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My Summer Highlight? Speedway.

My Summer Highlight? Speedway.

Right.  Speedway.  What’s that about then?

Four motorbikes race around an oval track? Gotcha. Sounds simple enough, kind of like Days of Thunder on two wheels.

And they hit 70mph on the straights..? Ok, that’s fast. They’ll need to brake pretty hard when they go round the bends, I’m guessing.

What?

None?

Any spurious aspiration I might have had to try the sport is dashed as it turns out Speedway bikes have NO brakes. It’s at this point that I’m starting to think that this hasn’t been thought through very well and/or it’s a sport for the self-destructively inclined. Once you actually watch Speedway though (and you really, really should), you’ll see that somehow it all just works, in a strangely effective combination of awesome acceleration and a whole lot of sliding.

That’s how you solve the ‘no brakes’ conundrum, you see.  Riders appear to be doing a kind of controlled skid around the whole course and races are seemingly won and lost on the back of risk taking, AKA how long a rider waits to take his foot off the pedal at the end of each straight.

There are crashes of course, as you’d expect. Most are due to wheels clipping each other as riders come round each bend. I was lucky enough to have my first taste of Speedway recently and one of the more heart-in-mouth moments came when a bike got clipped and its front wheel wobbled around crazily as the rider fought to regain control, reminiscent of an angler trying to hold on to an electric eel, while at the same time sliding on some loose gravel at high speed. This time the rider brought his steed back in line in time to avoid a fall, but there were a few who weren’t so lucky, spinning out on corners and into the barriers.

I’m no petrolhead.  I don’t watch Formula One a lot, rallying, or many motorsports in fact, but back in July I went to the British Speedway Grand Prix in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, something a bit different and new. I’ve lived in the city for years and seen (from a distance) the noisy, colourful crowds that fill the streets of the city when the Speedway comes to town. Of course, I’ve seen up close the hysteria associated with Wales playing rugby at home in the Six Nations, with its sea of pure red, replete with the rampant roaring of spontaneous singing.

russians

This was in the same vein, but with an international flavour. It’s fair to say that Eastern Europeans, and the Polish particularly, REALLY like their Speedway.  The fervour for it among their fans matched anything I’d seen in rugby crowds.  The numbers were smaller, but those coming from Poland, Russia, Slovenia and across the UK are really dedicated and more than passionate about their sport. I never used to know what the attraction was, but now I do, and am so glad I took the time to immerse myself in this strange new world.

Though the Speedway itself started at 5pm, the vuvuzelas and chanting filled the air for hours before and the streets around the Principality Stadium were full of oversized flags and novelty wigs as far as the eye can see. There is a varied crowd too, with plenty of families and children in the mix, which meant that the atmosphere was boisterous, while feeling friendly and safe. Even as a newcomer, I felt drawn into the occasion before I’d even entered the stadium.

As we went in, I still had my doubts about the sport itself though.  I didn’t know the rules and I didn’t know the riders. I’d been put off some motorsport racing partly by the length of the races, so when I heard there were 20 heats, my heart sank. But this is part of what makes Speedway so watchable. Every race is short and concentrated, and you’re never left waiting long for the next one. And having a lot of races means you start by fairly arbitrarily backing riders based on skill and daring exhibited over the qualifying heats, forming temporary emotional bonds with previously unknown Eastern European sportsmen.

Woff InterviewTwo-time World Champion Tai Woffinden is interviewed before the races start

The rules are simple.  The track is simple. There’s little to learn. You’re left to simply pick your rider and urge them on to victory, to cut their corners as fine as possible, push the limits and just collectively revel in the intensity of it all.

So, you don’t need to be a motorsport fan to enjoy Speedway. You can enjoy the energy, noise and excitement without prior knowledge and age ain’t a barrier either (the family sat in front of me ranged from three to fifty-three).

The Grand Prix will be back in Cardiff next summer and I urge you to give it a go – you might well just fall a little in love with it as I did, and crave another dose.

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Why do cheaters cheat?

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Why do cheaters cheat?

Guzzling a few grapes in the supermarket and not paying for them…

Illegally streaming a TV show…

Taking performance enhancing drugs.

Quite different actions and hard to compare, but all against the rules. And we all know it. The first two might be considered by some to be ‘victimless crimes’, or at least crimes against people who can afford to be stolen from.

