Idea of London Olympics leaves him cold

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The Games of the XXX Olympiad start next week in London, which is good news for those of us who (metaphor alert) carry a torch of affection for the Olympics.

For myself, this year's games are a double treat. It is not just the spectacle of seeing thrilling sports such as women's beach volleyball. Yes, I know what low minds are thinking: that the thrill for male fans is related to the competitors' bikinis and not the volleyball, but this is definitely not true. (Editor's note: It is true.)

The second exciting factor is that these games are being held in London, which was my old stomping ground. Mostly the stomping was to keep myself warm.

Although I have lived in places that technically have colder weather, I was never in a country less equipped with proper indoor heating. It was as if people in England were surprised every year by winter, this despite the fact that the season seemed to last six months. When it wasn't cold, it was raining, although often it did both.

For this reason, I wouldn't bet on any British team in the women's beach volleyball, if I were you. I am thinking that the Saudi Arabian team isn't much good either -- not for a lack of sand, in their case, but of bikinis.

When I wasn't being cold, I worked on the sports desk of The Times of London. While I covered some rugby games, my main job was to edit and write headlines such as "Plucky British Couple Finish 32nd in Belgrade Ice Dancing."

The readers of The Times apparently cared about such things, which I came to appreciate was normal. The British are tremendously chauvinistic about sports, most of which they claim to have invented. They even say they invented baseball, citing a game called "rounders" played in England forever. But it can't be baseball. It has no spitting.

What I further discovered about sportswriting in The Times was that it was highly literary and often full of classical allusions, something you don't see much around here. I recall a memorable report about a "Real Tennis" match.

Not to be confused with regular tennis, "Real Tennis" is the name of the sport played by Henry VIII and his court. This ancient racket sport, the great ancestor of modern tennis, has eccentric rules and is still played today mostly by eccentric people, all of whom in my day seemed to be Englishmen, although it is also played at a few courts in the United States.

I remember sitting at The Times sports desk on deadline trying to edit a story that said the two fellows competing were "the Castor and Pollux of the Real Tennis world."

What the heck? Castor and Pollux are figures from Greek and Roman mythology, but of course you know that. But I was just off the boat. I thought Castor and Pollux were famous Real Tennis players.

Working on the newspaper's sports desk was a real education. I learned that the English have many strange sporting pastimes and habits that nobody else hears about. My only regret is that these London Games, the third for the city, cannot include all of them. (Real Tennis was in the first London Olympics in 1908. An American named Jay Gould, a dashed upstart, won the gold medal.)

It occurs to me that with a little ingenuity some British customs could be incorporated into the Olympics as sports.

For example, queuing. Americans wait in line but the British form queues, which is a more obsessive and orderly practice. I once stopped to get my bearings and someone started a queue behind me. Just couldn't help themselves.

How this sport would actually be played is not yet clear, but you can form a queue in dropping off your suggestions.

Umbrella wielding could also be an Olympic sport. Did I say it rains over there? Every Briton has a brolly, and the constant use of them has made the populace as skilled with the bumbershoot as any samurai with his sword. Again, details of how the competition would unfurl need to be worked out.

In the track and field events, a race modeled on the old Benny Hill skit might have popular appeal. I am thinking of the one in which a scantily clad young woman -- yet still quite modest by beach volleyball standards -- is chased by elderly gentlemen.

But I suppose it is too late to add events. All we can do is wish these Olympics the best of British luck and hope that nothing unusual happens, such as an outbreak of warm sunshine.

reghenry

Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.


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