on the television, they would come up with things to do like “garden volley ball”.

We know so many families who will barely spend a single day doing nothing at home during these long summer holidays. Barely 24 hours goes by without an organised activity or day trip to some (outrageously expensive) attraction or other.

A recent survey of 2,000 parents of five to 12 year-olds found 74 per cent of children spent less than 60 minutes playing outside each day.

Interestingly, the United Nations guidelines for prisoners requires “at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily”.

So children are, on the whole, getting less outside exercise than prisoners.

Interestingly, there is now quite a strong movement in the United States raising awareness about over-competitive parenting.

There has been research done that shows when parents become too interested in their offspring’s sport the child can easily go off the boil.

Rather than fun, it can feel like a sport is all about winning and keeping the parent happy. Providing a return on money invested in kit and training sessions. It’s hard to take a back seat – just think of those awful touchline parents swearing and thumping referees – but keeping a low profile does seem to be the winning way.

To finish where we started, what sport is next for the homespun treatment?

Well, there’s a 21 year-old pony in the front paddock with a rather worried-looking expression.

Some Scarborough seafront fishing nets (from the shop where everything is a pound) have been customised with that agricultural-favourite, baler band, and there is talk of a polocrosse tournament.

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.