You may well have done something similar to the first one yourself. And I’m sure many people you know have done the second one. In fact, a recent survey suggests that a third of football fans in the UK had illegally streamed matches in the past year.

Stealing and cheating are crimes as old as humanity itself. And of course, there is a spectrum of criminality, both legally and morally. To take the illegal streaming example, I’ve heard people justify it by saying that they’re not taking a physical ‘thing’, so the company doesn’t have any less stock to sell.

A weak argument I think, as each person who doesn’t pay is depriving the supplier of income. Some may also complain about high costs, but high costs or a business being wealthy aren’t reasons to take something without paying.

I think that ultimately people believe that they won’t get caught and so there won’t be consequences.

Cheating in sport isn’t quite the same, but what makes people flex their moral fibre is interesting. The grape-pinching and show-stealing are both crimes where the effect of your individual action in isolation is relatively small, and also the company affected doesn’t have a face that you have to, erm, come face to face with.

In sport though, you’ll probably know the person or people that your cheating has affected. You’ve stood opposite them or seen them next to you as your unearned advantage takes you past them in the podium pecking order.

This means that you can’t convince yourself that cheating is victimless because you can literally see the victim. So what makes some sportspeople cheat?

At the elite level, small margins matter. Millimetres and milliseconds can make one player a millionaire, and another an also-ran. Players and coaches are understandably always looking for the small gains, the incremental improvements.

If a supplement is legal, can make a difference and, perhaps crucially, the rest of field is taking it, it makes sense to take it. Otherwise, you might find yourself at a disadvantage. The same applies to the tweaks made to a bike that squeeze the most from a race. I’m sure that some cheating starts off as stretching the limits of what’s allowed. Pushing what’s acceptable and hoping not to go too far (or at least not be found to be doing so).

Winning in sport can bring wealth, fame, adoration and respect, among other accolades. These potential prizes can make it tempting to bend the rules or blatantly flout them, but at what age does that kind of decision come into play?

At school, you hope that that the focus would be on fun and fair play. Young kids playing sport in school aren’t generally cheating in the systematic way that some adult professionals do, but are the building blocks for this temptation put in place early on?

A survey of 1,000 children aged 8-16 found that over half would be prepared to cheat to win. I was shocked by this, but then I’m neither a sportsman nor very competitive.

Is a proclivity for cheating defined by personal values, opportunity or pressure? It’s probably a combination, but it’s important to reinforce the importance of fair play at an early age. My recollections of P.E. at school were of a world where winning was key. In more recent years, wider efforts have been made to promote sport for fun, particularly in a world of widening waistbands that needs everyone to get active.

Whether we participate to compete or just for enjoyment, is there enough emphasis on playing the RIGHT way? I want my sporting idols to play fair because they think it’s right, not simply because they might get caught.

There are ever-increasing numbers of stories about fairness in sport, from drugs to financial impropriety. Efforts are being made by governing bodies to address them and though the task is sizable, it will bring about improvements.

But in Clean Sport Week (11-17 July), it’s important to remember that a desire to play sport in the right spirit is one that can, and should be encouraged and developed from an early age, at the very start of a child’s sporting journey.

Festival of Fitness

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Festival of Fitness

“You got ‘Davina’s Awesome Abs Workout’?”

“WOT?”

“Kerry Katona’s ’30 Minute Gutbuster’ then?”

“WOT?” The DJ repeats, lifting one of his headphones and craning forward to the gurning reveller leaning over the decks. More slowly mouthed requests follow, but to no avail, as the DJ goes back to spinning his wheels of steel.

dj request

Of course, you don’t actually get people asking for workout tracks at clubs. Keeping in shape and losing weight are not the objectives on a night out to the discotheque. Most of the time there’s a line between music for fun and music for fitness. While many millions aerobicise to tunes in gyms and halls across the world, when you go clubbing or to a gig, the focus is on your enjoyment, not the exercise.

I am one of life’s eternal pedestrians. I don’t have a car and since I had my bike purloined by some miscreant some time ago, I don’t cycle anywhere either. Living and working in a small city means that I’m not hugely disadvantaged as a result, however. I’m lucky that I can walk to work each day, and I’m even luckier that the last slice of my daily jaunt takes me through Cardiff’s lovely Bute Park. As a consequence, I get a decent amount of exercise each day.

