Paunch at pace: Charles Nevin takes the measure of a grand line of corpulent sporting heroes

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The Independent Online
CHINS. There was Eamonn Martin, winner of the London Marathon, thumbs up on the front pages; and there, below the thumbs and the moustache and the smile, were the chins: definitely, two, maybe three, the tantalising hint, even, of a fourth.

It was Eamonn's first marathon; he was considered, at 34, too old to be taken seriously; but the most glorious part of it was that they also said he was too fat. Yet another of the sneers that are more and more the lot of the sportsperson who refuses to conform to the contemporary preference for a body resembling an awkward combination of clothes hanger, toast rack and two straws. But Eamonn laughed in their faces. 'I hope to be the fastest fat old git in the race,' he cried; and he was. The fat ones bite back.

About time. For the fat athlete has a distinguished pedigree, a far grander lineage than the pale, wizened performers. Pheidippides, for example, the original marathon man, was fat. But that is not why he dropped dead immediately after bringing the news of victory from the battlefield to Athens. Not at all. The truth is that Pheidippides died of hunger: what with the battle and everything, he hadn't had time for his usual breakfast of double stifado and chips and six Greek salads.

Samson, Achilles, Hercules, Spartacus, and such great men as these were all big lads, all good eaters, although Achilles could be a bit picky. Goliath? The little thin guy got lucky; and what an upset: you won't find anything to match it until Yeovil in the Cup in the Fifties.

No, up until our era, the fat gamesplayer was the norm, the example to be admired. Take cricket. Was W G some skinny apology of a person? He was not: he had that beam whose broadness marks the truly great player: Hammond, Hendren, Graveney, Cowdrey, for starters. And what makes them truly great is not just their arresting combination of bulk and grace - the same appeal as the Sumo wrestler - but, more than anything, the evident enjoyment which fat people bring to things, none of the dessicated run-machinery of a Bradman or a Boycott, but the joyous bat-flinging of a Milburn or a Botham. Gower? A fat man trying to get out. Gatting? Vice versa.

Look across the wide ranges of sport. Take that fine all-action activity, darts. Those tight, short-sleeved shirts demand to be filled in a rolling, convex fashion. And you can't have those chunky gold rings on thin fingers, it wouldn't look right. Snooker hasn't been any fun since the days of that fat Canadian with the perm who used to drink lager on prescription to stop his hands shaking. Boxing? Dempsey, Marciano, Galento, La Motta, Jack Bodell: there was real excitement for you. Nor was Ali ever accused of being without an ounce of spare flesh. Rugby? Stuart Barnes, or Rob Andrew? Thank you. Nor has League since produced a sight to match that of Billy Boston, the paunch at pace.

Soccer? Where would flashy Roy Race have been without old Tubby Morton between the Melchester sticks? And what about Puskas, Slim Jim Baxter, Gerson, Muller, Maradona, and Gazza, last of the line?

Marcus Berkmann is on holiday.