This Is The Life: Lessons in losing

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago I attended a friend's hen party on a chicken farm (truly) in rural Hertfordshire. The bride-to-be's idea of heaven was playing rounders in a muddy field all afternoon. For my own part, hell is other people armed with a rounders bat about to pick teams and regarding you with the gimlet eye that horse dealers reserve for nags with broken wind. I live down to my team's expectations. My innate fear of projectile objects and the timorous way I wield the bat recalls that classic Seventies playground insult, "You look like a complete spastic." Which is exactly how I feel.

A few weeks ago I attended a friend's hen party on a chicken farm (truly) in rural Hertfordshire. The bride-to-be's idea of heaven was playing rounders in a muddy field all afternoon. For my own part, hell is other people armed with a rounders bat about to pick teams and regarding you with the gimlet eye that horse dealers reserve for nags with broken wind. I live down to my team's expectations. My innate fear of projectile objects and the timorous way I wield the bat recalls that classic Seventies playground insult, "You look like a complete spastic." Which is exactly how I feel.

No amount of intellectual accomplishments can compensate for the crushing sense of inadequacy that overwhelms anyone unable to run, jump or catch a ball. This is why the headmistress of a primary school in Sutton Coldfield has taken the charitable decision to ban parents from attending its annual sports day, observing: "Taking part in traditional races can be difficult and often embarrassing for many children." And it's true that if there's one thing guaranteed to make your humiliation complete, it's stumbling in last in front of your crestfallen parents. What motto ever rang more hollow than "It's not the winning that matters, it's the taking part."

I went to a small village C of E primary school where the sports day was the pinnacle of the year's excitement. In a daisy-strewn field overlooking an unspoilt valley gladiatorial contests were played out between four school houses. There were sack races, space-hopper races, wheelbarrow races, and the incredibly prestigious round-the-field race for budding Paula Radcliffes. I failed at each and every one of them. My one sweet draught at the victor's cup came courtesy of a boy called David Boakes, who reluctantly partnered me in the thread-the-needle race. This spectacularly antediluvian event (which presumably evolved from ancient Kentish mating rituals) involved boys racing down the length of the track carrying lengths of cotton to a waiting row of girls. The girls clutched needles which they were supposed to effortlessly thread with their pseudo-husband's cotton before boy and girl joined hands and ran back to the starting line. Now, if there's one thing I fear more than sport, it's sewing, and David Boake's lightning pace was rendered futile by my inept fumbling - until he snatched the cotton from me and threaded it first time. Then he seized my hand and towed me smartly down the track like a pick-up lorry on the M25 to the undeserved laurels of first place.

Over the years I failed my cycling proficiency test three times. Ditto my bronze swimming medal. I failed to master the overhead tennis serve and couldn't climb a rope or perform a handstand. So I, more than anyone, appreciate the Sutton Coldfield headmistress's attempts to protect the physically inept. But I still think it's misguided. Not because, as some parents have ranted, "it's political correctness gone mad." But because weedy, skippy baton-droppers such as myself need to be made aware of the devastation that brutish, sporty types can visit upon us. Because it doesn't stop at primary school. You need to learn that discretion is the better part of valour, and the entire body of cowardice.

At secondary school I discreetly stood behind the apple trees until the horrid, rough girls flinging bullet-hard lacrosse balls at each other's heads were through. Later in life I learned to say no to "fun" invitations of an afternoon's wind-surfing or ice-skating. There is nothing fun about drowning or falling flat on your face and having all your fingers sliced off. One mantra covers every conceivable sporting activity: it is not enough to win, someone else has to suffer.

Clearly no one had explained this to the 17-year-old girls of Glenbrook North high school in Chicago, who agreed to take on their 18-year-old schoolmates at football as part of the seniors' leaving rituals, known as "hazing". The older girls assaulted the juniors with a baseball bat, a dead fish and pig intestines. Three pupils were hospitalised, and 12 others charged with assault. Dr Thomas Reardon, of the national Stop Hazing Campaign, said, "All these girls came from good homes with values and ambitions, and individually, none of them would be likely to do things like put dog faeces in another girl's mouth." "Individually" being the crucial word. As I have long known: 12 women armed with a rounders bat is GBH waiting to happen.

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