I still don’t do enough though. And there are many like me. And there are even more still who are fairly physically inactive. The organisation I work for, Sport Wales, has an aim of getting more people moving. In order to do this, they, and other agencies like them, need to find ways to reach the ones that don’t ‘do sport’. If support is in place early in life, given the right motivation, skills and opportunities, children can develop active habits and set themselves up for a healthier life, but for those of us more long in the tooth, it is a bigger challenge to turn our stubborn minds around and onto new things.

I’ve talked before about the one sport I really enjoy playing (football) and also how I fit some fitness into my commute by jogging home some days. But, aside from that, I’m not hugely keen on exercise itself. It certainly isn’t high up on my list of things to do for fun. I don’t enjoy running, cycling or swimming for any respectable period of time, though I have tried to. On hearing about me jogging home, sportier colleagues than me (i.e. all of them) have enthusiastically asked in the past,

“You caught the running bug then?”

“No,” I reply, “I do the minimum that means I can eat pies and not have to buy bigger trousers”.

violet

So, what’s the answer for people like me? (aside from leaving us to swell like Violet Beauregarde) Well, it’s essentially the same solution for anyone who struggles to motivate themselves to exercise, and that’s to find something that’s fun first, calorie-burning second.

Glastonbury has just finished and it reminded me of my own bout of festival fitness a few weeks ago. It was a much smaller affair, with some 4,000 of us somewhere in a field in Somerset. My fellow festivaleer, Lee, had himself a Fitbit or similar on for the duration of the three-day funkathon, (complete with both drum AND bass, house and techno).

He noticed one morning, as he dragged his partied-out husk from his tent, that Lee had done 5,000 steps that day, according to his wrist-based wizardry. We both mused on this for a moment or so and then thought that, of course, the measurement started at midnight. With us putting in a good few hours of shape-throwing between then and collapse, we’d done half of the recommended 10,000 daily steps without even realising. Because, when you’re dancing, be it at a festival, a club or in the kitchen, you don’t feel like you’re doing a workout.

steps

After the weekend’s dust had settled and our hearing had mostly returned, I asked my friend how many steps he’d done. An average of 40,000 each day, it turns out. Comfortably the most I’d done in any one day since I’ve had my phone (which keeps a record of steps as well).

So, although many (or most) will imbibe a fair few jars of cider/Pimms/moonshine at festivals this summer, and diets may well take a nosedive too, attendees can at least feel smug about their aerobic output over the course of each event, as long as sufficient moves get ‘busted’, so to speak. You do have to ‘give it some’ to reap the body benefits.

It’s potentially a seasonal alternative to more well-known forms of exercise, and one I’d advocate as an avid festivalgoer myself. So get your glitter on, I say, and get moving. In fact, I’m tempted to petition to parliament about subsidising festival tickets as a means of reducing obesity levels in the UK…

Volunteering: Return on your Investment

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Volunteering: Return on your Investment

Volunteers are a lovely bunch, aren’t they? Very nice I mean. Like, AA man nice (for those who don’t recall the old ad: https://goo.gl/V2A8c).

 

They are the selfless Samaritans making sacrifices, who give so much in so many areas of modern life, across a range of communities and sectors, from offering practical assistance to charities, to helping educate and care for others. A huge amount of time is given over to volunteering. Evenings are relinquished when full days have already been worked.

And the reasons for doing it are varied. For some, it’s helping out with an activity that their child is undertaking (coaching a sports team for example). For others, the work done for free supports or makes up for a lack of services that might otherwise be provided by a council or health trust.vols

Whatever the reasons, there are millions of awesome folk across the country that lend a hand regularly. And that’s heart-warming to hear in these times when fear, mistrust and negative news is spread in much greater volume than positivity and when nations and ideologies clash, making social cohesion feel reduced or under attack.

That makes it all the more important to remember that there are around 15 million people in the UK regularly (monthly or more) giving up their time for others, and this altruism often spans boundaries of age, race and religion, which in turn breaks down barriers and can bring people closer together.

