5 August 2012

An anatomy of an Olympics Grinch...

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. 


  1. but you were more placed than other to have the chance.

  2. My dalliances with sport at school were similar to yours, LPW. Being the person who was always picked second-last for anything (there was always SOMEONE worse, as I could at lest strike a football without scuffing it, and was prone to once-in-a-blue-moon outstanding performances where everything just seemed to work), P.E. was the one class that I found to be a chore, as the gym hall and playing fields were the only places I couldn't exercise my intellectual superiority over the other pupils in my class. I still enjoyed it when we played things like football and basketball (or any sport where my "hit the ball as hard as possible" approach could be utilised to a degree of effect), but when it came to running, jumping and any other feats that exist only to put brain boxes such as myself back in our place, it was the closest I got to corporal punishment at school. Indeed, being made to run 800m repeatedly until I finished it under a certain time felt tantamount to bullying, and if I could go back in time to change things, the first thing I would do is tell that teacher that I had more important things to do with my life than run 800m in some arbitrary timescale, so she should go fuck herself.

    To me, this represents a failure in how P.E. is taught in schools. I don't believe anyone is completely incapable of enjoying some sort of sport. In my situation, I feel P.E. teachers should have recognised that my small height, wide shoulders and low centre of gravity made me a perfect candidate for something like weightlifting. (If you told me 20 years ago that I would one day actually choose to go to the gym, I wouldn't have believed you, but there we are.) Doing so would have prevented me ending up becoming a bit of a chubster, and while it's hardly the school's fault that my mum is such an outstanding cook who gets an almost worrying amount of satisfaction from seeing people enjoying her food, I feel P.E. was the one subject where the teachers only gave a shit about the students who already excelled, and just left the rest of us behind. In maths, English and whatever, you were placed in different groups according to ability so that the slowest-witted pupils didn't get made to feel stupid because they couldn't do what the clever kids did; but no such attempts were made to help those of us who were physically less capable.

    I look at Olympic sports like weightlifting, judo and wrestling, and wonder how things could have turned out differently if schools made any sort of attempt to get pupils interested in such activities, rather than convincing you that being unable to run fast made you physically unsuitable for any sport.

  3. There is a serious point here which is not necessarily related to Olympic sports but is about the emphasis on competitive sport in schools. We are often told that there isn't enough competition in school sports but in my opinion there is far too much emphasis placed on the competitive element. In real life research shows that most people who exercise do so to feel good and to stay fit. It's really not about beating someone else or coming first for most people.

    So, along with competitive sports for those who are into that, schools should also offer other exercise programmes and workouts, maybe a bit of yoga, the kind of stuff people who aren't motivated by competition can enjoy doing because you can do it at your own pace. And listen to music at the same time - always an advantage. That would actually help to increase fitness levels far more than trying to force everyone to play competitive sport which is the equivalent of trying to bang a lot of square pegs into round holes.

  4. http://www.muirmatters.co.uk/

    Heelan Cooncil Watch

  5. Anonymous,

    In secondary school, certainly, I'd guess we had access to better facilities than many other folk. Not that it availed me much.

  6. Doug, Indy,

    Interesting perspectives. I've no young relatives, so I don't know what folk are doing in schools these days, but a bit of rethinking might not go amiss. As a teenager, I was quite relieved to be neglected/treated with benevolent pity by the PE staff at school, but as you say Doug, these are missed opportunities. Not that it's a bad thing as an adult to revisit these ideas, try out new things, learn to enjoy exercise - but as with many other things in life, it seems a pity to oblige folk to take the roundabout, self-determined way to get there. Many folk might not bother treading.

    Although I've not done it for a while (note to self, pick up my mat), I took up ashtanga yoga a few years back myself. If I'd been able to do it in school? Brilliant.