THE COUNTER REVOLUTION: Childhood Memories of Sport #1

“Now in the summer, I could be happy or in distress, depending on the company…”

(Today I have started exploring how three separate and seemingly unimportant childhood experiences of sport went a long way to forging me, both politically and as a man. First up, it’s a brilliant memory from a school sport’s day…)

A hot South London summer’s day. Such heat (for we are closer to the equator than the rest of London), oppressive midday rays only partially apologized for by mild evenings. I am nostalgia-visioning what for many people must be an abiding seasonal memory of childhood and adolescence: school sports days.

The chaotically edited highlights of my memory have these institutional rituals taking place always in body-cooking heat and nuclear blast blinding brightness. Every year. And I remember sports day being… boring. And a little embarrassing. Which amounts to a damning verdict coming from someone like myself more interested than most in sport.

In retrospect I can say that sports days were formulaic and sterile. Nothing interesting would happen. Or at least the events weren’t designed in order to facilitate such things. But one day, one glorious sports day, in an act I shall tentatively label ‘symbolically rebellious’, something very interesting (even profound) did indeed happen.

It was, I think, the sports day at the end of Year 9, so I would have been 14 years old. A hot furnace of a day – of course. I remember taking a big frozen bottle of water (for the heat) and an archaic Walkman with a cassette tape of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. (for the boredom). It was the usual dreary sports day. Mind-numbing… until two school friends from my default social circle of geeks and oddballs lined up for the 1000 meter race. Their names: David and Mustaffa.

Whilst not exactly lacking in physical prowess, they were distinctly definable as part of the ‘boffin’ set. Their appearance at the starting line in all-white PE kit was immediately uncomfortable on some level (and I perhaps felt a certain lost camaraderie for some of us oddballs had deliberately wormed our ways out of competing).

But they exploded from the start, running an unexpectedly fantastic race, accelerating into an early lead against the chasing pack. They continued, careering their way along the curved oval athletics track.

Already, by the halfway stage, they wre too far ahead to be challenged. But suspiciously they ran side-by-side – as a unit the pair were competitive against the rest, but not individually against each other. A thought struck me – are they going to subversively finish joint first on purpose? Such a thing caught my imagination, and the simple fact two boffins were absolutely hammering the race had captured the attention of many others.

Their legs trumbled thunderous ploughing poundations against the dirty orange track. An ungainly prowess, but it made handsome progress. Nearer and nearer the finishing line, still together, clearly conspiratorial in this neck-and-neckedness. Comrades. I found myself convinced that they were indeed going for the seditious joint finish, and I began to worry that some arsehole cultural arch-conservative of a PE teacher would tenuously/fictionally declare one or t’other as The Winner by a nobbly knee or unchewed finger nail. Just to, y’know, fit in a bit with what is expected… what is “traditional”… what sport (supposedly) is and should mean. Sport’s deeply ideal (and ideological) claim of binary simplicity. The cherished winner/loser dichotomy, an old imperial duality oh-so-worshipped within the cathedral of St. It’s The Taking Part That Counts.

Now, the end in sight! Only a few feet away from the finish… But they suddenly slowed down. What the…?! Within spitting distance of their supposed goal their winning running motion jams for a heartbeat and with a gust of uneasiness springs into reverse. Rewinding what had been only seconds earlier but with mad goggle-eyed laughing faces superimposed. THEY WERE RUNNING BAKWARDS. They were running backwards AWAY FROM THE FINISHING LINE. Running backwards away from the finishing line AND LAUGHING THEIR HEADS OFF AT THEIR REBELION.

Gloriously, confusingly unsharklike… whilst a PE teacher howled a banshee harpoon of unaccepting rage. Everyone watching was for a brief delicious moment most befuddled and shocked. And then many of us laughed. I especially laughed, roaring a Henry VIII thigh-slapping aeroplane take-off of a loud cackle. I delighted in their micropolitical two-fingered salutation of disdain to teachers and ‘normal’ kids alike.

However, it is only now, some thirteen years later that I come to remember this cultural artefact  and begin to think of it as something profound, something genuinely rebellious, something thoroughly interesting and not merely whimsical…

I have suffered a lack of appreciation for the powerful potential of aesthetic/spectacular rebellion for far too long. I blame it on a rather amateur 6th form hangover productivist bias. I am now coming to understand the significance and meaning of consumption. Thank the Lords!

David and Mustafa played with sport. Which is apparently what we all do. Okay, okay, we play along with the rules of a particular game (dare I say language game?! Ha ha ha!) and we most definitely buy into the cherished simplicity-claim of sport idealists – winners & losers. But by teasingly subverting this game (both the race and the whole sports day event), by making a spectacle of unsport, they established a very established and popularly consumed order. It was like themost successful postmodernist architecture. It was like Situationist pranks. Small-scale, yes… But! It was brilliant. It was revolutionary. It was very exciting. And I’m glad I was there.

So… what does this mean for wider sport. I enjoyed an anonymous South London sports day having one mere event… mocked. What about everything else? Well, to put it generally… The logical conclusion is thus: I, the subjective Me, Wolgang Moneypenny, wants to see sport deviated, abused, convulsing with self-doubt and hedonistic experimentation! But not totally. These wild chaotic abandons – the unsport – can exist only with the context of sport. The ideal of sport. The ideology. The rigid institution. The Hobsbawmian invented tradition so passionately defended by the stupid PE teacher.

Thus, the loneliness of my voice is appropriate. To an extent. There is room for countercultural manoeuvre within what would remain a believably sporting-ideal framework. And, I believe, a necessity. Sports greatest moments are often entwined with some aspect of unsport, ranging from the gloriously remembered sporting-failure of the 1970s ‘Total Football’ Dutch teams to the mid-race ecstatic celebration of Usain Bolt. By adding such things as Eric Cantona attacking the Crystal Palace fan and the attractions of football hooliganism to this list, I merely consider myself the extreme avant-garde of something already discernable.

And to put it specifically… If the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup came down to a penalty shoot-out, and the final penalty was clearly and deliberately missed with a wild 45 degree miscued hoof into the crowd – a bravely audacious act of cultural terrorism – I for one would cry with joy at the profound heterodox glory of it.

(He, the footballer-terrorist, would of course have to go into hiding as his country would issue a worldwide sporting fatwa. I would happily be the Bono to his Salman Rushdie…)


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