Back to the niceness though. I’m not about to dispute my opening statement, but we do need to add something to the mix. You see, much of the conversation you’ll hear, particularly in Volunteers Week, centres on thanking volunteers for what they give and how the hours they put in contribute to improving lives for others. And of course they should be appreciated; it goes a little way to repaying them for what they give. It’s important too, as volunteers are so vital to communities that we can’t risk losing them due to them feeling under-appreciated.

mince2

But volunteering is not a one-way street. It’s easy to see it as a simple process where volunteers put time and energy in, and others reap the rewards of their coaching, mentoring, caring or advice. But there’s more to it. Much more. Volunteering brings with it a host of benefits to the volunteers themselves. It is often highlighted that through volunteering you can grow in confidence, learn new skills and make new friends. All of this is true, but there are further well-being boosts, that are less well known.

I was at the recent Sport & Recreation Alliance Sport Summit, where the value of volunteering was one of the topics discussed. A survey by Join In provided some great facts and figures showcasing the benefits to be gained from giving. Sports volunteers reported having 10% higher self-esteem and were 15% less inclined to worry than those not involved. Their scores were FOUR times higher for the level of trust they felt in their community and EIGHT times higher for the influence they felt in their community.

Even if you were to be a bit cynical (which I am, to a fault) about the quantifying of emotional responses, it still paints a clear picture of how volunteering makes you feel better about yourself and more connected to those around you. To paraphrase Join In’s recent Hidden Diamonds report, volunteers don’t so much GIVE their time as INVEST it. Because there is a very real, highly valuable return on that investment to the volunteer, the club and the community. It’s a win-win-win.

Given that volunteering in sport is beneficial to all parties; clubs and groups can maybe think about not just asking people to give up their time, but reframe it as offering people an opportunity to be involved and be part of the team. The players on the pitch are seen as the team itself, but I think it makes sense to broaden the definition of the ‘team’ to include everyone who contributes to the success of the club, and that includes the most important people of all – the volunteers.

The Commonality of Kindness

The Commonality of Kindness

You’ll have heard the story by now.  On Sunday, an Englishman was helped out of a tight spot by a Welshman. I like to think there’s a certain poetic quality to having the ‘dragon’ being the good guy on St George’s Day…

But this is not a tale of nationality, but one of sportsmanship and human kindness.

Matthew Rees, from Swansea Harriers, was 300 metres from the end of his London Marathon effort when he spotted David Wyeth struggling to reach the finishing line.  Actually, struggling doesn’t really do it justice.  David’s body was shot.  He’d given everything and his limbs really could do no more.  Without assistance, he’d have become a human road bump.  Fortunately, help was at hand in the shape of a fellow runner.

Matthew had already completed over 42,000 metres and had been struggling with an injury himself when he spied his fellow athlete in distress with a short distance left to run.  As the TV pictures showed, a number of runners ran past David before Matthew helped out.  Many of these runners may well have been blinkered by the sight of the end approaching and many more may have underestimated David’s plight.

running men

I’m not suggesting that any of the other runners were remiss in not lending a hand and would absolutely echo everything that’s been said about Matthew’s selflessness, as well as about the community spirit that evidently exists within the sport.  David said in interviews afterwards in fact, that he wasn’t surprised to receive help as runners tend to look out for each other, adding that the cameras caught an act of kindness that wasn’t unusual to those in the running fraternity.

There is no doubt that Matthew acted selflessly and deserves the attention and credit given to him. Like many, I found this story more inspiring and of more interest than who won overall.  What I find interesting is that an act of kindness like this is considered exceptional. So, where strangers are concerned, at least, is kindness uncommon?

The commentary could have run something like this, “There’s a runner really struggling here, it’s not looking good for him to finish the race with only metres to go. Oh, but there’s another runner stopping to help him get over the line. Well done.” Aside from being proof that I would make a lousy commentator, my point is that this could have been all that was said, just a simple acknowledgement of everyday altruism.

I can’t pretend to know what I’d have done myself, had I been in Matthew’s shoes.  I would like to say I’d have stepped in and helped out.

But would I have done so?  Would you?

