Athletics: Day I discovered De Coubertin was wrong

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The Independent Online
EVEN BEFORE I lined up, I realised I had made a bad mistake. The Watford and District schools athletics meeting had attracted a large number of attractive girls to the Woodside Stadium, and as they chattered in the main stand or glanced towards the track on which I stood, I thought to myself how interesting girls from schools other than your own always were.

Some of them looked just like girls in your own school, but you knew that if you went up and talked to them, these creatures in different coloured uniform, or at least got talking to someone who knew them, and got to speak to them that way, they would be different and more interesting. At least, you thought you knew. And it was always interesting to find out.

But there was no chance of finding anything out about the assembled females at this time. And there would not be a chance, because I knew with a sick feeling that by the end of the first proper track race I had ever contested I was going to slink away as a loser.

From where I stood, or rather loitered, there were three insuperable problems. And they were all my opponents.

Two of them were wearing the full running kit and spikes. Spikes! For God's sake...

One of the well-kitted out pair, I gathered, was a county champion. Both were already running up and down the track in little bursts, apparently unworried about the possibility of getting puffed out before the race started.

Even though I knew it would not do me much good, I decided there was no way I was wasting my energy like that. Besides, I hadn't got the nerve to do it anyway. I didn't want to raise any false expectations.

The competitor who completed the line-up - four runners! Where were the duffers when I needed them? - was my friend, Kidder. He wasn't really called Kidder, but he called me Kidder and I called him Kidder. It was The Return of the Likely Lads that made us do it.

Kidder was one of those people who applied himself to goals and achieved them. That's him Kidder, not me Kidder. He approached running with the same determination as he did Latin verbs or chemical equations. And I knew that in preparation for this race, for the previous month at least, he had been paced around the country lanes near his house by our mutual friend Pete, who was equipped with a bike and a stopwatch.

So Kidder was definitely going to beat me. And the two characters in the fancy kit were going to beat him. There was nowhere to run - except, of course, around this strange, bouncy track. For 3,000 metres.

As the race took shape - over the first 100 metres or so - I decided the only thing to do was to adopt the stoic attitude. This was something I had got into without thinking - "What about you, Rowbottom? You like athletics, don't you?" "Yes sir." "Right then. We'll put you down as well." - and now I had to accept my lot.

After a couple of laps I began to pick up some sympathetic applause when it became clear that my lagging 50 or so metres behind the leading pair was not a tactical ploy. By the halfway mark I had come to value my adidas Rom trainers, because, I believed, they announced to the watching nubiles: "I am not a serious runner. I am just here for a laugh." The difficulty here was that, as Kidder disappeared, I wasn't laughing. I had never knowingly run 3,000 metres before, and the experience was not pleasant.

The key, I decided, was to focus on the words of my old games master, Mr Chester-Hall. With his crinkly ginger hair, bowed legs and gaunt cheeks, Chiggy Hall - as we wittily called him - would accompany us on Wednesday morning runs through the suburban highways and byeways of Croxley Green. Before we set off, our leader - who was, as it happened, unable to pronounce the letter R - would seek to modify our behaviour with a standard message.

"Wemember," he would say, "this is a cwoss-countwy...wun, and NOT a cwoss- countwy...wace." I think what Chiggy Hall was trying to say was that the important thing was to enjoy the experience of running, of exercising, rather than trying to beat your neighbour. It was a homespun version of de Coubertin's timeless advice - that it is the taking part, and not the winning, that counts.

And, do you know, he was absolutely wrong. I crossed the line at Woodside Stadium a distant last - exhausted, humiliated. I went home and decided to concentrate on football for the rest of my life.