Bad at Sports (Good at Spelling): Why Don't I Care about the Olympics?

26/07/2012 15:47 BST | Updated 24/09/2012 10:12 BST

It's true that I once went to two football matches and enjoyed them. And I have been to two cricket matches, which I also enjoyed. Furthermore, I once memorised the rules of rugby for an afternoon, because my partner was white-knuckled over the final of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

However, I think it's probably true to say that the above paragraph describes the entirety of my interest in sport.

I think this is a shame. If I enjoyed sports more I might play one of them, which would be good for me, and I'd have more in common with some of my friends. And I might regard the Olympics with something more than boredom and despair. (The despair, to be honest, isn't about the sporting aspect but about the prospect of a summer filled with travel chaos, security everywhere, and disturbing reports about the treatment of workers.)

So why don't I like sports? I'm not the only person I know for whom the very mention of the word induces glassy-eyed ennui. And when I think about the reasons for it, my answer comes down to this:


My school wasn't any worse about this than any other. It's just something about the nature of how school sports works, as opposed to how academic classes, work. The trouble is that if you're bad at sports - and I was - it's really, really obvious. There you are: coming last in every race, being picked last for every team, being ordered to try to throw a javelin that is actually taller than you are and then falling over. (The latter was a particularly humiliating moment in my humiliating school sports career.) It's no fun.

I'll never forget the face of the girl who was assigned to play squash with me. It's a game I find deeply scary. You get shut in a room and someone repeatedly tries to hit you with a small, very hard ball, and apparently you're not allowed to hide in a corner till it's all over. It's a nightmare in an extremely literal sense. My squash partner, unfortunately, was very good at the game, and I would like to apologise to her for having been made to play with me. I would also like to apologise to anyone who played volleyball in my vicinity, since I never actually understood the rules of it. There was a large ball and a net and again, you weren't allowed to run away from the ball, and sometimes people shouted at you. That's all I got.

I liked table tennis. It will be apparent from my last paragraph that when it comes to balls, I'm a physical coward, and table tennis balls are reassuringly light and unlikely to cause damage. Badminton was also borderline acceptable. Hockey, on the other hand... I can't even think about hockey without shuddering. The sticks! The noise! The noise of the sticks as they hit bits of me!

So there I was. I got excellent marks in English, Maths, History and so on, but academic success at school is an ambiguous thing. It's not going to win you friends. It's not something you're supposed to be pleased about or tell people about. I feel embarrassed I even mentioned it. Forget I said anything.

It's not that I wanted to be awarded medals on a daily basis. (I would have been too shy to accept them anyway.) But it seemed unfair and it still does, that sporting failure is so public. That teenagers who are bad at running and hitting balls should have to feel that it's a mark of personal failure, when teenagers who were bad at, say, chemistry could just shrug it off. And rightly or wrongly, it really did put me off sports. As a short, plump, physically awkward girl with spectacles who couldn't return a serve if you stood opposite her placing the ball directly into her racket, I associated physical activity with embarrassment and unpopularity. And still do.

Of course, lots of people who didn't like sports at school grew up to enjoy them - Stephen Fry has written about this, for example. Nevertheless, I wish there was some way to make school sports less about who wins and who loses, and more about a collaborative joy in activity. And while we're at it, why aren't squash balls, you know... squashy?