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A Sporting Lioness

I do not bow down to the Great God Sport. I never have. Oh, you can run very fast? Well done you, lovely, great, hurrah, I have a book to read.

I am not impressed by gold medals for swimming or rowing. I don’t care about trophies for chasing around a ball, of whichever shape. Lovely, you crack on and enjoy yourself and don’t mind me. I like to walk everywhere and I love to cycle around the canalpaths of Britain but these are things I do for pleasure as much as exercise. I don’t like the competitive and combative spirit that Sport seems to engender, the tribal warring aspect of physical achievement. I don’t care for the fact that people who come second in such efforts are always made to look like a failure. ‘Tut. You only got a silver medal, how will you ever make this up to your disappointed nation?’ No. Thank you.

This rather bad case of Sportitis probably stems from my experiences of Sport in my early youth.

I grew up in the 70s in Lancashire. Yes. Yes. Stop going on, this is just scene-setting not a sociopolitical history essay. So, imagine the times; Ford Cortinas, garish jumpers and box pleated skirts. At that time we did not have avocados, neither did we have Zumba. Aerobics was something scientists attempted in petri dishes in windtunnels. Sport, or more properly, Physical Education, consisted of only the most basic and prosaic of exertions. It also required a leotard and navy blue knickers.

In the winter, for instance, despite the Northern snow, we did not indulge in downhill slalom or the Luge, we did ‘Gym’. Admittedly sometimes it was warmer outside than it was in our school gym. This was a room modelled on the one used at the Vatican by the Spanish Inquisition. Ropes dangled from the ceiling, leotard clad girls variously knotted and entangled in their hairy coarseness and friction burns battled with chilblains to defeat us. Around the walls were wooden bars where limbs were trapped and dislocated and many were the times I was flung skyward into the rafters on an overly tense springboard or stampeded by a pommel horse. The mats, there to catch us should we fall, were always inches short of our disasters. This was, as I have said, the 70s and we did not have Health and Safety either. We had a first aid tin in which our PE teachers kept their Mars Bars and a bottle of Dettol.

In Spring, team sports began, netball starting the onslaught of bats, balls and goalposts. In my experience of team sport there is one person who is the ‘team captain’ and then everyone else is dispensible, a mere tool, possibly a sacrificial pawn, to be used by the captain to attain the shiny silver cup or similar metallic and vainglorious trophy. In netball the star athlete used my face to bounce the ball up into the hoop. In Rounders she would thwack the ball as if she might be trying to launch it into orbit, felling the opposition like skittles. Her hockey stick was a registered lethal weapon.

In Summer, slightly less snowy than the Winter, we were subjected to the rigours of Track and Field.

At my school we had Houses in imitation of much more prestigious educational establishments. We might have called them Houses but they were gangs, given primary coloured tabards to wear which were the equivalent of battle dress. My school had a Scottish bent influenced by the fact that the estate it was built on had street names taken from places in Scotland; Lochinvar, Lewis, Dumbarton etc. As a consequence our Sports Day resembled a clan war with the houses named after Scottish ancestral families: Stewart versus Cameron, Campbell versus McDonald.

We also had the torture of two Sports Days. The first was called Heats Day and everyone had to participate in order to be eliminated. I use the word advisedly. We were trooped out onto the field and pitted against one another in discus, shot and oh dear, the javelin.

I was quite bad at the shot. I was disorientated by the foxtrot two step that was required to ‘wind up’ as our PE teacher put it. I launched the shot in every direction except the one required. I was, in my polyester PE skirt, a one woman Napoleonic War. So, needless to say, I did not make the Sports Day Shotput team.

The high jump. I am five foot one and back then I was still five foot one. I had a bit of a growth spurt in my first two years of secondary school and was, at one time, for about five minutes, the second tallest girl in my class. At five foot one. I don’t know how high the High Jump was, I just focused on the word ‘High’ and then upon the word ‘Jump’. What I lacked in physical prowess and skill I made up for in blind enthusiasm and as a result the high jump became, for me, the pole vault, as my legs in their white knee socks scrabbled through the air and in what might have qualified as an advanced yoga move, became entangled in the equipment. I did not make the Sports Day High Jump team.

The Long jump. This is just the High Jump but in 2D. In 3D, in front of the assembled House, I gave a masterly run up, tripped over the take off board and landed flat on my face in the sand. It was a close thing but, yes, you guessed it, I didn’t make the Long Jump team either.

The Discus. I am not sure they ever recovered that Discus, or, more urgently, Mr Sharpe’s glass eye after an incident something like clay pigeon shooting meets the Greek Myths. The oracle at Delphi shook her head that day and had to go and have a lie down.

The javelin. It is perhaps foolhardy to set schoolchildren, many of them teenage and in the throes of puberty, against one another and then, arm them with spears.

At half time, there were oranges.

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‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge


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