How sport ruined keeping fit for a whole generation

Cat James
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I’m not in the business of knocking those who write for the County Press – I’ll leave that to the rabid keyboard warriors of the paper’s online comments. However, after reading my fellow columnist Malcolm Mime’s latest piece about his men-only cricket club tour, with its drinking games and ridiculous nicknames, I got to thinking about sport in general and why I found my eyes rolling at the prospect of a bunch of lads using sport as an excuse for intoxication and silly behaviour.

I’m a bit of a sports refusenik; I’m happy to include some gentle activity as part of my daily routine (stairs, walking, the occasional bit of cycling as a means of transportation), but I haven’t participated in any team games since I was made to at school. Many a time I judiciously kept to the outer edges of a rain-lashed hockey pitch praying the hard ball wouldn’t come my way. Volleyball played with a heavy stippled basketball (instead of the correct lightweight leather ball) made my aching forearms sting and go red. I was terrified of cricket.

And it seems I’m not alone. My sedentary lifestyle is echoed by many middle-aged people in this country, so much so that Dr Anne Elliott, a senior lecturer in sports science at Middlesex University, wrote a thesis about the matter in 2017. Having interviewed many reluctant exercisers, she concluded that some were put off sport for life by bad experiences in school physical education classes.

Admittedly my own experience of PE lessons wasn’t a patch on young Billy Casper’s, the anti-hero of the classic 1969 children’s film Kes. Humiliated by teacher Mr Sugden before he’d even got on the pitch, tiny Billy is placed in goal – a position he fills neither physically nor skilfully. Bullying Sugden dominates the pitch; pushing boys – even slapping one round the head – before scoring a goal by blatantly cheating.

Like most sports, Billy Casper’s football game was brutally competitive. But perhaps games would be more appealing to people like me if there were minimal rules and no scorekeeping? Just running around, making shapes and having fun. How about a ball each, so that even the most unathletic have a chance of joining in?

Malcolm Mime shoehorned a clumsy reference to feminism into his article about his male-bonding cricket tour. Perhaps he has something there though. Would feminists turn a social event into one where there was ritual humiliation, public embarrassment and the fear of being the “unlucky soul” who is the loser in some weird comedy hat tradition? Overthinking it all a bit more I wonder if the national obsession with competitive sport – particularly football – with its chanting, tribalism and under-dogs, could be a metaphor for today’s politics.

Is the new ridiculously-nicknamed Prime Minister actually blond bullish Mr Sugden, disregarding the cries of rule-abiding players; while some of us are Billy Casper, witnessing impotently from the edge of the field the increasing disparity and open-mouthed incredulity at Sugden’s single-minded desire to win at all costs?

This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 30 August 2019, and also online.

Cat James

Graphic designer, creative director of Pinkeye Graphics, Isle of Wight County Press columnist, Cat out of Matt and Cat

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