Unless you have been living under a rock for the past four years, you will be aware that London is hosting the Olympic games at the moment. I’m not a sporty person, while Mister Litlove went to watch the rowing yesterday and has been glued to the television whenever possible. But what gave me a jolt was coming in to find a women’s basketball match on the screen. Seeing those scary girls, with ponytails they could use as offensive weapons, and faces whose natural default expression was a snarl, I was transported back to my early school days.
‘Oh Lord,’ I said to Mister Litlove. ‘Those are exactly the kind of girls who used to hate me at school.’
School sport was not my natural environment. I was one of those utterly hopeless people who get so flustered when others are yelling at them that I would drop or miss any ball. I was also skinny, pale and bookish, and back in the seventies, teachers would take one look at me and declare it ‘would do me good’ to be on a team. I can state categorically that it never did me any good at all. Note to all keen sports teachers: no fearful child ever overcame anxiety by being pelted with balls by hostile teammates. But, having no say in the matter, I was put on the junior school netball team, to the perfectly reasonable resentment of the capable players. I loathed netball. I hated catching the ball when it was cold, wet and gritty, I hated the bumping and the tripping and the grabbing that were supposed to be all part of the ‘fun’ and I hated the pressure of competitive sport. Plus there is no real pleasure in doing anything you truly suck at.
I do recall the one miraculous victory we had as a team. And Big Susan coming up to me afterwards and saying ‘You weren’t as rubbish and you normally are today.’ This was the highest point of my sporting career and strong praise. But it should not be mistaken as the point of transformation in the narrative. I was relieved not to be the object of derision for once, but I never thought it was anything other than a bizarre respite from the norm, as indeed was the case. ‘Ahhh, Big Susan,’ said Mister Litlove. ‘I wonder where she is these days?’ To be honest, I simply cannot imagine her as anything other than an outsize 9-year-old girl with one of those bob haircuts that finished halfway down her ears, a bit kinder than the others, in fact, as she intimidated just by standing there, a large, plain, redoubtable girl with whom one did not argue.
No, school sport was a long drawn out series of humiliations, in my memory. In the late seventies, schools were getting keen on the equality thing as a new way of torturing us, and I recall all too clearly the afternoon some bright spark decided it would be a good idea to make the girls play football for a change. Against the boys, of course, as if that was ever going to end well. Plus, we had nothing in our school games kit suitable for playing. Or at least I certainly didn’t. Believe me, you do not know what it is to feel stupid until you have played your first game of football in a leotard. Someone eventually kicked me the ball, and I had no better plan of action than to stumble over it. ‘She’s ambitious!’ yelled the male teacher. ‘Trying to dribble backwards already!’ Actually he said it quite kindly; the male sports teachers were on the whole less sadistic than the women, who believed incompetence was a wilful lack of effort, cunningly disguised.
From twelve onwards it was hockey in the winters, another ghastly sport, with the added humilation of two captains picking their teams from the huddle of girls, until only us misfits were left. I was always assigned some sort of wing position, to keep me out from under the feet of the serious players. If the ball was mercifully far away for once, hypothermia was often worryingly close. Our little pleated gym skirts and aetex shirts seemed wholly unequal to the weather, and even being allowed a hooded top did not seem much protection when the first flakes of snow or sleet began to fall. And what was the final gruesome reward at the end of an hour of freezing one’s butt off? The horror of communal showers. Believe you me, I was not the only girl who had her period for twelve solid weeks in termtime.
The only good thing about school sport was the immense feeling of relief when the whole sorry business finally ground to a halt post-16. Those of us who didn’t want to play in a team were allowed to play table tennis (which I really did enjoy) on the sports hall balcony. In this month of sports frenzy in the UK, I felt I had to put my hand up for all the irredeemably non-sporty people out there, the ones whose size or shape, whose lack of muscles or coordination, made them reviled outcasts over those hours of games lessons. However alone you may have felt, I am with you in spirit.
The thing about sport is that it requires some level of aggression, some sort of competitive impulse. I couldn’t hit or kick, and I didn’t want to. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of guilt if I won a board game. And no, school sport did not make me a team player, or keep me fit, or make me love the great outdoors, or teach me any useful lesson whatsoever. Some of us are just not destined to be well-rounded individuals. In fact, some of us come out of the womb arrow-shaped, pointing stubbornly in the one direction, which in my case was towards the library. If only I could have spent those hours of wasted sports lessons reading. Think how many more books I could have got through in my youth!