Prussian football, Scottish cricket . . . what's your game?

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The Independent Online
I WOULD have contributed to this debate on school sports

before now but I have been busy trying, and failing, to remember anything helpful about my own schooldays. Finally, under an intensive course of hypnotism and therapy, they have come back to me - and very illuminating they are, too.

I went, I now remember, to a school which made competitive sports compulsory. But this was no ordinary school. It also made weekly military training compulsory. That, however, was not all. It also made Christian worship compulsory twice a day. I shall never cease to be grateful to that school. At one blow, it cured me of any desire ever to play team sports, carry arms or believe in God. Who says that education does not sink deep?

Yet looking back over the years, I realise that the one sporting lesson that has stuck in my mind is not anything which I heard or learnt or rejected at that school, but something said by a Jewish American cartoonist who I doubt had ever played a sport in his life. Arnold Roth was a constant visitor to Punch in the days when Punch was alive, which were also the days when Britain was becoming aware that America had sports of which the rest of the world had never heard. I felt I had to be forewarned.

'Arnie,' I said to him, 'as the only American I know well enough to ask intimate questions like this, tell me: if I had to become interested in one American game, should it be baseball? Or American football? Or . . .'

'Baseball,' he said. 'That's America's great game. Not football. Not football. American football is too Prussian by half.'

Prussian? What did he mean by that? Well, Arnold came from Polish Jewish origins. Polish Jews are not free from curious prejudices themselves. He once told me that his grandfather had moved district in New York because

people from the wrong part of

Poland were moving into the neighbourhood. But I guess that most people from Poland, Jewish or not, felt prejudiced against the sort of organised, militaristic

society represented by Prussia, and if he identified those qualities with American football, he may well have had a point.

Can sports have a national or racial identity? I think they can, even if only for historical reasons. This school I was sent to was in the Scottish Highlands about 400 miles from my home - my father was one of those quaint people who believed that the less a boy saw of his family, the more close- knit a family it would be - and the only game you were allowed to opt out of was cricket.

Cricket was perceived as, somehow, not a real game. I think this was because it was seen as English and therefore foreign. I read once that cricket was introduced to Scotland by English soldiers at Perth guarding prisoners from the '45 uprising who taught it to their Scottish captives . . . Yes, you don't have to look as far as the West Indies for colonial experiences. So cricket was given an optional status at the school and I duly opted out to do athletics.

I wasn't particularly athletic. But I had a certain aptitude for high jumping, and wanted to develop it. Nobody on the staff had much idea about athletics, as I recall, but those of us who opted for athletics were an individualistic bunch - we all bought and borrowed books on training and technique, and then went our own ways to teach ourselves how to train, and throw, and jump, and run.

We learnt some good things from those books - for a start, that training should be based on the way the body works, rather than on the way a school is organised. (We learnt, as well, that most of the training methods used by the staff were discredited by science. There was, for instance, an age-old custom of sending boys on a long-distance cross- country run on the first day of the winter term. This, as an introduction to training, is probably the worst thing you could do, short of kicking them to get them used to pain, or beating them to make them feel keener on homework.)

So my memories of sport at school are solitary ones. I trained by myself, often getting up early (6.30am]) on Scottish summer days to go out and do it, and wonderful mornings they were, too. I practised by myself. I taught myself the rudiments of javelin throwing and pole vaulting, to find out how it was done, but most of the time I just jumped, trying desperately to beat my own record - I can't remember much about competitions, or getting into teams. I just remember realising that the staff were useless as sources of advice, deciding to do everything for and by myself and feeling a lot better for it.

Well, that's my contribution to the great debate. It was noncompetitive, voluntary non-team sports that helped to make me the man I am. Sorry about that, Sproat.

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