Sunday, August 12, 2012

Good Sports

The last few days I’ve been trying to think back to the point where it became apparent that sports and myself simply weren’t compatible. I used to think it went back to my time at the prep school, starting aged nine years old, where the games master was – not to put too fine a point on it – a fucking sadist. And Welsh. And the twice–weekly games classes were held at the end of the school day, after lessons had finished.

While that might have been fine for the boarders who would otherwise have been sitting in the hall doing their homework, the day boys just wanted to go home. Living on the edge of Dartmoor at the time, once out of my sports kit and changed back into the school uniform it was then a race to get the five o’clock bus. To miss that – which I did on numerous occasions when the Welsh martinent wasn’t keeping an eye on his watch – meant waiting around at the bus station for over an hour before I could finally start the journey home.

Before then it would be predominantly cricket during the summer term months, rugby during the winter and spring terms, with the odd sprinkling of swimming throughout – which was my favourite because the municipal pool was only a couple minutes walk to the bus station. Having been enrolled at the school after the beginning of the school year, I’d missed being shown how to play the games, if any explanation had been given. Maybe even at that young age we were expected to know how to play the games. As it was I hadn’t a clue. Cricket was easy to work out – you either tried to hit the ball or catch it depending on which side you were on, although I still don’t understand that whole thing of positioning the bat when you stand in front of the wickets.

Rugby, however, was a complete mystery, although I picked up a few quick tips the hard way. The first time I handled the ball I was suddenly mashed into the frozen ground of the sports field as the opposing players piled on top of me. After that, if the ball came my way I simply threw it to someone else, spending the rest of the lesson trying to look like I was involved while keeping as far away from the action as possible. Having as little to do with the annual sports day as I could, the nadir of my sporting participation at the school was when some little fucker in my class put my name down for the cross–country run as a joke.

When it came to my attention, rather than simply cross my name out, I pointed out to the games master that I hadn’t signed myself up and, if he looked carefully, he would see it wasn’t even my handwriting. The miserable Welsh bastard decreed that because my name was on the list I had to run. At the time I had quite severe asthma and struggled around the course that weaved through the city parks, wheezing and spluttering on that particular bone-chilling cold day to eventually finish 49th out of 50. The kid who came in last had worse asthma than I did, and what he was doing in the race remained a mystery to me, and probably him.

Before that, at a little village primary school, my introduction to football came about when I absently walked across the playground into the path of a kicked ball that I expertly deflected off my face and into the goalmouth painted on the brick wall. Then there was the piggyback race where the kid carrying me stumbled and I went down, sliding across the hot tarmac on my nose, so it was pretty evident why I’d prefer to be left alone to sit and read a book. Even during school holidays I wasn’t that safe. My aunt and uncle and cousins lived in Scotland, across the road from the Royal Troon Golf Club, so when they came down to visit the adults and elder children would play golf at a nearby course while us youngsters had to carry the clubs and keep quiet.

So long before I was sitting my O–levels at the grammar school I was pretty done with sport. During the games lessons I’d go swimming every chance I could, whether I was supposed to or not, and my attitude in the PE lessons was reflected in the repeated comment in my school report’s that read, “Must take this seriously!” Just over thirty years later, I’m still not that bothered. I’ve skied, taken a golf swing and given up looking for the ball after fifteen minutes, and worryingly found myself winning a game of pool in a hall on Sunset Boulevard against a one–armed, wild–eyed, near transient betting a can of tuna on the outcome. A few days later I’d be invited to take part in an upcoming croquet match in the grounds of Frank Lloyd Wright’s exquisitely beautiful Hollyhock House in The Barnsdall Art Park on Hollywood Blvd but would have to decline because I’d be in Seattle at the time.

In the end the only sports/pastimes I can safely say I enjoy are croquet and waterskiing, neither of which appear prominently in the television schedules. Watching sport on television, I don’t mind catching brief highlights that condense games or days of an ongoing event down to the important action, although I still don’t give a fig about football because it seems to be a game populated by predominantly sub–literate thugs and followed by fans even lower down the food chain. So when it came to the Olympics I figured I had a couple of weeks to get a lot of work done and maybe watch a DVD when it reached the point in the evening when I wanted to put my feet up.

For the first week I did just that: rarely turning on the television and, come the end of the days, watching the likes of Defence of the Realm, Iron Man, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and X-Men 2. Come Saturday morning I turned on the television to BBC One while eating breakfast and didn’t turn it off, or switch channels, until gone midnight after the end of the day wrap–up. The same thing happened on the Sunday, and from then on every day since I was hooked long before I found myself watching the late–night boxing – a sport I’ve never seen any merit in – and shouting, “Fucking hit him!” to the young British lad in the ring. I turned by nose up at the beginning because I couldn’t see anything of personal interest but it didn’t take long to be a convert. The staging of the games has been phenomenal. The achievements of the athletes have been phenomenal. And just as importantly, the BBC coverage has been phenomenal – even though I had to mute the volume during the daytime when I was transcribing hours of audio from recent interviews.

Living in the northern fringe of London, there had been so many Transport for London emails and other announcements ‘suggesting’ that I kept the hell away from the city because it was going to be rammed, which led to the city turning into something of a ghost town at the beginning when people heeded the warnings. Last Tuesday I had to cut through the city on my way down to Sussex for the day, getting the train down to St Pancras International and then transferring to the underground at King’s Cross. Though crowded there weren’t any delays or disruptions and everything ran smoothly, and it was just great to see all the passengers looking so happy and excited. At Victoria Station there were Games volunteers in their purple tracksuits giving people directions and there was just such a great vibe. Maybe during rush hour it’s a different matter but it was a surprising experience to use the city’s public transport and see everyone smiling.

Arriving back in London later in the day, rather than race back home on trains I took buses so I could see what was going on in the city, travelling up Park Lane to see all the activity in Hyde Park. On Friday I had to be back in town late in the afternoon for a brief get–together and the energy levels still hadn’t died down. Two days on the games are winding down, with the last remaining athletes aiming to snatch victory in the dying seconds, there’s just the Closing Ceremony. It looks like it’s going to be predominantly about pop music again above every other form of British culture. Having been astounded by the events of the past week, to be a good sport I suspect I’ll just have to grit my teeth and grin and bear it.