Outsider smashes his way to conker title: World media focus on village contest with Olympic aspirations

THE AUTUMNAL sport of conkers is still waiting to hear if its application for inclusion in the next Olympics has been accepted.

Let us hope there were no Olympic observers at yesterday's world championships in the Northamptonshire village of Ashton. For they would have seen Matthew Tindall, 24, a local who confessed that he had not played since he was eight, walk off with the title.

Last year's runner-up, Charlie Bray, a Hampshire gamekeeper who took the title in 1979 and 1986, admitted that the event's strict rules work against experts like himself. Bray, who has devised a training gibbet with a squash ball to improve his accuracy, says: 'It's about 80 per cent luck and 20 per cent tactics and skill here.'

Foremost among the rules is that the 200 competitors draw a fresh conker, attached to a leather bootlace, for each round. These are picked by stewards from a mile-long avenue of horse chestnuts in the village. This stops traditional schoolboy tricks such as baking or soaking in vinegar.

Conkers was played with cobnuts in the 1600s and even with striped snail shells in the 18th century. When both were displaced by horse chestnuts, the game was commonly called 'conquerors', soon abbreviated to 'conkers'.

The Ashton event, which started 29 years ago, raised pounds 13,500 last year for visual impairment charities. The competition, which attracted about 3,500 onlookers, has worldwide appeal, with film crews from Australia and New Zealand, though the title has only once fallen to a foreigner, the Mexican R Ramirez in 1976. It is also very popular in Ohio, where conkers are called buckeyes (hence the state's nickname, the Buckeye State).

Such global appeal will play a key role in the sport's Olympic hopes. But conkers only have a short season and collecting them in Atlanta or Sydney could be difficult.

(Photograph omitted)