Rugby League player Gareth Thomas (with the ball) has made history; he is the first professional sportsman in the world to 'come out' at the height of his career, rather than safely after it has ended.


It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to you to be told that I’m not a big sports fan.

At school, my Wednesday afternoons were spent on ignominious ‘cross-country runs’ - seven or eight bespectacled nascent librarians denting the pavements as they lumbered from Crossgate Moor to (appropriately enough) Earl’s House Hospital halfway along the road to Witton Gilbert. (Be careful - pronounce the G as if it’s a J.)

The only game I really enjoyed at school was shinty. It’s played with a ‘ball’ that might as well be made of concrete and every player is armed with a mahogany hockey-stick chipped, it seemed to me, from Dunston Staithes.

Shinty is unforgivingly brutal. It’s like that unforgettable hockey match in The Belles of St Trinian’s - punches are not pulled and no prisoners are taken. I understand that the game is still extremely popular in the remoter glens of Scotland, which does not surprise me in the least. You could significantly reduce the height of Ben Macdui by playing a game of shinty on the top of it.

Ironically, though, I wasn’t allowed to play it because I wore glasses. The only game I have ever actively wanted to participate in was denied to me because I wore milk-bottle-bottom specs; not your trendy, wafer-thin lenses, worn mostly (I am convinced) for effect but genuine Charles Dickens windows that have been distorting my world since I was 4.

I was allowed to wear my glasses in the gym, though.

As a matter of fact, I used to quite enjoy the gym at school. But my enthusiasm was usually deflated because I couldn’t master any of the equipment in it. If I leapt onto the wall-bars, I could feel them inching out of their brackets. Where other lads would mount the gym’s hanging ropes like demented lemurs, I couldn’t even get my feet off the ground. Neither of them.

As for the vaulting horse...it almost whinnied and made for open country and the comparative safety of Earl’s House Hospital whenever I even looked at it.

For me then, most sport - and most of the enormous coverage it gets - is not even worth ignoring. The effete and pretentious pantomime of football - mired in its cesspit of corruption and self-importance - is matched, in my eyes, by the dreary predictability of motor-racing, which milks its veneer of excitement for all its worth, the vacuity of golf - an interest in which is the clearest possible indicator of personality disorders - and the self-serving and smug obtuseness of cricket, lower than which it is not possible to sink without resorting to darts, a pastime truly beneath contempt.

That BBC commentators have the gall to call golfers and darts players ‘athletes’ beggars belief. They should be taken to court.

I am not, however, totally immune to the excitement of sporting achievements, or to the grand occasions which often surround them. When I was young, I used to watch the Gand National along with almost everyone else who otherwise couldn’t tell one end of a horse from the other - although I went off it in a big way when I became a sensitive, poetry-writing student and realised how cruel it was.

I also joined the rest of the population to watch the Boat Race - another event followed avidly by folk who wouldn’t recognise a two-man scull if it stood up in their soup.

And I still very much love watching athletics. The Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and the World Championships (coming up later this year) find me glued to the haunted fish-tank. Not literally, of course.

Stephen Fry ‘use-of-English’ warning!

Have you noticed how BBC sports commentators - and now journalists and tv presenters as well - are increasingly using ‘literally’ to mean its exact opposite? I’ve mentioned this before but my complaints have gone unheeded by the powers-that-be. So we are still being told that ‘before the free kick, the Stoke team literally built a wall across the goalmouth’ or that the United manager ‘literally flew off the handle’, which would have been worth seeing.

Thanks almost entirely to the BBC, ‘literally’ is starting to mean ‘metaphorically’.

Other presenters use it as ‘narrative filler’ - a kind of vague emphasiser. Jamie Oliver loves using it this way. ‘All you do is literally take the onions and chop them finely.' Count his literallys the next time you are unlucky enough to watch one of his cheerier-than-thou programmes. The exercise may stop you being sick.

Jamie’s endless repetition of it means that ‘literally‘ is also being used to mean literally nothing at all. Literally.

End of Stephen Fry moment. Back to athletics.

There’s something truly ‘basic’ - almost animalistic - about athletics. In most of its guises, it’s simply a straightforward contest to see who can run faster - or jump higher or longer or throw something further - than anyone else. The sheer power, energy and stamina of the human body exercised and demonstrated in an uncomplicated and mesmerising way.

(The fact that the decathlon - along with men’s gymnastics - is also the most testosterone-supercharged and erotic event in the history of sport, and recruits to its numbers men of unparalleled physical perfection, is entirely beside the point.)

But I don’t derive pleasure merely from watching the events themselves. My sense of humour also has a weakness for the hopelessly bland and predictable questions that athletes are asked by trackside interviewers. Barely able to breathe, having just crossed the line third, the runner will be asked to ‘talk us through the last 400 metres’. They will be asked ‘how pleased are you to have got through to the next round?’ Duh.

The commentators deserve medals, too. Brendan Foster and Steve Cram can, famously, talk non-stop throughout the entire London Marathon. They will tell us how each athlete is feeling and what they’re thinking every step of the way - for hours and hours.

And, as the British runner in the 100,000 metre steeplechase staggers in last across the line, Ron Pickering, with breathtaking perspicacity, will tell us that ‘he will be disappointed with that performance.’

When I’m watching rugby league, though, the commentators may as well be speaking Greek. This is because it’s not the majesty of the back-and-forth flow of the game that impresses me. Nor is it the skilful set-piece moves, the cheerful enthusiasm of the crowd or the significance of the match in the great scheme of rugby league things.

