Monday, October 25, 2004

Remaining focused is a difficult thing. After my booster of inspiration at the parade in London last Monday, I ran on Tuesday and Wednesday morning; only a mile, but still, both days I ran at 6:30 in the morning in the dark and the cold and the rain. On Wednesday, I timed myself – a little over eight minutes – not too bad.

On Thursday morning I woke up after a restless night and spent the ten minutes I could have spent running around the park locked in the same old argument. This time, the part of me that reckons it probably isn’t ideal to run every single day in case I get injured prevailed. Missing Thursday made it so much easier not to run on Friday either.

Inspired by guilt, I did another timed run on Saturday morning. The whole way round I felt heavy and slow. On Wednesday, I had finished strongly and was thinking about how I ought to up my distance the next time – on Saturday, I had regressed to the "try not to be sick" stage. However, despite my heavy legs, I did it in less than seven and a half minutes on Saturday – El Guerrouj could have lapped me, possibly more than once, but I’m getting quicker.

My body is still a strange hybrid of several different kinds of athlete. I have the splayed feet and skinny, bandy legs of a distance walker. My belly is doing its best to balloon out like a top division weightlifter. My pectoral muscles are a long way from the chiselled perfection of a swimmer’s, and more closely resemble the concave chest of a marathon runner.

My arms should be good for swimming, at least in terms of length if not in terms of build. I read somewhere that Michael Phelps was an ideal build for a swimmer as he was 6'5" tall and 6'6" wide from fingertip to fingertip; I’m 6'4" tall (almost) and 6'7" wide. With a few light weights to build up my arms, and with my belly providing a degree of ballast Phelps so patently lacks, I should be up to his standard in no time.

Aside from my physical failings though, I need to build up again my ability to focus. When I used to play golf to a higher standard than I do now, I would practice pretty much every day. Some days the weather was dreadful - practicing in that can do your swing more harm than good as you compensate for wind and rain – but it was important to practice anyway; having done so, I was free to stand on the first tee at the weekend and feel like I’d worked harder than everyone else. That can give you confidence.

Similarly, I don’t imagine it will make a great deal of physical difference to a marathon I will try to run at some point in the next four years if I run one mile in the dark tomorrow morning or not, but maybe, as I arrive at the wall of pain that I am assured awaits me on that fateful day, I’ll remember how hard I worked, and I’ll remember getting up early in the morning to do something I don’t really like doing, and I’ll carry on running when I might otherwise have stopped.

Great Olympians don’t get to the pinnacle of their careers because they ran a mile in the dark one morning – they get there because they did it every morning while the rest of us stayed in bed.

Heroes On Parade

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Today is a typical October day in the UK - it’s wet, it’s dark and it’s cold. Yesterday’s weather bucked the October trend with a sense of timing that any of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes parading through London would have died for - the sun was out, the temperature crept up and the wind stayed away.

Around three-quarters of a million people turned up to shout things about swinging chariots at the English rugby team when they paraded the World Cup through London last year; the police reckon about a third of that number turned up yesterday to cheer on the ‘Parade of Heroes’ – although, whether or not that number included the people hanging out of their office windows along the route isn’t clear.

I watched the whole thing from inside the ropes in Trafalgar Square, courtesy of Timo and his magic yellow wristbands. I pretty much just stood there for a couple of hours with my mouth open in glee and awe as Olympian after Paralympian was herded out onto the stage to exchange a bit of lively banter with Steve Rider and Sue Barker*, and then to sit down to one side and sign endlessly thrust autograph books and t-shirts. It was a privilege to be there so close to the action.

A greater privilege was to come though when the live broadcast had finished and we met up with Sascha and Nyree backstage and headed to the local Sports Café for a bite to eat. It took us the guts of half an hour to get 500 yards. It’s amazing how a few medals hanging around your neck will make complete strangers approach and ask you questions. It is also amazing just how patient two tired, hungry Paralympians can be with their public.

