Beat the Mongol
12 August 2002
Every year for nearly ten I dreaded them: the 5k cross-country run in the Autumn term, Sports Day in the Summer. Inevitable presences - the pit and the pendulum. Identified on my arrival as one of the bright kids I had immediately been branded as not very sporty. I wasn't even the proverbial "last to be picked". I just didn't get picked. Even fat Sophie got picked.
It was a vicious cycle. I wasn't very good so nobody took the trouble to teach me to play football, rugby, tennis, squash, badminton, to run, jump or throw things. Nobody took the trouble to teach me, so I wasn't very good at playing football, rugby, tennis, squash, badminton, running, jumping or throwing things. So it goes.
It wasn't that people told me I wasn't very good. It was precisely because they didn't tell me anything, because I was passed over when others were allowed their moments of glory, that the fear set in. After years of confidence bashing I started to weasel out, even feigning a congenital heart problem in order to be signed off sick from the 1992 cross-country.
Sports Day was slightly different. I could "do" Sports Day without actually doing very much. I managed to get myself off sick once, only to find that I faced the ritual humiliation of helping with the announcements and teas in my school uniform, when everyone else was wearing their gym kit. By the next year I had realised that if I entered myself for the Shotput, I wouldn't have to do anything more skilful. I was terrible at that too, incidentally. But that didn't matter - it served my purposes.
This is how it came to be that I embarked on my adult life without any sporting talent or enjoyment whatsoever. It's also how I decided on my career. Never again would I come last at a school Sports Day.
* * *
I am Headmaster of a well-respected special school on the South Coast. In a woodland setting my highly-qualified team of teachers strives to draw out the potential of youngsters with learning difficulties. Our aim is to provide every pupil with the wherewithal to stand on their own two feet in the outside world. Every effort is made to operate according to the routine of mainstream schooling. So, we have a rather raucous May Fair, a most entertaining school play, Harvest Festival, Christmas dinner, and Sports Day.
Last year, as part of my own initiative to break down barriers between the teachers and the children, I organised a staff-pupil 4x100m relay race. It was my prerogative as Head to take the last leg. The other members of the team, who had originally been appointed to their posts on the basis of their sporting prowess, were carefully selected by me - two ex-sprinters and an England winger. There was talk amongst the three of how they would slow down to give the kids a chance. I had other plans. Victory was within my grasp. To secure success I determined on a few slight modifications.
Running against children with various strains of palsy posed very few problems. Some of them had very limited movement, and could therefore be selected for the pupils' team on that basis. But with Down's Syndrome children it is a different story. Many of those with the condition are physically able and at times quite fast. Not many people know, however, that their comparatively short life expectancy is due to the fact that they have very weak hearts.
Kevin was the school's star sportsman. Despite having Down's he could run the 200 in under 30 seconds - too fast for my comfort. So I brought in some ankle and wrist weights that my wife had used in the nineties with her Mr Motivator videos. Fitting them to Kevin's bloated, stunted limbs I reassured him that although they were heavy they were in fact special go-faster rocket packs that would be activated if he ran over twenty miles an hour. If the weights didn't slow him down, striving to run at that pace would.
On the day itself my three team mates ran admirably and set me up perfectly. Kevin was pitted against me in the last leg, and came out of the changeover very strongly. But as the tenths of seconds passed, out of the corner of my eye I saw him struggling. As I raised my arms flying through the line, feeling that unprecedented surge of victory, my rival's fell down towards the track.
The boy died (he was never going to live that long anyway). I won. It was great.