A Journey into Scotland … Part 10
As a small boy it was my biggest ambition to go to the Olympic Games. I was as glued to the games in Mexico City in 1968 as it was possible to be given poor reception, school timetable (they were held in October), transmission times and the problems with satellite links. We’d been taken to The Roxy cinema in Ulverston as a boy’s-only-family-outing to see the official film of the Tokyo Olympics (some three years after the event) and hung on every minute of it.
Tall Greek maidens lighting the flame and it being carried through Lebanon, Iran, West Pakistan, India and on through Burma by men in immaculate vests be-decked only by the red circle of the Japanese flag.
Commentators declaring an equal world record for Bob Hayes (the first time I’d ever seen what he looked like, though I’d pretended to be him often enough) in the “one hundred metre dash”. The athletes being introduced by a clipped BBC voice for the women’s 800 metres. “The next athlete is a very pretty little girl. Yes that’s the Russian in the red vest…and on the inside is the petite Hungarian”. And it all concluding with the marathon which, as my memory serves, was shown with very little editing. By the end Abebe Bikila had joined the list of my sporting heroes. He didn’t drape himself in a conveniently supplied national flag. He took his shoes off and did a few knees bend to show he wasn’t absolutely exhausted.
When the Olympics did come to Britain in two thousand and twelve, I didn’t watch a race let alone apply for tickets. Call me an old cynic but the magic that drew me in the sixties was not just the enthusiasm of childhood but also something noble, and awe inspiring, in the sport. Now, it seems to me, that the one with the best sports science team will win. The rich nations will pocket all the major medals and multi-national companies will take all the credit and make a financial killing. I cared like crazy who won the five thousand metres in the Munich Olympics, I adored a Kenyan athlete called Kipchoge Keino. I refused to go for my tea whilst Ian Thompson was running the marathon at the at the 1974 European championships in Rome. Yet I simply don’t care who runs in, let alone who wins, the “Virgin London Marathon”.
I’m not against sponsorship and I’m not against professional athletics. In fact I was rather against amateurism in sport, from an early age, having recognised it as an excuse for privilege. It still is. (Take those huge Adam Appled twerps who turn up every four years to represent the country at sports the rest of us have either never heard of or can’t afford to participate in). If Coca Cola or Continental Tyres wish to pump millions into sport, let them. Just don’t give them the opportunity to use these events to advertise. If they really care as much about these events as they pretend to, then they should just hand over the cash without condition.The Olympics and other major sporting events are far too important to be de-meaned by corporate logos. I’ve lost interest in the FA cup since it became sponsored. I’ve stuck by my football team through most seasons, though I refused to watch them when they were sponsored by an on-line Casino, and I don’t recognise this season when they are apparently playing in the SkyBet Championship. Not with my entrance fee they’re not.
My model for the perfect sporting day out is right outside the youth hostel front door. The field has some football posts and is being kept well mown by a flock of sheep. I was brought here in 1966 for the first time and from then until we left the North West, the Grasmere Sports was the highlight of the Johnson Sporting Calendar.
It still takes place today, towards the end of August, and it’s still a fine day out though it isn’t quite what it used to be. There were hound trails and Cumberland and Westmoreland Wrestling. There were Scottish pipe bands, a tented village and there was athletics. Proper athletics. The AAAs stuff you saw on the telly with David Coleman commentating was for toffs and amateurs. This was the north. These fellas were professional. They were competing for personal glory, the honour of their town or village, but most of all, they were doing it for money.
It had to be serious for the spectators as well. No point in having a Powder Hall sprinter coming along and winning the hundred meters by twenty yards. Here at Grasmere, the better you were, the further you had to run. Slow runners were given a fair start and the real professionals didn’t always catch their tubbier counterparts. Barrow rugby league winger (and Powder Hall sprinter) Mick Murray ran here. So did lesser athletes. One fellow, slightly past his prime and beautifully arrayed in peach coloured shorts went through an elaborate forty minute physical warm-up only to pull a muscle twenty yards into his race.
The pole vault was a special treat. The event had been invented in Cumberland and the earliest world records were all held by athletes from Ulverston. The pole was stiff; a solid pole that could be used for fencing (as in things between fields not between armed fighters). The landing side was into a pit of damp sand. Ulverstonians had no intention of coming down from over ten feet into sand and the record stayed low. It was only when the Americans introduced a flexible pole and a softer landing that the bar started to rise. In 1912 Marc Wright of the USA became the first man to clear 4 metres. The current record is well clear of twenty feet (6.16m) by a Frenchman, Renaud Lavillenie. I’d like to see how well he’d manage with a fencing post and a patch of wet sand.
Cumberland and Westmoreland Wrestling was a highlight. It involves two separate skill sets. One for throwing your opponent in a version of the sport that goes back into viking culture, and second, to find the needlework skills to decorate your wrestling knickers up to the highest standard. All competitors wore long johns and a vest. Over the long johns either purple of black trunks, or knickers, were worn. These were decorated with embroidery of the highest order. Thistles were popular. Flowers, birds and animals adorned the substantial posteriors of many a lakeland fighter. All afternoon the announcer would be calling wrestlers to the ring. Most seemed to be called either Bland of Mickleback. Any wrestler who failed to arrive on summons was given a second call and then was “blarrrnn art” (blown out) which was Lakeland speak for eliminated. To this day it is my favourite form of the sport. It isn’t hugely different from Greco-Roman Wrestling which I think it ought to replace it in the Olympics. It would make a change from national flags draped around shoulders to have someone in an enormous pair of embroidered underpants receiving the gold medal from Princess Pointless of Olympia.
The hound trails were cross country races for trail hounds. These were specially bred for the sport and could keep up a sprinting pace over miles of lakeland fells as they pursued a trail of aniseed laid by a man pulling a sack. The appearance of this man, over the top of the steep hill to the east of the sports field, was one of the highlights of the games. There was a race for puppies and one, later in the day for adult dogs. The course was designed so spectators could make out the running pack of dogs in the distance and track them along the high ground above the sports field. In the final sprint, owners would gather at the finish line with bowls of food to make sure the dogs didn’t stop a few yards short.
The highlight, for me, was the Guides race. For centuries lakes men had acted as guides for travellers. Before roads they’d walk with the travellers to the next town, the next valley. The guides race was simple. It was a race to the top of the improbably steep mountain next to the field and back down again. Every year the same runner, Bill Teasdale if memory serves, reached the top first to be overtaken by a competitor who simply defied balance and practically threw himself off the top.
Add to that a picnic, bottles of pop, maybe a balloon which would fly away at some point, and a trip to my father’s ex-merchant navy colleague’s catering tent for free tea, cake and sandwiches and you have the perfect day out. If it rained then you got wet having a lovely day out but mostly the sun shone on the packed crowds.
I wouldn’t cross the road to watch today’s professional athletes with their supplements and sponsor’s logos and endorsements but I would walk across Westmoreland to see the Grasmere Sports again if they were just as they were in 1966.