RL is unadulterated, undiluted maleness in a way that table-tennis or beach volleyball (God forbid) can only barely aspire to, whatever else their attributes might be. Along with Aussie Rules, it’s one of the few sports in which men are shamelessly allowed to demonstrate and display that old-fashioned assertive masculinity which has now almost disappeared under a welter of weedy metrosexuality of the type so effectively marketed by David Beckham and his ilk.

RL men have power, spirit and rough edges. And, on a slightly less elevated level (as it were), they have thighs to die for and are allowed to show them off in shorts that are the length shorts ought to be.

(If you'd like to know more about the astonishing courage of Gareth Thomas - pictured above - in deciding to reveal his homosexuality, Google him - or just ask me.)

I notice that I’m at serious risk of bringing this otherwise erudite diatribe down to my level.

And in any case, much though I enjoy the Olympics or the Challenge Cup Final, I love Wimbledon even more.

Ah, Wimbledon!

There’s really no need to list the cliches and steretoypes associated with it. Its blissfully unchanging magic seems to be woven into the fabric of the English early summer. It makes all the other Grand Slam Finals look like disorganised knockabouts in municipal parks.

Wimbledon is green.

The buildings are green, the century-old ivy that smothers them is green, the ballboys and ballgirls are dressed in green, the scoreboards are green and the grass is very, very green. Even the fact that the game is played on grass at all elevates The Championships above the vulgar concrete and clay of all the others. Grass is natural and unpredictable - and fast.

I love the way that appearance is still of paramount importance at Wimbledon; that the players must wear ‘predominantly’ white - and happily agree to do so, temporarily consigning the garish outfits they usually wear to the back of the fire.

I love the quietly accepted authority of the umpires, John McEnroe notwithstanding, and the way that, when they ask for ‘Quiet Please!’, any tumult from the crowd fades away to silence at once. Other tournaments are bear-gardens compared to this.

I love the BBC’s coverage, too. Over the years, it has kept pace with improvements in technology and presentation; Wimbledon was the first major event broadcast in colour and I can remember how amazing that was. That it still is is a credit to the BBC’s engineering and development teams, who, each year, seem to tweak some element or other of the BBC’s presentation of Wimbledon to make it look ever better.

I love the fact that there are no sponsorship hoardings anywhere to be seen at Wimbledon.

At a time when virtually every other sporting event of this status is drenched in tawdry and demeaning advertisements all round the playing area (and even painted onto the grass itself at the ‘RBS‘ Six Nations rugby games), Wimbledon obstinately refuses to sell out to the Big Money. All that you can see, displayed proudly and discreetly, is the tournament’s (unsponsored) logo - two crossed tennis rackets and the words ‘Wimbledon: The Championships’.

And, of course, the tournament is not held at a tennis complex supported by Emirates or Reebok or Adidas or Umbro. Or even Slazenger. It is held at the headquarters of the wonderfully-named ‘All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’, an institution that deserves our gratitude and admiration. For 125 years - almost since the game was virtually invented there - it has resisted the temptation for tatty populism, garish commercialism and the kind of universal mass sponsorship that makes great world sporting events seem so bedraggled and corrupt.

So, if Wimbledon really is run by moustachioed retired colonels from the Home Counties with dreadful wives (as I suspect it may be) then let's all raise a refreshing glass of sweet sherry to them. Let's all munch a cream-draped strawberry in their honour.

I’ve no idea how long the obvious and awe-inspiring anachronism of Wimbledon can continue. Fortunately it shows no sign of weakness just yet.

But you never know.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


Stuart said...

To be fair to BBC commentators, people have used 'literally' un-literally since the 18th century. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002611.html
That complaint's older than Wimbledon itself...

I'm enjoying the tennis more than usual this year - you're right about the greenness, it's almost the most important part of it all! One of those cases where it doesn't seem like the grass was greener in the past.

The Paper Boy said...

Have a read of http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/business-13789076 - it's not all in your face, but there's plenty of sponsorship going on at the back of the bike sheds...

Ian Robinson said...

Hmmm (stroking chin) - interesting, verrrry interesting...

A fascinating bit of research there; thanks for the link - I've added it as a Bookmark. I concede that there IS evidence that 'literally' has been used as a conversational 'intensifier' (like 'really', which had honestly never occurred to me) for far longer than I supposed. Having said that (another intensifier!), my main point was that 'literally' is now being used to mean its exact opposite - that is, 'not literally', as in my examples. I genuinely believe this to be a much more recent phenomenon, 'Recency Illusion' notwithstanding.

You have done me no favours at all by sending me that link, by the way. I've now wasted several very pleasurable hours surfing word-blogs and language blogs.

(Is there even such a word as 'recency'?)

Paper Boy:
I take the point that Wimbledon does indeed accept sponsorship cash. In my defence, though, I didn't say that it didn't. I think that what I was trying to say was that Wimbledon doesn't LOOK as if it accepts cash. My blog centres on what Wimbledon 'looks like' - that being, in my view, what differentiates it from almost all other world-class sporting events.

I thought the BBC item you linked me to was very interesting, though. That so many 'Big Names' are prepared to sponsor The Championships even though their names are not seen or mentioned is instructive. I wonder why more events don't try for similar deals...

Thanks again for your feedback, gents. Loved it.

montaguedave said...

anyone know if in the 1940 s and 1950 s the railway went from Newcastle to Blyth via Gosforth?

Kev said...

You might try http://www.davidheyscollectionextra.com/page23.htm
A part of the text says 'The EMU from Newcastle Central is on a clockwise circuit to Whitley Bay and Tynemouth via Jesmond and South Gosforth, returning to Central via North Shields and Wallsend.'
Hope this helps.