As far as I can tell, we here in this little bunch of islands off the west coast of northern Europe known as Great Britain, have invented many of the games and sports that have become favourites around the world. I’m not too sure what that says about us but I suppose there could be much worse things to be famous for. Though, come to think about it, we have quite a lot of terrible things to be remembered for too. In fact we must have given more bad things than good things to the world on balance, and that’s certainly not something to be proud of and shout about. Perhaps I’ll come back to some of those things in later columns.
Certainly, in the field of sport we gave the world association football, rugby football, cricket, rounders, (which became baseball and softball – and presumably loftball and hardball) golf, tennis, tiddlywinks, marbles, conkers and the egg and spoon race. I am also led to believe, and personally I don’t, that the Brits invented skiing. I find it difficult to believe that my ancestors would invent a sport or pastime that they couldn’t actually participate in because of the vagaries of their eccentric climate. Though, we have what is referred to as ‘The Mother of Parliaments’, yet we don’t practice democracy – another thing to come back to, I think.
I am spending my evenings at the moment watching coverage of the Olympic Winter Games, which are taking place in Vancouver. For the most part, thanks to the good old BBC, I’m enjoying what I’m seeing. You can always trust the Canadians to put on a good show. Although the games got off to the worst possible tragic start with the death of the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice session just before the games opened, they have made for, as always, a wonderful spectacle. Basically, it appears, if it can be done on snow or ice, it has a place in these games.
There are two disciplines that make up parts of the games above all others that puzzle and amaze me. They confound belief in very different ways and have me wracking my brain trying to work out what kind of mind invented them. One of them suits the British psyche very well, while the other begs the question of why anyone would wish to participate.
I should start with the first. Curling was invented in Scotland and when Britain competes in games and competitions it is always the Scottish teams that represent the rest of the country. For those who don’t know, and I would suspect there are many, curling, as best I can describe it, is a cross between lawn bowls and housework. It is played on an ice rink. The players slide huge granite ‘stones’ along the rink from one end to the other. The rink, unlike a skating rink, is dry and pimply and the players who aren’t actually sliding any given stone have the job of making it go as far as possible and try to control its rate of slide by vigourously brushing the ice to melt the pimples and smooth it. The far end is represented by a target and the basic idea is to score points by ending each part of the game closest to the centre of the target. Now, it is a game of consumate skill, there is no doubt. And the housework employed is exemplary, the brushing is fevered and precise, and is usually accompanied by lots of shouting. It makes for great television.
A couple of Olympiads ago the British (Scottish) women actually won the gold medal and became national heroes. Curling entered the national being to accompany cricket, drunkenness, fair play, xenophobia and repression in the long list of things we recognise in ourselves and yet feel embarrassed about at the same time. The British (Scottish) curlers don’t seem to be doing as well this time round and I put this down to their outrageous rock star lifestyles and the invention of the vacuum cleaner.
The other Olympic discipline that astonishes and amazes me is the one we have actually just won a gold medal in. The new women’s skeleton bob Olympic champion is a Brit. Her name is Amy Williams and she has become an overnight national icon, and I join in her praise. She has been interviewed almost every minute for the two days since she won, her parents, siblings, neighbours and even people who have never met her have been interviewed and asked what they think. She deserves the attention. Just think about it, she travelled down a chute almost a kilometre long at speeds of 143 kph, head first with only little more than a tea tray called Arthur between her vulnerable self and the ice, four times. She did this faster than anyone else competing and was duly crowned. It’s an astonishing achievement, but it also amazes me that anyone would have the bravery or questionable sanity to do it. I was frightened just watching and I already knew she had won.
Sweeping and tea trays, British sport.