We can all say we’d behave in this way or that, but if tested, it would be fascinating to see how we’d really behave. That’s the thing, you see. We rightly praise Matthew’s sportsmanship, but we notice and highlight it because it’s unusually positive behaviour.  If we were all as helpful as we could be, we wouldn’t notice stories like this (except of course this one happened so publicly)

Are we to think that acts that (I would believe) fall into the common decency category are in fact examples of going ‘above and beyond’? The exception, rather than the rule? And if being kind is exceptional rather than expected, does this elevate selflessness to the point where it’s considered ‘normal’ behaviour for us to be more self-involved and therefore behave less thoughtfully?

Clearly, Matthew and David’s marathon story is not a common occurrence that we call relate to directly, but I would hope that my metaphorical neighbour would lend a hand if it were needed and that I would do the same in return.  And not only should kindness be forthcoming, it really shouldn’t be as surprising when it is.

In short, it’s important that kindness continues to be rewarded and recognised, particularly in an increasing inward-looking, isolationist world, but it would be nice if being kind to one another was normal rather than news.

Mind Your Language

Mind Your Language

She had a difficult birth with her second child.

I wasn’t there myself (being neither parent nor her practitioner), but I almost feel like I was.

Such was the intimate and visceral (not to mention detailed) portrait painted in my mind by way of conversational tidbits flying overhead one day in the office. No-one partaking in the chat appeared to feel awkward about the exchange, and no-one else overtly took issue with it, though the details were enough to make many a prudish Brit blush.

watercooler

Not every office would play host to such chat, but you can be sure that most will hear discourse on health topics regularly.  If a colleague has had a cold, measles or even a bout of Delhi Belhi, you run the risk of hearing more about it than strictly necessary (and probably timed as you take your first bite of lunch). And we’ll all have had workmates talking of their dodgy knee that’ll need surgery or the upcoming root canal surgery they’ve been dreading.

Given this national pastime of oversharing, buoyed further by the unstoppable juggernaut that is our collective social media obsession, why aren’t there more public conversations on anxiety, stress and depression?

The way we as a society discuss mental health (or don’t) is very different to how we talk about physical illness. This is, to a large extent, a result of attitudes towards the two branches of health. They are barely seen as comparable, let alone intrinsically linked, as they actually are. And, where one is all too readily brought up in conversation, the other is still taboo.

Going to see your GP to discuss a bout of the flu or a sore throat is not going to worry the majority of us.  It’s straightforward.  We go in, serve up a soupçon of symptoms, get checked over and are offered a diagnosis with a side salad of suggested treatments.  It’s not always that simple of course, thanks to NHS resource issues and waiting times, but in the main it works well enough.

Moreover, most of us would be happy to discuss a range of bodily ailments with our doctor and seek advice at the early stages of a problem’s onset. Hurt your back and you’ll book an appointment as soon as you can, maybe the same day.

mental

If you’re going to the doctor because you’re feeling anxious or depressed however, my guess is that a) you’ll have been feeling that way for weeks, months or even years and b) you’ve only sought help because you’ve reached breaking point. It could even quite easily be someone other than you that identifies that there’s even an issue to address.

It is also this crisis mentality that I think is partly to blame for mental health not being raised as a topic among friends and colleagues.  And I imagine that even close-knit families and those in relationships are also not always having the conversations that really they should.

It seems that psychological concerns are viewed as either non-existent or catastrophic. When talking about a cold, you have a broad spectrum of suffering that can be expressed.  You can have anything from a bit of a sniffle to full-blown flu and place yourself on a sliding scale, depending on your current state. We are far less inclined to talk about matters of the mind in this way.  When did you last hear someone talk about feeling down or a bit mentally frazzled?

As well as the fear most of us have about admitting to not being ‘okay’, we don’t appear to have words to express the low levels of mental health problems we all experience in life.  Clinically determined conditions are one thing, but there is a multitude of states we can find ourselves in from one day to the next.

It is not a binary issue, but it’s common for us to think of someone as being basically fine (whatever THAT means) or depressed, with nothing in between.  And if there’s no in-between, how can we talk about the journey from feeling good to feeling grim and back again? Or about the low-level bouts of feeling bad that we all go through in life?

snowball

Discussing mental health problems only once they manifest themselves as extreme cases means that we aren’t talking about the smaller things that all add up, the starter snowball before it reaches unmanageable proportions.