“Can I touch your medals?” - of course

“Will you sign this for me?” - of course

“Any chance of a photo?” of course

Nothing was too much trouble, nothing too intrusive. Every request was granted, and granted with a smile and with thanks for coming to the parade and for watching the Paralympics on TV.

And so, while Pinsent, Law, Holmes and Co. (and possibly Coe) headed to the Palace to meet Her Majesty, we hung out in the Sports Café with nothing to adorn our humble table but four golds, two silvers, a pair of bronzes and some nachos. The waitress’ eyes nearly popped out of her head. “Can I touch them? Will you sign this? Can I take a photo?” Of course, of course, of course.

There is something more in touch with the Olympic ideal about the Paralympians – perhaps a disability in one area makes you appreciate more your abilities in another – the spirit of fair play and the importance of taking part rather than winning seems uppermost. I liked the fact that the culmination of the parade took place in Trafalgar Square, with a large crowd swarming around an enormous monument erected to one of the world’s more famous amputees.

Outside the restaurant, Sascha had to phone Greater Manchester Radio to give them the interview they’d asked for. Traffic ripped up and down the street, and he was having trouble hearing what his interviewer was saying. Nyree provided a simple solution that had us all in stitches and produced the photo of the day. When we parted company at Charing Cross, they both thanked me for coming to the parade. The pleasure was entirely mine.

There’s a story on the BBC website today about how success in Athens for the British teams has inspired more than a quarter of the population to want to play more sport. In the end, I didn’t need to ask Sascha about how to get out of bed in the morning to go to training. I watched him swim in Athens and then yesterday I held his medals. As I said before, the weather today is wet and cold, but at 6:30 this morning, I wasn’t in bed having my usual argument with myself about lying in for ten more minutes, I was running round the park in the dark.

If you want to see more of the pictures from yesterday, some of the better ones are here.

*It was also interesting to note that Sue mumbles her lines to herself nervously as they count her down before they go live. Later, there was a strange sight (indicative of our society’s skewed value system) when I spotted one of the Olympic heroes getting an autograph from Steve Rider.

The Drugs Don't Work

Friday, October 15, 2004

Further to a comment from the Ultimate Olympian’s biggest fan, I had a rummage around the Internet in search of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances [.pdf].

I hadn’t intended to sail all that close to the wind in terms of what I consume in the coming years, but, despite Beckham’s most fervent protests or apologies, intentions don’t count for much if you get caught doing it wrong. Like any good athlete should, I’ve had a quick read through the list just to make sure that eating my favourite flavour of crisps isn’t going to constitute a contravention of any rules.

It’s interesting that WADA feels the need to be explicit about the fact that diamorphine isn’t allowed – I can’t think of any sport in which heroin would be considered performance enhancing. It’s also quite funny to note that two Olympic sports (Archery and the shooting stages of the Modern Pentathlon) set a limit on the in-competition use of alcohol – does that mean it’s fine to turn up drunk as a lord for any of the other events? Suddenly, I’m feeling less worried about that 10m platform dive.

Just ten more minutes...

If Google is anything to go by (and of course, in this instance, it patently isn’t), I am already the ultimate Olympian. Google those two words and this site comes up at the top of the list – comfortably ahead of a couple of stories about some guy called Redgrave. I looked into Redgrave’s record – he competed five times at three different disciplines over the course of 16 years. No wonder he’s only second. I’ve done 5 different disciplines in the last six weeks!

Before Sir Steve won his fifth gold medal in Sydney in 2000, there was an interesting documentary about him on the TV based on a video diary he had kept in the run up to the games. From that, I have an image in my head of him gasping for breath and then vomiting having pushed his body to its absolute limit at the end of one of his training sessions. It would be safe to say that thus far my own training hasn’t been quite so vigorous.

Each morning, when the alarm goes off at 06:40, I lie awake for at least ten minutes before I actually get out of bed. In this time, I argue with myself about whether or not it’s worth the effort to go to work, and wouldn’t it be nicer to just stay in bed? My well-laid plan was to supplant this ten-minute internal monologue with a brisk one mile run round the local park. I’m doing it in stages though – now I lie awake and argue with myself about whether or not I’m going to go running. So far, bed has beaten the park every time.

