It’s hardly the most novel observation, but I can’t help but notice we live in a rather sports-obsessed country. Bring it on, I can handle it. Or at least I thought I could. I always believed I would be somehow immune to the aging process. But if you ever had any doubt that the mind and the body were two completely different things, the aging body conking out on you is the final answer on the subject.

Growing up I was always good at sports. I was never great, perhaps not even very good. But on my day I could sidestep a flat-footed winger in rugby, turn a defender and place a curling shot in the top corner of the net in soccer, leg glance myself to glory in cricket, wipe the floor with all non-Asian opponents in school badminton. I still fancy I can hold the table at table tennis, the only sport other than pool where it’s scientifically proven your skills improve the more you drink.
Being competitive and having a certain natural ability meant I loved sport and had the opportunity to progress through the ranks and the age groups and advance my (albeit modest) skills. Never the best, but certainly never the worst, sport was brilliant. More, please.

But the inevitable tendency towards weeding out the worst performers reveals sports starkest shortcoming. Last weekend I attended nippers – the weekly junior surf programme run for children between 5 and 13 – at my old hometown beach in Kiama, NSW. I watched my brother lead the kids in romps through the waves, relay races on the sand and the traditional beach flags race. Beach flags is where competitors lie on the sand, then on the gun jump up, sprint and dive on little batons on the sand called flags. In adult competition it’s a sort of sandy musical chairs, with one flag too few for the number of competitors, meaning one person is eliminated each time. But my brother makes sure there is a flag for all the kids, so no one looses out.

Lately he’s been copping some flack from other parents. Why doesn’t he remove one flag? A bit of competition wouldn’t hurt, would it? His argument is he doesn’t want to see a seven year-old lose and have to sit dejected on the sand while the other kids keep playing. How demoralising for the child. But he has bigger nippers issues nipping at his heels. Next year he will have to start picking the strong kids to continue in the group, while the weaker kids drop out. Nippers becomes a competition with other surf clubs, and only the best can represent their club. Talk about sink or swim.

Back on dry land my own son has done a season each of soccer and Auskick (junior Australian Rules Football). He loves being part of a team and taking instruction and playing sport. But on both occasions one season was enough. Lacking the co-ordination and confidence of the other kids there wasn’t a whole lot he was getting out of it. To his credit he never got upset, but from the sidelines I grimaced as the reality crystallised week after painful week: the point of sport is to win.

Thus brought the revelation that is scouts. I had always scoffed at the hokiness of scouts: the corny ceremonies, the jungle animal names, the simmering Christianity, the fidgeting kids dressed like stamp books. But for my son it was perfect. He gets his team participation, his non-competitive achievement badges, his weekly dose of community service. Plus, he goes camping. Soccer teams don’t go camping. And you don’t learn to tie a wicked bowline at Auskick. We ride our bikes to scouts every Wednesday night. Every other kid is dropped off in a four-wheel drive. We should get a badge for that.

It makes me wonder if sport can learn anything from Scouts. What can it do to offer less gifted kids a chance to participate without making them feel useless? So long as scores are kept, and flags are removed, the answer, sadly, may be nothing.