Despite my intention to boycott them, I find I’ve been watching the Olympics after all. My problem with the games is threefold. These are, in order of inside leg measurement...
1. Hypocrisy – the laughable pretence that somehow this extravaganza binds together the nations of the drug abusing, bribery riddled sporting world. How we love boring and previously unknown sports if it turns out that our lot might be good at them!
2. The BBC (bless them) insist on presenting the Games as though they were somehow a sponsor, rather than a licence-money-consuming media corporation. In particular, the pre-scripted, screaming commentary which accompanies any medal success for Our Lot is rather heavy going – unless I was mistaken, some hysterical gentleman was informing me the other evening that the victory of one of Our Lot’s swimmers was a “life affirming moment” for all of us. Let’s be clear about this, I am proud of the swimmer, and I greatly admire individuals who dedicate their lives to doing something supremely well, but I have little time for the posturing hangers-on who use public money to get in the way of the spectacle.
3. The presence of a few sports which don’t seem to me to be Olympian. You can make your own list – golf seems an oddity to me – our own hero may well be required to compete against some foreign chaps who would certainly not be welcome at your local club. Discuss.
Anyway, you get the idea, and yet I find I am rather enjoying the track cycling at weird hours of the morning. I guess the Games must be OK, after all.
Some odd gaps in the list of events, though. There was recent mention of the noble game of Conkers on this blog – I can think of no finer presentation of skill and individual courage, and yet Conkers does not seem to be recognised as a sport at this level. Conkers, in case it goes by different names in different parts of the world, is combat in its most ancient form – warriors armed only with the fruit of the horse-chestnut tree, pierced and mounted on a string (that’s the chestnut, not the warrior). Admittedly, the sport is normally played only by 8-year-olds, and it is heavily seasonal, but it seems a sad omission from the Olympic programme.
There was recent comment about Conkers on this blog – not a celebration, but then you wouldn’t expect that. It was a more of a lament that the game has been unfairly suppressed, and for some pretty feeble reasons, too. One local school authority in England banned the game on health and safety grounds, apparently, insisting that Conkers-players should wear protective goggles and hand protection. It would be a sad thing, after all, if the teaching profession should be prosecuted over a playground accident. Some local branch of an English teaching union is also said to have claimed that Conkers is an example of the kind of competitive, elitist activity which has no place in an enlightened schoolyard.
I would have loved to be an accomplished Conkers player – alas, I was a very poor performer, though I used to turn up each season with large numbers of shiny new conkers (ready pierced, carried in an old shoe-bag with a drawstring), but I was one of the fringe players whose role was to provide cannon fodder to bolster the reputations and the tallies of the true heroes and gunslingers at our primary school. There were dark arts at play – apart from techniques, sometimes of debatable legality, there were all sorts of whispered formulae involving baking in the stove, pickling in vinegar (someone once mentioned saltpetre, though when pressed he didn’t know what saltpetre was, so this was dismissed as a lie) and all sorts of weird and wonderful secrets. On occasions a secret recipe was claimed to have been handed down from someone’s granddad, which is probably a testament to the traditions of the sport rather than the effectiveness of the treatment.
I recall that Kenneth Ikin had an unbeatable conker for a while – it was old, and battered, and grey, and as hard as wood. Kenneth’s supreme conker was much feared – when it was in its fourth season (I seem to recall that eventually it was a two-hundred-and-elevener, which is, let’s face it, awesome by any standards), Kenneth was forced to prowl about the playground, challenging the opposition, who were not exactly queueing up to be humiliated – as part of his warrior routine he would occasionally swing it on its string, and strike potential opponents on the head, as a call to joust. One lunchtime, as he searched for opposition, he idly took a swing at the cement capping on the low brick wall which supported the playground railings. I’m not sure what he expected, but Kenneth’s pride and joy disintegrated, with a sad, dry noise, and he was speechless. The entire school was subdued by the loss – it might have been a life-affirming moment, if we had them in those days, but there was a vague feeling that we should have given it a Viking funeral, if we could have found any bits large enough to burn.
Now, half a century and 250 miles away from St Michael’s-in-the-Hamlet County Primary school’s Burdett Street playground, I live close to a chestnut tree which would have guaranteed me admittance to the inner circle of gunfighters – I have never seen such conkers, for either numbers or quality. Maybe I should take up the sport again. Tricky that – past discussions have revealed that not only the technical terminology but also the actual rules (how to treat a straight miss, punish a non-stationary target, sort out tangled strings, all that) were obviously heavily regional and varied from place to place.
I wonder what sort of protective goggles we’d have to use? Hmmm. Needs more thought.