It’s possible we’re not quite ready to talk about all our mini-anxieties and smaller stresses by the office watercooler just yet, but if you’re feeling low or strung out, make sure you share with friends and family if you can. We may not have the language to express it as well we do our physical issues, but that’s no excuse not to talk about our mental health.

Start the conversation.

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Giving Exercise an eSporting Chance

Giving Exercise an eSporting Chance

Jet Set WillyNew Zealand StoryChuckie Egg. All sources of great pleasure for me.  For many, these words are nonsense, but for some, they bring back great memories. They are, of course, classic computer games.

Correction: WERE computer games.  And, more specifically, impossibly difficult computer games from the ’80s.  I have been a gamer myself ever since my dad brought home an Amiga 500 computer in the late ’80s and I am still one today, even as I slip inexorably towards my elderly 40s.

old games.jpgEvidently I am not one of those who believes that gaming is just for kids and, although there is criticism leveled at the hobby (from normalising violence to simply being a waste of time), it is an activity that brings pleasure to millions every day.  That said – like much that is fun in this world – it is important to enjoy it in moderation.

Despite the gamer stereotype of being someone hermit-like, shunning both companionship and natural light, gaming can be a very social activity.  Groups of friends can get in a room and band together to take down virtual armies or compete in football tournaments (once they’ve argued endlessly over who gets to be Barcelona).

Whether you do it solo, against online competitors or in a group of mates, there is a lot of appeal to the gaming life.  And that appeal is broadening too.  Gone are the days of it being predominantly a male pursuit. Many more women and girls are playing (some stats suggest they outnumber men now) and the advent of mobile gaming has extended that reach further, with a game to suit almost any taste or time frame.

So, good news then? Well, yes, for the gaming industry certainly and for gamers themselves, who can enjoy a vast array of console or phone-based fun. Got a few hours at home to spare?  Or five minutes on a bus?  There’s a game at your fingertips if you want one.  But I must steer this rambling towards a semblance of a point.  And that is about the potential muddying of the waters between gaming and sport.

esports

E-sports is becoming really big business. The top players and teams compete in competitions around the world and are well rewarded for their efforts.  Not only that, but millions more watch their travails online, following their wins and losses on a global stage. What we have is millions of fans watching teams, who are sponsored by international brands, playing games.  Sounds in many ways very much like football or other traditional sports.

But, for all the fun to be had gaming (or watching others gaming), it is still a sedentary activity.  That’s why moderation is important.  A balance needs to be struck between engaging in gaming and sports/physical activity, to keep those ever-widening waistbands in check. But is a grey area is developing?

BT Sport recently announced it will be broadcasting a hugely popular FIFA gaming/eSports competition. There’s nothing new about broadcasting gaming competitions, but it’s normally online and this is not only on a mainstream broadcast channel, but one that is dedicated solely to sport.  If this was to prove popular then e-sports could get further coverage, and it would certainly be cheaper to show than many existing sports.

My concern is that if gaming is seen as a sport in a traditional sense, then there is a danger of diluting and damaging the physical activity message. In the US, eSports are already overtaking traditional sport in terms of viewing figures (one eSports final outranked both the NBA Finals and the World Series in 2014). And this is backed up by player numbers too. That same year, in the US, there were 67m monthly players of popular game ‘League of Legends’, compared to 24m playing basketball regularly.

If we as a society want children to engage in more sport to live healthier lives, then it doesn’t help to have any confusion over definitions. I realise that not all sports are very physical, but gaming is already extremely popular and the issue of children being stuck to screens needs to be mitigated, not made worse.

cscreen glue

Unfortunately this move to bring gaming onto a sport channel strikes me as the thin end of the wedge.  I can see it happening more and gaming becoming seen in the same ‘sport’ category as the physical activity we seek to advocate so strongly. Would you have a section on full fat cream cakes on a TV show about slimming?

As I said, I am an avid gamer, but I do some exercise as well.  But then, I grew up in a world where video games weren’t omnipresent and there was a greater emphasis on active play. It is the popularity of gaming that has propelled it into the same league as sport and led to it being on the same bill, but it is very different beast.  Watching football on TV won’t necessarily inspire a child to play the game for real, but it might.  Watching someone playing a football video game however, will, I fear, only ever serve to inspire a child to sit on their sofa for hours and hours on end.

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