The Big Read: Games biased against the unfit

19 August 2016 - 08:52 By Darrel Bristow-Bovey


Say I used to run the 1500m at school. I wonder if I'd stayed off the streets and focused on my training if I could have run in the Olympics? I'm not saying I'd be a medallist, exactly, but then again, a couple of torn ligaments, some drug bannings and traumatic muggings, a bout of food poisoning ravaging the East Africans . If you're not on the track, you'll never know. These are the thoughts that occupy me as I watch sports in which I'm not truly interested, like the Olympics. The fact that I'm watching the recorded highlights because I don't have the dedication to wake at 3.30am should give me some hint that I'd probably never have been in Rio, not even if the end-times began and every other athlete in the world was raptured up to a waiting spaceship, but still.Another symptom of my sporting delusions is a conviction that somewhere out there is an activity for which I have a natural gift, a talent so powerful I'd be a world-beater without having to get up early and train, but which I have just never discovered. The Olympics are always promising to throw across my screen some fringe activity in which I might yet attain glory. Handball? Clay pigeon shooting? Surely I could shoot a clay pigeon. The main difficulty with shooting pigeons, as I understand it, is they fly away. I've never actually seen a clay pigeon, but using my knowledge of aerodynamics and my experience of clay, I would expect it would just sort of sit there, presenting a ripe opportunity for an ageing athlete seeking to make his name.For a while, darts seemed just up my alley: no risk of shin splints, you can take in some judicious recreational refreshment while competing, there's very little Lycra. I think of myself as niggly and competitive, but I soon discovered the truly great have a steely streak I just can't match. I once played against the greatest athlete that has ever lived, 16-time world champion Phil "The Power" Taylor. No other athlete has ever dominated a sport so thoroughly for so long. (Interesting aside for fans of nominative determinism: his first nickname wasn't "The Power", it was "The Crafty Potter". Championships for "The Crafty Potter": zero. Championships for "The Power": 16.)It was to be a friendly game. I had darting aspirations - who doesn't? - but they were well hidden. Phil slapped my back and offered me the choice of darts. Then he muttered, through his smile, "I'm going to beat you so bad your mother will turn you away and shut the door behind you, son." It was like being trash-talked by Muhammad Ali. I could barely clear the oche.For a while they let artists and desk workers compete in the Olympics. There used to be medals for town planning and architecture, although they probably struggled to sell the rights for the TV coverage. In 1924 Jack Butler Yeats, brother of the poet William, won a silver medal for painting. Painting was dropped as a competitive category for the next Olympics in Amsterdam in 1928, but Jean Jacoby streaked to gold in Drawings and Water Colours for his work, Rugby. Is Jacoby the first and last Luxembourgian to win an Olympic gold medal for rugby? I'm guessing yes. In 1932 in Los Angeles the gold went to American Lee Blair for his tragically neglected masterpiece Rodeo, but I assume that was a home-town decision or the referee was crooked, because as far as I know rodeo was not at the time an official Olympic sport.By the way, how would you like to be the Italian poet Lauro de Bosis, who won the Olympic silver for literature in 1928? Nice to win a medal, less nice to be told that your writing was better than the rest of those losers, but not quite good enough for gold, which the judges decided shouldn't be awarded in 1928. Imagine coming first in the shot-put, only to be told that in the opinion of the officials you didn't put the shot quite far enough, and frankly you're a bit of a disappointment and have wasted everyone's time.A word on Lauro de Bosis: three years after his Olympic semi-triumph, with seven-and-a-half hours of flying time under his belt, he rented a small wooden aircraft, flew solo from Marseilles to Rome, circled the Piazza Venezia and carpet-bombed Mussolini and his council with anti-fascist pamphlets.He zoomed off towards Corsica with the Italian air force in hot pursuit. He had a lead heading into the final straight, but unfortunately he'd only half-fuelled his tank.He ran out of petrol, crashed in the sea and died. They don't make runners-up like they used to.

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