I had also resolved to go swimming at least once this week. That hasn’t quite gone according to plan either – I still haven’t even seen the inside of any of Oxford’s public swimming pools.

In my defence, the nights are drawing in and the weather is rotten. At twenty to seven in the morning it’s still as dark as it was at midnight. Such factors tend to make me keener to lie around on the sofa than to go out running or venture to the swimming pool – although, to be fair, I tend to do a lot of lying around in the summer too.

I suppose I’m trying to confess to having had a bad week, but I’m making a bad job even of the confession. Katie and I did play badminton on Wednesday night, and I have done my usual 30 minutes or so of walking everyday from the car to the office, but I’m a long way from throwing up because I pushed myself too hard.

During the week, I met with Holly Goodall from the Sobell House Hospice Charity to talk about my plans and how best to go about certain aspects of sponsorship, event organisation and the like. It was nice to meet her and to know that she’s excited about what I’m doing.

Timo has very kindly invited me to join him in London on Monday for the Great Britain Olympic and Paralympic teams’ parade through the capital. I’m excited about getting the chance to see all the famous faces, but I’m probably looking forward more to meeting Timo’s brother and talking to him about how to get past the “I’d rather stay in bed” stage of my training.

Guardian Angels

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Those nice people at The Guardian have sampled the wholesome goodness of this site and put it on the linklog!

Between this and the number of times they used one of my devastatingly ascerbic comments on their over-by-over coverage of the summer test matches and their shot-by-shot coverage of the Ryder Cup, I practically work there now.

Badminton Review

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Badminton has been around for a very long time in one form or another. Historians offer examples of it being played in Greece, China and India as long ago as 100 BC. In its original state, the game involved a piece of cork with a few feathers stuck into it being kept aloft by a group of players working together. My first contact with the game very much reflected this humble beginning.

I have a vivid childhood memory of looking at my granny through a badminton net that had been carefully strung up in her back garden. The net was maroon in colour and had a thick white ribbon along the top. You got hopelessly tangled up in it if you got too close. The rackets were silver with strings that looked like very thin black and white candy canes. The grips were fake black leather with gold coloured markings that flaked off after a few games on a hot afternoon. Underneath the fake leather, the handle of the racket was wooden, but you weren’t supposed to know that because you weren’t supposed to pick at the grip when it started to come loose.

The shuttlecock had a red rubber cap on a white plastic base that was good to chew if you could get away with taking a bite before a grown up saw you with it in your mouth. Many years later, I discovered that you could buy the whole lot for a few quid from Woolworth’s, but at the time I was sure my granny had magically conjured the game and all its trappings out of thin air, as grannies were wont to do.

The game I played with my granny resembled the original form because the aim of it was to keep the rally going for as long as possible, rather than to beat the person on the other side of the net. We would count out loud as we hit it back and forth.

In the 1860s, some British soldiers stationed in India took this idiotic, airy-fairy pastime and turned it into a proper sport by adding a net, a clearly defined playing area and some stiff rules to be obeyed without question. They called it, rather unimaginatively, poona, after the town in India where they first played their version of the game. In 1873, the same imaginative process was at work when the Duke of Beaufort gathered his friends to his country estate (Badminton) for a garden party and to introduce them to a new game from the mysterious East.

I imagine the guests at that first garden party would have a hard time recognising the game the top players play today. For one thing, they’d be at least 125 years old and therefore unlikely to recognise their own faces in the mirror let alone anything else, but the game, now considered to be the fastest racket sport in the world, has made some advances too.

I love badminton and have played it off and on many times since those early days in my granny’s back garden. I have huge admiration for the top players, especially in the singles, which is a much more technically difficult and physically arduous game than they ever make it look.

