Q & A: In search of lost nations . . . . . . and footballers in glasses

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Why don't some countries (Tibet and Greenland, for example) enter major sporting competitions such as the Olympics and the World Cup? How long is the list of non-competitive nations, and what reasons do they give for not taking part?

Although in 1985 Greenland became the first country to leave the EC, the world's largest island is not (yet) a fully fledged independent nation but an autonomous region or dependency of Denmark, much like the Isle of Man is to the United Kingdom.

Similarly, Tibet is not (yet) fully independent, having been annexed by China in the 1950s in precisely the same way as Kuwait was annexed by Iraq; not having any oil, however, Tibet still awaits its liberation. Its leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, has indicated his willingness to settle for limited autonomy rather than full independence.

There is no reason even now why Tibet should not compete internationally in the same way, as, say, Scotland and Wales do in football, beyond Chinese intransigence: at the moment the Tibetan flag remains illegal and its display punishable by unlimited imprisonment, torture and death - something of an obstacle to Olympic participation.

The only remaining nearly-independent Himalayan country is Bhutan (India has charge of its defence), which does compete in its national sport of archery (so far without winning anything). The central Asian nation of Mongolia of course won two medals at the last Olympics, at shooting and its national sport, wrestling.

It is also worth commenting that the selection of Olympic sports discriminates against some countries - one would expect a better show of medals from Laos were the skilful and visually spectacular sport of takraw (kick

volleyball) to be included. - Adrian Abbotts, Leicester.

In Grand Slam tennis tournaments, has any player been 0-40 and 0-5 down in the third set having already lost the first two sets to love, and then fought back to win? If not, what is the greatest recovery ever achieved?

I don't think so. And I won't be alone in pointing to the Wimbledon semi-final between Henri Cochet and Bill Tilden in 1927 as providing the greatest recovery; Cochet, after being two sets and 1-5 down, won 2-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.

I haven't come across a convincing explanation for Tilden's defeat. In his biography of 'Big Bill', Frank Deford called it 'bizarre'. Of course those days were so different - wooden rackets, long trousers and all that - that it's difficult now even to imagine what it was like playing then.

It's not just the game that's changed, but also the reporting of it. See how many things you can find in this extract of the Daily Telegraph report of the Cochet-Tilden match that you wouldn't write now: 'Tilden had no opposition worthy of the name in the first (set). He was gay, insistent, dominating, hitting the lines with drives of withering speed, serving balls that brooked no reply . . . ' (from The Romance of Wimbledon by John Olliff). - Sir Harold Walker, Woking.

In his heyday the great Denis Law always played with both shirt cuffs clenched in either hand. Why was this?

According to his video, The Denis Law Story, he kept a firm hold on his shirt cuffs as a result of a schoolboy habit while playing in his native Scotland. He was very slight, it was very cold, and he needed somewhere convenient to wipe his notable nose. For whatever reason it spawned a fashion among schoolboy 'strikers' of the 1960s and 1970s. - Mark Smith, Manchester M26.

When Denis Law played inside-forward for Manchester United there were a lot of uncompromising defenders about: Hunter (Leeds), Harris (Chelsea), Smith (Liverpool), Storey (Arsenal) to name but a few. They'd have the shirt off your back as soon as look at you. Law knew that if he lost his, Matt Busby would deduct the price of a new one from his wages. So the king of Old Trafford took a firm grip of the cuffs from the kick-off until he was safely back in the dressing-room. - David Nettleton, Bury St Edmunds.

Has there ever been a professional footballer who played in glasses?

Yes. I remember a professional footballer with the Belfast club Glentoran who wore glasses during matches in the mid- to late-1960s. He kept them on with tape and they were made with 'unbreakable' glass. I think his name was Sinclair (Wilbur or William Sinclair?) and he played in midfield, in a Billy Bremner role.

I made occasional trips to Belfast from Oxford to support Linfield at the time and saw him play in glasses several times against Linfield, with a 'big two' match in Belfast in the late-1960s attracting up to 20,000 spectators. I also saw him do a good job on Eusebio in the European Cup in September 1967, when Glentoran drew 1-1 with Benfica in Belfast in front of more than 30,000. They drew 0-0 in Portugal and went out on the away goals rule. Benfica went on to meet Manchester United in the final at Wembley in May 1968. - Laurence Main, Machynlleth.

