School sports – all must have prizes

"There's my little darling in his chariot race!" (Photo: IMDb / Warner HE)

“There’s my little darling in his chariot race!” (Photo: IMDb / Warner HE)

Every first of September I cheer inwardly – and a little outwardly too – that I’m not going back to school today. School’s out forever, baby!

Running wasn’t a major part of my school days. In my all-boys secondary school our weekly P.E. class was usually devoted to Gaelic football.

One day we were given sticks and told to play hockey. Surveying the ensuing carnage, our P.E. teacher made a mental note to avoid that mistake again.

At primary school, though, we had running as part of our annual sports day.

Now you may be thinking that my marathon finisher medals and personal best times of today were forged on the playing fields of my primary school. You’d be wrong. Despite being a member of our local underage athletics club, I had little success at the school sports.

In my early years of primary school, sports day was a summer outing with a festive feel, where our parents would come along. Indeed, my fondest memory of those first school sports day is from when I was around seven years old: a sudden shower sent everyone sheltering under the dry arch of a nearby bridge, where I remember my mother giving me the rare treat of a Mars bar.

Running was obviously peripheral to my experience of that day, although today I get an exquisite Proustian thrill when I find a bar of chocolate in a post-race goodie bag.

As I got older and sportier, perhaps I overcompensated and focused too much on tactics over hunger. One year, for the longest race of the day – three laps of the school football pitch – I hatched a plan. I would go easy at the start, let everyone else hare off, and then in the last lap I’d skip past the exhausted bodies to victory.

The starting whistle went, and after a few measured strides I looked up to see a dozen of the field at the far corner of the pitch, already a half lap ahead. And half a lap ahead they stayed.

My plan hadn’t factored in the chink in my athletics armour: my lack of speed. In sprints I would finish halfway down the field – never slow enough to be embarrassingly last but never fast enough to get near a medal place.

But that school sports day included some non-standard events, probably a commendable effort at ‘all-must-have-prizes’ inclusion by our kindly principal. (He was the same principal who got us taking part in my first 10k and later brought us for swimming lessons.)

One popular event was the slow bicycle race. All the competitors would line up on their bikes at the start. The winner was the last person to cross the finish line without going backwards or putting a foot on the ground, which meant you had to inch forward and balance carefully on your bike.

And then there was something we called chariots. It was a sprint for teams of four: one carrying another on their back, and then the two others holding each leg of the person being carried. (It was discontinued as an Olympic event after the Fake Leg scandal at the 1956 Games.)

That same year as my ill-conceived long-distance strategy, I was in a chariot team. For my role of carrying the left leg of my classmate there wasn’t a technical or positional name. You can just call me a charioteer, a veritable Judah Ben Hur.

We blasted off at the start, covered the grassy 60 metres and crossed the line in a blur. Only when a teacher came up to us and handed out slips of paper marked ‘3’ did we realise what had happened. We had come third! We had won bronze!

In my years of football and athletics up to then, this was the first sports medal I had ever won.

Actually, what I won was a small, square marble plaque with the bronze-coloured medal embedded in it, above the word ‘Chariots’. I received it at the school awards night the following week; when I went up on stage to collect it, I showed it proudly to the audience of parents, including my mother, as if I had won an Oscar.

And do you think I can find that precious bronze plaque today? Of course not.

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