Like table tennis, badminton can produce moments of magic that make all the participants smile, regardless of who won the point. In a sense, those moments are reflections of the game returning to its original form in which everyone worked together to stop the shuttlecock hitting the ground. I know I ended the badminton leg of this Olympic challenge by thrashing the net with my racket in frustration at having lost, so maybe I’m not the best person to say it, but those moments are the ones that live up to the Olympic ideal my mother used to preach at me in French – those are the moments when it’s better to be taking part than to be winning.

How Smashing!

Monday, October 11, 2004

Robertson & Emms? Silver medal? Yeah, but did they look this stylish?

Saturday’s badminton mixed doubles produced a match every bit as thrilling (if not quite as technically impressive) as the recent Olympic final – and, as with the result in Athens, the better team came off second best.

When we arrived, a problem that Gareth and I have encountered at the Peers Sports Centre before was in evidence once again – in the morning, the sun tends to flood the main hall with a bright, hard light that makes playing badminton particularly tricky for whichever team has the misfortune to end up playing facing the windows.

Katie and I lost the toss. I waited for Gareth to hand us the serve and scamper to the non-sun-facing end, but he threw me a curve ball by choosing to keep the serve, leaving Katie and I free to scamper where we liked. And scamper we did. I have to confess, I felt rather smug as we started – although in the end each game of the three game thriller was won by the team facing the sun.

Gareth and Jo face the sun, but win anyway.

The first game had all the ingredients of a classic encounter – rapid rallies, stunning smashes, deftly deceptive drop shots and me hitting my wife in the face with the shuttlecock. Luckily for her (and me) I was hitting a backhand and I was only trying to hit it back to Jo after a point had finished. I broke my own apologising rule. It was the beginning of the end. Gareth and Jo took the game, 15-11.

Despite her superior talent, Katie (modest as ever) lets me try a smash.

In the second game, as Katie got into her stride and took a controlling hold of things, we fared much better. There were some exciting rallies, which Emms and Robertson themselves would have been proud of, as the game rushed to a nail biting conclusion. Hutton and Forber made a last minute comeback, but in the end, we held on to win 15-13 and take the match into a final set.

We carried our momentum on as we rushed to an early lead in the final game. Again, I slipped into smugness. We were several points up and had the light at our backs. Jo’s serve had turned into smashing practice, and Gareth seemed to be lacking my killer instinct (i.e. wasn’t being as much of an idiot as I was). My smugness rapidly began to evaporate as the opposition mounted a comeback.

At 12-12 in the final game a long period ensued during which the serve changed hands at least a dozen times without any actual points getting racked up. The focus shifted from winning to not losing. It was tense. Well no, I was tense. The others seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Gareth resorts to his favourite drop shot as Katie and Jo admire his form.

The end, when it finally came, was embarrassing – not so much because I put an easy smash into the net to give Gareth and Jo the match, but more because I then thrashed the net with my racket, exhibiting perhaps a tad more vehemence than was called for. More work required on the “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part” philosophy I think.

Big thanks to my partner (in life and mixed doubles) for playing so well and putting up with my tantrums when I don’t win (in both arenas). Thanks also to Gareth and Jo for teaching us a lesson, and especially to Timo for filming the whole thing so adeptly.

Having now finished the badminton and the table tennis, there is really only the tennis left that I can play without some specialist help. While I set about contacting sports associations and governing bodies seeking that help and advice about having a go at their sports, I intend to do something I believe athletes refer to as “training”. It’s a new concept for me – running when there isn’t a race or a threat seems very odd – but we’ll see how it goes.

Result of Badminton – Mixed Doubles
Gareth Forber (GBR) & Jo Hutton (GBR)
John McClure (GBR) and Katie McClure (GBR)
15-11, 13-15, 15-13

Badminton - Mixed Doubles Preview

Friday, October 08, 2004

Britain, in the shape of Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson, won a silver medal in the mixed doubles in Athens. It was a thrilling final, watched by a very noisy British contingent (of which, our very own John Adams was one – he’s the one on the far end of the group (six from the left) – the guy in the cowboy hat is Soz, also known as the ubiquitous Ultimate Olympian comment-poster, Swiss Toni). Culturally, it was a giant leap forward for Britain as a whole.