In the 1920s an amateur by the name of J F Mitchell played in goal for Preston North End and Manchester City. He won one England cap (v Northern Ireland, 1925) and wore spectacles throughout his career.

In the 1922 Preston v Huddersfield FA Cup final Mitchell employed, albeit unsuccessfully, 'Grobbelaar'-type tactics in an attempt to put off a penalty taker. Mitchell was not a professional player but he did play the game at the highest level. - Ian Walker, Carmarthen, Dyfed.

Alec Raisbeck, a fearsome whiskered half-back who played eight times for Scotland (seven against England) between 1900 and 1907; W S Bourne (West Ham United full-back, 1908-11); Annibale Frossi, who scored both of Italy's goals in the final when they won the 1936 Olympic title; and J F (James Frederick) Mitchell, the only player known to have won a full England cap (1924 v Ireland) while wearing specs.

Abroad there was Jef Jurion, who won 64 caps for Belgium (40 as captain), between 1960 and 1967. Van Deale, the defender who scored the only goal of the second leg when Feyenoord won the World Club Cup in 1970, had his glasses broken by one of the notorious Estudiantes players. The first player to be capped for England while wearing contact lenses was Jack Howe against Italy in 1948.- Chris Freddi, London W12.

Folklore suggests not. Every footballer is blessed with perfect vision. It's the ref who needs the glasses. - Bob Forster, Shipton-under-Wychwood.

Has a marathon ever been run competitively on the track? What time might be expected from top marathon runners today if they competed on the track?

I am not aware that a marathon has ever been run competitively on the track. The only track time I know of is 2:20.53. by Jeff Norman (Great Britain) on 7 June 1980 at Timperley, Greater Manchester, during a 50km race, when he set new world records of 2:42.00 for 30 miles and 2:48.06 for 50km. Both are still world bests on the track, although Thompson Wagawana ran 2:43.38 for 50km on the road in 1988. Jeff Norman's best marathon time was 2:12.50.

There are two main problems with running a distance as far as a marathon on the track compared with the road. The first is the surface. Distance runners do not seem to like Tartan surfaces and running in spikes on a cinder track can cause blisters and stiff muscles. As I recall, Jeff wore road running shoes (on a cinder track) when he set his record, which probably slowed him a little.

The second problem is maintaining concentration. It is quite lonely running so many laps on a track. Nevertheless, in the right conditions and with sufficient world-class runners in the same race I believe it would be possible to run under 2:10.00 at the moment. However, I do not think it likely that such an event will be held in the foreseeable future. - Richard Bond, Manchester M19

Yes . . . and indoors as well. In November 1908 Dorando Pietri, the Italian disqualified when he was helped across the line in the London Olympics the same year, travelled to New York to take on John Hayes, the American winner of the race.

They ran the full marathon distance inside Madison Square Garden on a track made of sawdust and soil. The crowd was 12,000, half Irish-American (supporting Hayes), half Italian immigrants (ditto Pietri). Rival bands played patriotic airs as the runners completed 262 laps, and a massive fight broke out in the stands and in the centre of the track when it became clear that Pietri was going to win.

Police kept a narrow section of the track clear, and Pietri came home in 2hr 44min 20sec; Hayes was 45sec slower. Pietri's time knocked 11 minutes off Hayes's winning time in London. - Brian Stater, London SE3.

ANSWERS PLEASE

Why do Leicester and Bristol rugby clubs wear letters and not numbers on their shirts? - Richard Hill, Worcester.

What is the greatest losing margin from which a team has recovered to win a football league match? - Stephen Tyrell, Kingston-upon-Thames.

Can anyone tell me without being too technical what is the best way to swerve a shot in football? - Richard Mort, Sheffield.

How was willow arrived at as the best wood for making cricket bats? Have any other types of wood been tried? - Geoff Plummer, Lincoln.

I believe that the many 'Spion Kops' to be found on English football grounds take their name from a battle in the Boer War. But can anyone give me more details about the origin of the term? - Phil Shore, Ludlow.

Has a pace-maker in a top-class middle-distance or distance race ever gone on to win? - Brian White, Peterborough.

My boyhood hero was the British heavyweight of the 1940s, Bruce Woodcock. What did he do after his retirement and is he still alive? - F Kelly, Tarporley.

Why is a scoring touchdown in rugby called a try? - Wallace Reyburn, London NW3.

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