I was rather pleased to be away from home and largely out of range of mobile signal and WiFi for the last week and thus missing most of the Olympic hoo-ha, and though I was within spitting distance of the start of the modern Olympic movement in 1850, I didn’t quite manage to follow the Olympic trail though I did get rather lost in a forest on nearby Wenlock Edge.
I always think it a shame that the the Olympics have become such an occasion for nationalistic fever, with an ethos very different from that of the founding years (and certainly of the 1850 event in Much Wenlock.) The famous quote from the man who really got the whole thing going, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who visited the games at Wenlock in 1890, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well” is now just a pious platitude, with success in the games (and that silly medal table) being as much a matter of huge investment as individual achievement. The Russians did it by doping, we do it by lottery funding.
Part of Coubertin’s inspiration for the games came from the English Public School system and in particular Thomas Arnold, the great head of Rugby School, and he held firmly that athletes should be amateurs, though supporting financial support for loss of earnings for when they were competing and certainly opposed the discrimination against the working classes in British sports such as rowing, something which remains a feature of many sports in England and Wales. Dr William Penny Brookes, who began those games in Much Wenlock which were criticised by many amongh the amateur altheltic elite for encouraging the working classes to compete, also organised the first London Olympics as a national competition at Crystal Palace in 1866, and was the man behind the introduction of physical education into the school curriculum, first at Much Wenlock National School and later across the whole of state education. If you hated your PE lessons, he is the man to blame.
I wasn’t keen on much of PE, and my occasional confusion between left and right sometimes led to a certain amount of derision from teachers (sometimes expressed with the help of a plimsoll to the backside0 as I raised the wrong arm or thrust out the wrong leg. Wall bars and ‘horses’ were largely objects of torture, though I came to like climbing the ropes – though climbing trees out of school was always more fun -there was no view, no revelation in seeing the gym from a height. But my real love was in running.
I was fortunate in my choice of secondary school, though going to the grammar took me away from many of the friends in my streets. The school was proud of its tradition of maths education, but perhaps failed to ackknowledge its athletic achievements, although these were together with all the rest of its sporting results, the high point of the daily assemblies. But as a grammar school, what really counted was rugby, and athletics would surely have been a poor second fiddle to cricket if the school had not, a few years before my joining it, appointed John Disley to head the PE department.
Disley’s career as a runner is perhaps rather forgotten, despite his bronze medal in the 3000 metres steeplechase at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, rather eclipsed by the trio of Brasher, Chataway and Bannister involved in the first four minute mile, though Disley had been closest to Bannister on one of his earlier races where he broke the UK record. Disley decided he not quite fast enough on the flat, but set a world record and five British records in the steeplechase as well as four British records at two miles, and Welsh records for six different distances.
I think it was at the end of my first year at Isleworth that Disley left to run around mountains, going on to bring orienteering to the UK and later, also together with Chris Brasher, to establish the London Marathon. But his memory lingered on in Isleworth, with every PE lesson beginning with either a ‘short circuit’ or a ‘long circuit’ road run around the neighbourhood, unless the rain was heavy enough to make drowning a possibility. Winning times were recorded, and for some years I held my year record for the long circuit, which I think was around a mile.
I was never a great athlete, not quite fast enough for the 100 yards, but represented my school at the Middlesex championships at the 220 and 440, though my best result ever was a third place. Once in the Borough Youth Sports I did give the two timekeepers a shock by coming in first in the quarter mile a hundred yards ahead of the rest of the field at a time close to the UK record, but only because the idiots running the event had put the finishing tape in the wrong place. I was hugely annoyed, as it was a perfect day and I’d felt on top of my form and was fairly sure that otherwise I would have recorded a personal best – only slightly faster than Mo Farah achieved on his last lap after having already run 9,600m.
There were two reasons why, despite my overall lack of interest in the Olympics, I was pleased to hear of the two gold medals for Mo Farah. First because like some others who won medals he was a migrant to the UK, coming here from Somalia to join his father who was working here when he was only eight. It’s good to see anything possible in the media about any migrant. He was not a refugee; his father, of Somali origin, was born in London and grew up – like me – in Hounslow, and had the right and intention to bring his family here, but illness and confusion in Somalia meant only Mo came. Being a migrant did come with problems for him, and at 14 he had to turn down the opportunity to compete with a British team in Latvia both because Latvia would not let him in and more importantly because our racist immigration system would not have allowed him to return to the UK.
Secondly because perhaps something of the Disley legacy still lives on at my old school, which by the time Farah went there had become the comprehensive Isleworth and Syon School, where his running ability was recognised and encouraged and his winning career began. I like to think it was perhaps during those short and long circuits that he showed his mettle.
But it was also at that school that my own athletic career came to an end. Another aspect that Disley had encouraged was cross-country, and when as sixth-formers whose interests had developed along other lines, it was an option we adopted for the compulsory afternoon of sport. It took us a few hundred yards north of the school across the Great West Road to Jersey Gardens, a small park with a secluded small roofed seating area at the top of a rock garden where we sat talking and smoking until it was time to rejoin the small band who had actually covered the three and a half mile course, trailing back to the changing rooms behind them.