Although it may not feel like it when you’re driving around this green and pleasant land, we are a nation of polite and deferential gentlefolk who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, so to come so close to winning a gold medal in a sport that requires one to be frankly rude in not apologising to one’s partner is quite an achievement. I have mentioned before the importance of not apologising when playing doubles – this was almost (but not quite) possible to do when I had Gareth next to me, but I suspect I may find it much harder tomorrow morning when I line up alongside my wife.

History is littered with examples of mighty husband & wife teams – Paul and Debbie McGee, Richard and Judy, the Krankies – so it is in illustrious footsteps we will gingerly tread as we carry the weight of history with us to the Peers Sports Centre at 10:00AM tomorrow. Gareth Forber and Jo Hutton provide the opposition, but they’re not married, so we should be fine.

I’ve played some mixed doubles before, but never with Katie. I can only assume from the state of her racket (retrieved from the attic at her mother’s house during the week) that she is either a ferocious player with incredible and terrifying power, or that she got really bored the last time she played and ended up eating the grip off her racket.

I’ve never seen Jo play either, although I’ve heard on the grapevine that she has a PhD in badminton studies, so I’m expecting great things. If she can offer the sort of feisty, controlled aggression on the badminton court that she displays when talking about her sister’s taste in men, we could be in trouble.

Timo Kindred (Sascha’s twin brother) is coming to stay this weekend and was pencilled in to partner Jo, until he remembered that he has only recently had surgery on his knee. He very sensibly relegated himself to official cameraman, and Gareth has come to the rescue to make up the numbers.

My main priority is not to injure anyone. When I played with a club last winter, a week would seldom pass without someone (although, strangely, never me) accidentally sending a shuttle or racket careering into one of the female players. In general, this doesn’t hurt that much, so it shouldn’t be anything to feel overly guilty about, but when you’re not allowed to apologise…

Table Tennis Review

Smoking is a really disgusting habit. Even smokers will concede that for the most part they don’t enjoy smoking, but they keep doing it, because, every so often, it’s just glorious. It’s that every-so-often that still haunts ex-smokers like me years after they’ve stopped; that moment after a warm day on the golf course when the first mouthful of cold beer hits the back of your throat and you briefly think that life would be perfect if you could only set fire to some dried leaves and inhale the smoke.

Eastenders is also a really disgusting habit, although much less likely to give you cancer. Night after night you keep watching it even though you know in your heart of hearts that it’s rubbish. Partly you watch because familiarity in this case breeds not contempt but a sense of belonging, and partly you watch because it reminds you that no matter how hard your day has been, its very unlikely to have been as miserable as Pauline Fowler’s. But you also watch because the odd time (increasingly odd these days by all accounts) they get it exactly right. From somewhere they produce a decent script and you realise at the end of half an hour that, for most of it, you managed to suspend your disbelief and you actually cared what was going to happen next.

Table tennis isn’t quite as habit forming as smoking or Eastenders, but it has its own little way of sucking you in. Like many sports, the participants spend most of their time failing and only a very small proportion of it pulling off the kind of shots that float like dreams through their imaginations. For every ludicrously difficult smash from ten feet behind the table that somehow gets just enough topspin to stop it missing the table, but not enough to make it dive into the net, there have been any number of failed attempts and containing shots.

The game’s timing tends to be impeccable. It’s when you’re at your lowest ebb and beginning to get frustrated with how incapable you both are of stringing together a decent rally that one arrives and makes you both smile and laugh with each other (no matter who won the point) like a couple of little children watching and believing a magic show. The ball does things you hadn’t expected it capable of, and your body reacts faster than you’d known it could.

It’s a game that requires both patience and talent in greater measure than I posses to be truly exciting. John Adams has a penchant these days for referring to things he likes as being such-and-such “of the gods” – during all our table tennis exploits, we produced just one rally that made him look into the video camera and proclaim it to be “table tennis of the gods!” And they must have had a hand in it, because I’m fairly sure that neither of us is half as good as we’d need to be to produce again the kind of form we found in that one lonely moment.

