In my youth, I quickly came to understand that it was my fate to hirple like an ailing hephalump. I never managed any pace one could dignify by calling a run, but instead lolloped slowly and inelegantly across the syrupy-seeming earth, a racing sloth. In my primary school in rural Argyll, I habitually came fourth of four in my class races, which were all heels. In secondary school in Glasgow, my body proved just as defective. Although I can swim, and my hand-eye coordination is more-or-less satisfactory, I never managed to master a skipping rope, and at football, was customarily relegated to stand lumpily between the goalposts, glumly, half-heartedly – and usually accidentally – interrupting around one shot in ten. My team-mates, all would-be strikers booting for glory, damned me for a useless so-and-so, and it was difficult to disagree with their assessment.
Latterly, I served as a ridiculously outsize cox on ancient, hideous heavy rowing boats which we ineptly navigated up the Clyde. My talent for rugby proved less than stellar. With weary predictability, I took my allotted place among the school’s bottom stream– supportively characterised as the “all stars” by our fellow students, and officiated over by a world-weary rugby coach who styled himself “Supremo”. He wasn’t exactly kind, but Supremo was generally supportive towards the asthmatics, weeds, chubsters and hephalumps he ordered hither and thon across the muck, fumbling the lozenge-shaped ball and missing tackles. He was certainly an improvement on the vile beldam of a PE teacher who’d harried me through primary school - boot-faced beneath her boy’s bowl-cut, a ginger pudding set atop her snarling phizog – who despised my physical uselessness. There was nothing clandestine about the contempt flecking her flayed pig-skin voice.
Overall, I very much enjoyed school and prospered well inside the classroom, but for me, those early experiences forever associated sport with boredom, heavy with constricting feelings of inadequacy. Of course, there are plenty of doughboys and inadequates who enthusiastically take in the football, or can admire gymnastic feats that their own soft, inflexible bodies could never hope to emulate, but I’m not one of them. I don’t follow football, nor rugby. I can dip into tennis, but it is never anything which sets my heart racing, not something feel I can participate in. Amid all the enthusiasm for the achievements of punishingly fit athletes flown from across the globe, I find myself an Olympics Grinch, unmoved, indifferent, uninterested in even the most astonishingly physical feats – but not without a little regret.
We don’t come howling into the world, our interests and enthusiasms predetermined, but are clearly fashioned by our experiences, our encounters and opportunities. Although there is an obvious temptation to see the Olympics as the apotheosis of individual triumph, of personal victory attributable entirely to idiosyncratic physical virtues, it seems important to resist taking that understanding too far. True, the gold, silver and bronze medals can only loop about a few necks, but delve into the careers of these athletes, and you will find them many-peopled, their individual triumphs the result of much hidden, collective labour, contingent chance, the opportunities some folk are afforded, and others miss. Billy Connolly tells a tale of walking through Glasgow with the late Jimmy Reid:
“He’d point to a tower block and say: “Behind that window is a guy who could win Formula One. And behind that one there’s a winner of the round-the-world yacht race. And behind the next one … and none of them will ever get the chance to sit at the wheel of a racing car or in the cockpit of a yacht.”
I’m under no illusions that I’m a frustrated Olympic sportsman, sealed in this unsatisfactory, flaccid, unathletic body, my potential squandered – but some small corner of this Olympics Grinch wishes that I could enjoy sports in the way I never have. That they didn’t summon up the recollection of a littler me, despairfully trotting out onto the games field, and a torn-faced, judgmental woman, bitter beneath her mushroom cap of carrot hair.