Friday, February 16, 2018


It's a reasonable question to ask what my own history as an athlete is. The answer is very simple: I have none.

As a kid I was hopeless at nearly all games. Now, with hindsight, I rationalise that by pointing out that I wasn't very big and also, with a birthday that always fell in the summer holidays, I was nearly a year younger than the oldest, most sporty boys in my class. The only way I could keep up was by being cleverer than them - a pretence I managed to keep up for a good few years.

So, what was athletics like in our school back in 1956 - the year I first had anything to do with running, jumping and, in my case, standing still?

It started with what was called Standards Day. We all got into games kit and headed off to the games field at the far end of town. The older boys might be in track suits; some may even have had spikes (more of which in a minute), but we junior nonentities wore our navy gabardine macs over our shorts and house rugby shirts.

We all had to have a go at every event that our age group was in line for. Our performances graded us so that the house captain could pick his team. It was all desperately competitive. One master, once, complimented me on my style at long jump; asked what my distance was, and lost interest the second I told him. We all just milled around on the field and any thoughts of Health and Safety amounted to "That boy! Can't you see he's throwing a discus?!"

(Talking of which, my friend Chris and I once had to work off a detention by fetching back the discus for a sixth former who was training for English Schools. We stood out somewhere ahead of him, watched where it was going and then competed with each other to be closest to it when it landed).

Sports Day was kind of a repeat, except that the four houses competed for some kind of trophy. I was in Grenville: the other houses were Raleigh, Hawkins and Drake. Back then, these brave seafarers weren't regarded as the pirates they were really.

Devon County Schools was the opportunity for a day out. It was school against school, rather than areas competing and it was mostly independent schools that took part. And it was only boys. Whether there was a parallel event for girls I haven't the faintest idea. Bear in mind that back then women never ran farther than 400m - and that was regarded with some suspicion. Paula Radcliffe wasn't going to be born for another thirty years! (I mean of course, 440 yards. We still had an Empire and by jingo we were going to stick with Imperial measurements).

Reading through this, I realise I promised more about spikes. There were no all-weather tracks at all - they hadn't been invented. So spikes had to be twelve or even fifteen millimetres - or rather seven-eighths of an inch. They were fixed to the leather soles of the shoe and had to be sharpened occasionally with a file. There was a rumour amongst us that, back in the day, boys had been whacked with a spiked running shoe. We half believed it.

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