I will play again I’m sure – I own a bat and it’s not exactly an expensive habit – and I will watch with refreshed appreciation the efforts of the pros on the TV. It’s a good game, and I’ve enjoyed this leg of the challenge a lot, but I won’t be falling asleep tonight longing to be the next Jan Ove Waldner.

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Last week, we played a table tennis match (best of five) and it didn’t count. This week, John Adams and I rattled through another match (best of seven) in about 15 minutes as our doubles opponents looked on, busting at the seams to get in on the action. Last week, John beat me in a five game thriller, but the result failed to stand on a technicality. This week, I beat him in a six game sprint, and the result will stand regardless of the malignant chatter from the audience about the legality of my service action and the quality of the ball being used.

With the singles out of the way, the path was clear for the main event of the evening - the men’s doubles. This epic nearly didn’t happen. Through the course of the day I struggled to find a fourth player. In the Olympic spirit, I strove well, but failed to conquer. In the end, we were spared another wasted trip to the table by a virtual stranger – or a virtual friend to be more exact.

Huw Morris saved the day. Until he strode up to me and introduced himself last night, I had known him only through his postings to as the mildly disgruntled West Bromich Albion fan (is there any other kind?) using the screen name Salmacis. Having seen this website, he realised he lived just round the corner from the venue and volunteered as official photographer for the evening. Fortunately, he got my last minute e-mail before he left the house and brought his trainers as well as his camera.

After some confusion over who was left-handed and who wasn’t, it was decided by mutual consent that John and I would face Rob and Huw.

If playing doubles in badminton requires a degree of mutual understanding and consideration, then playing doubles in table tennis requires a degree in mathematics just to work out who should be standing where and who’s next to serve. Unlike badminton or tennis, where one half of the partnership could theoretically hit nothing but his own serves for the entire match, the workload is more evenly distributed in table tennis. If you hit two of your side’s shots in a row, the point is lost.

Getting out of the way is a hard skill to master – especially when you’ve just spent a quarter of an hour playing singles. On numerous occasions through the course of the match, I prevented John playing some exquisite shots simply by not realising until it was too late that I was standing between him and the ball. John on the other hand (polite, deferential Englishman that he is) didn’t once get in my way.

Having discovered the necessity to possess this difficult skill, I am amazed that the Asian nations are so good at table tennis doubles. I can only conclude that those who are good at staying out of the way also stay at home to practice their table tennis, while those who aren’t, come to Oxford to wander around looking at old buildings in front of me when I’m on my lunch break.

For a man who didn’t know he was playing until he arrived at the table, Huw played very nicely. He figured out my serve quickly enough that I had to try and change it halfway through the game, with messy consequences. Rob’s form was as I’d expected it would be. A word of warning to anyone playing anyone at anything – if the phrase “I used to play all the time, but I haven’t for over a decade” is used, beware.

Children play sport with a sense of discovery and careless abandon that can be very hard to beat. Adults playing a game (that they used to enjoy) for the first time in a long time exhibit a similar sense of rediscovery and excitement in their play as they journey out to their limits. In time, once they reach their limits and realise that they have contracted somewhat over time, they can become tentative and cagey – they stop playing and start working on their game. But on the way out, it’s all flourish and exhibition.

So it was with Rob. You could see his experience in the way he played, even if it was thinly concealed behind years of sitting at a desk and a particularly hopeless hired paddle. More than the rest of us, he looked like he knew what he was doing. He was trying to hit good shots, while the rest of us were just trying not to miss.

In the end though, all his talent couldn’t outshine the surface of the rubber on his bat, and John and I managed to eek out a victory. With the end of the game came the end of the table tennis leg of the journey; many thanks to John, Rob and (especially) Huw for playing with and against me. I’ll be playing badminton mixed doubles on Saturday morning, and then it’s on to tennis of the table-less variety next week. Four down, one hundred and twenty-four to go.

