Our ‘Olympic’ School Sports Day
To put you in the picture and to give you a flavour of my life, when still a lad, I often attended horse and dog races, and could also be spotted in the crowds at Chelsea and Woking’s football matches. Athletics, however, due to the distinct lack of betting opportunities, had never grabbed my attention.
But now, fuelled by the ground swell of interest generated by the Olympics, everyone I knew was talking about the popular athletes, MacDonald Bailey, Arthur Wint and, of course, the phenomenal Fanny Blankers-Koen.
In fact, every playtime, class relay teams would hurtle their way round our playground, which inevitably led to queues forming outside the first aid room for attention to grazed knees and elbows.
At this time the School Sports loomed large in both teachers and pupil’s consciousness. And although it had crossed my mind that there might be some betting opportunities, it came as a major disappointment that the only school events open to my age group, the 11- and 12-year-olds, were to be the egg and spoon, the three-legged and the sack race. Who were the National Heroes in those, I wondered?
I must have sulked for a week. Secretively, I had planned to run a book on the sprint races for our year. But not with eggs and sacks – I ask you?
Then one day I confided in Uncle Ernie, who surprised me by taking the higher ground,
“Never mind the type of event lad, why don’t you try to win one.”
He was right of course, although in truth I was a moderate runner, unless someone was chasing me, and my lack of hand-to-eye coordination had cost me dearly at conkers. So that sadly ruled out the egg and spoon.
My thoughts turned to the sack race, until dad reminded me of my nightly struggle to remain upright whilst climbing into my pyjama trousers – so no go there.
Finally, I settled on the three-legged race, but as Uncle Ernie said,
“You’ll have to find an agile partner for that one Michael?” He was right
again, and from then on I started to give it serious thought.
The Goldsworth School 12-year-old mixed three-legged race, run over 50 yards, was for 16 boy/girl pairs, to be run in two heats of eight, the first four in each heat to run in the final. Uncle Ernie, having temporarily given up betting, was keen for me to run and win, promising me a £1 note if I did, and he persuaded two of his brothers, Albert and Arthur to stump up the same amount.
That was all very encouraging, but my appeal to the fairer sex was at this time limited. As a geeky loner with a serious stammer, I had to make my p-p-pitch c-c-convincing.
Plucking up courage, I put my case to Thelma. Bespectacled, she had freckles, a fringe and two short pigtails. But more relevantly, she had been a member of the Junior School hockey team. So she was both well balanced, agile and the owner of a pair of satisfyingly sturdy legs.
After careful consideration, even at this young age, she would be a worthwhile ante-post bet for Council Librarian. On the other hand, if she later chose to smoke and drink, she would be nailed on for the cast of St Trinian’s.
For someone who I had rarely spoken to before, she was surprisingly compliant with my wishes. Thereafter, every lunch break and for half an hour after school, clasping each other behind our backs, we ran to the bicycle sheds and back, straight backed and focused ahead.
As we progressed in our training, we began to feel our elevation from ‘bus horses’ to thoroughbreds. This new image was further supported by Thelma’s excellent suggestion that we breathe in unison. At this point, I began to congratulate myself on my inspired choice of partner.
We were, at times, subject to ridicule, nothing new to me, but I felt sympathy for Thelma.
Inevitably, my reputation was called into question and I was summoned by Headmaster “Bonk” Peel, to be warned of the consequences of betting on the school sports.
Marshalling me into his study, he began, ‘Church, you are not going to turn our ‘Olympic sports day’ into a disreputable occasion are you?’
He sat menacingly on the end of his desk, glowering at me with knitted eyebrows.
‘You remember what happened on our last encounter, when we confiscated your double-headed penny?’
I did indeed, and to reinforce his threat, he took one of the five switches from behind his desk, momentarily trying it out for flexibility.
‘I w-w-wouldn’t dream of it Sir,’ I said with a slight tremble.
He looked past me, my reply having no impact on his impending lecture.
‘By that, I mean no wagering; not sixpences, thrupences or even pennies. Do you understand Church?’ he said, swishing the cane in the metre of his threat. Fully wound up he continued, ‘The Olympics are a proud occasion for everyone in the British Isles. Remember Church, it’s not about winning, but taking part – right Church?’
‘Right Sir, permission to speak Sir?’
‘W-w-well to say as yet, I haven’t taken a single bet.’
‘As yet, as yet,’ Peel fumed
‘W-well Sir, I m-meant to add – and I don’t intend to.’
‘I should hope not. Is that a promise Church? You know the consequences.’
‘Alright then, a promise,’ I said resolutely.
Bonk kept up his frown, but I did hear his secretary, who had crept in midway through his tirade, give a sigh of relief.
Sports day arrived and in the heats of the three-legged race, Thelma and I ran well to finish second. Delighted with the result, we decided not to watch the second heat, preferring instead to go behind the cricket pavilion and relax.
Ten minutes later, we were tracked down by Thelma’s anxious parents.
“There you are. What are you doing down there?” they echoed.
But I could see the relief on her mother’s face, when she saw we were rubbing the embrocation into our own thighs rather than each other’s!
In the final, we bounded from the start in unison and at halfway, we led by a yard. Then, someone clipped Thelma’s heel, causing her head to go back, then violently forward, sending her glasses flying into our path. I heard the crunch beneath us. Thelma swore and momentarily checked her stride, but she kept going with a grim determination – a girl after my own heart.
Sadly, we were beaten by inches, although Thelma’s mother kept telling everyone that we were the moral winners.
From that moment, after what had seemed to us a personal tragedy, our friendship steadily grew.
That evening, Thelma’s parents invited me round for tea, and to give
them credit, they never mentioned the likely cost of new glasses once.
Over cream buns with strawberry jam, I realised how lucky I had been to
find a girl as obsessed and committed as myself, one in whose company I now no longer stammered.
In the very happy months that followed, whilst guiding her gently through, what was for her, the unchartered waters of fixed odds football pools, we became an item, both in the classroom, sitting next to each other for algebra, and out of it, standing behind the goal at Woking.
Twenty years later, at Sir Ivor’s Derby, I thought I saw her in the grandstand. The pigtails had gone, but she still had the glasses and the freckles. I tried to get a closer look, but suddenly, she became engulfed in the crowd, and I could never be sure.
This short story is from Michael’s book Black Horse – Red Dog ,
of which he has a few signed copies for sale.