Sports Day (or The Leaning Sprinter of Pisa)

With the London Olympics only a year away, I thought I’d blog today about the reason I boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics – nothing to do with politics, but a lot to do with gravity.

I was a child sprinter. Not that there was much choice for a nine year-old athlete in 1963. There was no pole vault, no marathon and definitely no javelin – the government being concerned about resultant spikes in the child mortality statistics. At Schools’ Sports Days there was but one event – the 60-yard dash.

And I was the fastest kid in school. So when the annual Bournemouth Town Sports came along, I was entered as the Winton and Moordown champion and given the afternoon off to compete against all the other champions. Whereas the teenagers were allowed to run on a cinder track at a proper athletics stadium and wear spikes, we juniors ran on grass in plimsolls.

The heats came, the gun went off, I shot into the lead and … held it through to the tape. And yes, in those days there really was a winning tape. Two teachers stretched it across the finish line at chest height to make it easier to work out who won in a close finish. No photo finish cameras or action replays in those days.

I waited for the finals with the casual confidence of a predestined winner. And waited and waited. Until the last race finished and the officials began packing up.

I pulled on the shirt of a teacher I recognised and asked with a trembling voice what had happened to my race. “You missed it, silly boy,” came the answer. “The boy you beat in the heats won.”

My hopes dashed – there being no recourse to the courts or the drug testing laboratories in the 1960s – I returned home crestfallen.

The next year my mother came with me. Her son was not going to miss another final. Being a ten year-old the distance had grown to 80 yards and again I won my heat easily. But this time I was under orders to run immediately back to the starting line and not move a muscle until I heard the final called.

I stood by the starting line, flanked by my mother and a teacher she’d press-ganged for support. I knew any attempt to move and two pairs of hands would grab my shoulders. I just hoped the final would come soon and my bladder would hold out.

The race was announced and a small nervous boy was almost pitched bodily onto the starting line. If there’d been a prize for punctuality he would have had no challengers.

I stood there, head down, arms ready to pump and left toe grazing the starting line. There were no starting blocks in those days – all races had standing starts.

Crack, the starting pistol sounded and I shot into the lead – a ball of greased adrenaline. After twenty yards I was well ahead. But I could feel something was wrong. My nose was a lot further ahead of the field than my legs. I was leaning forward at an angle that, had I been in Pisa, would have made the tower look like an amateur.

An 80-yard race does not last long, even for a ten year-old, but for me it felt like an eternity.

After thirty yards my nose was pulling further ahead of the field, but my legs were being gained on. I had a dilemma. Slow down and try to regain my balance, or press on and hope that somehow I could hold out until the end?

Naturally I went for the latter. Slowing down would mean defeat and surely all I had to do was get my legs to put on a spurt to catch up with the rest of me? Or, failing that, build up enough momentum, so I could skim like a flat pebble over the winning line.

Forty yards flashed by, fifty. I could feel a strange silence around me as the assembled crowds of parents, kids, teachers – and probably the young Carl Lewis – waited, breath bated, wondering what the little ginger-headed boy was going to do next. Surely he had to fall over? How could a child run horizontally like that?

By 60 yards I could see the ground coming up fast but I kept going. Why did this year’s distance have to be 80 yards? Why couldn’t we have stuck with 60!

Ten yards from the line my nose hit something solid. It wasn’t the winning tape. A rush of legs shot passed me. Cheers rang out from exultant parents. A lucky child threw his arms in the air.

And then all eyes turned to me. The boy on the ground, who picked himself up and trotted over the finish line to a mixture of polite applause from the adults and hoots of laughter from the children. My mother was not amused. “Why did you fall over? You were in the lead!”

I tried to tell her about gravity but, there being no apples nearby to help demonstrate, fell back on the reply much favoured by British athletes throughout the ages – a shrug.

The next year I was a nervous wreck. If I couldn’t stay on my feet for 70 yards what chance would I have over a 100? I won my heat as usual and began wondering why life had to have finals. Why couldn’t it be a succession of heats – I was good at those.

As I crouched over the starting line my mind was a mass of instructions. Don’t lean forward, concentrate, keep your balance. I was so focussed that I didn’t hear the gun. Suddenly everyone was running except for me, the boy frozen on the start line, mumbling to himself.

I lost my enthusiasm for running that day. 70 yards, maybe … anything further, forget it.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf

Recently released from Book View Press: French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!

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Sports Day (or The Leaning Sprinter of Pisa) — 2 Comments

  1. Ah, the Moscow Olympics!

    A very different childhood memory, here. Since Moscow is not exactly situated near any large body of water, my home town hosted all the sailing events. Every building got a bright coat of paint and — oh wonder! — our State Sweets Factory learned to make the very first Soviet chewing gum! In two flavors, peppermint and coffee! For one shining summer everyone could actually buy Pepsi-Cola, and, if you were really lucky, Finnish sausages with real meat and neat packaging!

    For a kid growing up in a deteriorating country where people patched ‘Western’ plastic bags with tape until there was more tape than bag and queued for hours to buy green bananas from Cuba once a year, the summer of 1980 was a time of magic and miracles.