Rob and Huw celebrate avoiding the whitewash having just closed the gap from 3-0 to just one game.

Result of Table Tennis – Men’s Singles:
John McClure (GBR) beat John Adams (GBR)
11-5, 13-11, 11-13, 8-11, 11-9, 13-11

Result of Table Tennis – Men’s Doubles:
John McClure & John Adams (GBR) beat Robert Simmons & Huw Morris (GBR)
11-5, 11-7, 11-9, 9-11, 9-11, 11-8

Table Tennis - Men's Doubles Preview

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Tonight we return to the Peers Sports Centre to play the table tennis doubles, and to replay the singles match John and I didn’t quite manage to pull off last week. The line-up of participants has not yet been finalised, but one player who will certainly be making his debut in the Olympic challenge is Robert Simmons. He’s a director of the company I work for, and pretty much everything I produce for work passes under his nose before it goes out the door. I suppose I’d have to call him my boss.

I’m not reluctant to call him that because it isn’t the case (he is my boss), or because he adopts the ridiculous “Call me Rob!” position of the wannabe down-with-the-kids teacher everyone has had to suffer at least one of in their school years. We do call him Rob, but only because that’s his name, and not because he asked to borrow the latest Nirvana album as he had heard it really “spoke to people of our generation.”

I am reluctant to call him my boss here because I hate to cede anything to anyone in a sporting context, and I don’t want him to read this before we play and get the idea that he’s going to be able to boss me around on the table tennis table.

Before I played badminton with Gareth against John and Will last week (to aid my fitness rather than to tick anything off the Olympic list), there was some discussion about whether or not we should retain the same partnerships as we had established the week before. During that discussion, as Will pondered our relative strengths and weaknesses aloud, I told him that he should bear in mind that whatever was going on, I’d always want to beat him more than he’d want to beat me.

I didn’t say that because I dislike Will; on the contrary, I find it hard to imagine anyone taking exception to someone so affable. I said it because I’m too competitive about certain things. Like everything.

I grew up playing golf. I don’t know how many matches I have played in my life, nor can I remember their results, but I’d guess that I’ve probably won about as often as I’ve lost. I have beaten people whose talent was (and remains) far beyond my own, and people I should have been able to dispatch left-handed have beaten me. But I can count on the remaining functioning fingers of my right hand the number of times I’ve been beaten by someone because they wanted to beat me more than I wanted to beat them.

My friends joke about it quite often when we line up to play a bit of table football or go to the bowling alley. I play along, laugh at myself and pretend that really I’m just playing up to the characteristic they have attributed to me. But, if the truth be known, on the inside I’m as gutted as I was when Michael Thomas scored for Arsenal to deprive Liverpool of the league title in 1988/89 when their little plastic man on a stick kicks the little rubber ball past my little plastic man on a stick to win the game.

I don’t care about table football – it’s an irritating game that favours players with talents I don’t desire to acquire – but I really don’t like getting beaten. At anything.

In my calm moments, away from any arena that could be construed as competitive, I am well aware of all that this character trait says about me as a person. I am mildly concerned that if and when we have children, I will turn into the oft-lamented ‘competitive dad’ – a stereotype I despise almost as much as the aforementioned down-with-the-kids teacher. I know that very little in this world is truly worth getting competitive about and that no one will die because I couldn’t knock down more pins than you. But, when the game begins, that won’t matter anymore and I’ll still want to beat you more than you’ll want to beat me – even if you are my boss.

My mother, in her fervent desire to have her children share her love of all things French, would often wander around the house reaming off a passage of that beautiful language that she had been taught at school:

”Le plus important aux jeux Olympiques n’est pas d’y vaincre mais d’y prendre part, car l’essentiel dans la vie n’est pas tant de conquérir mais de bien lutter.” *

Which, roughly translated, means:

“The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, because the main thing in life is not so much to conquer but to strive well.”

It would seem I have a lot to learn.

* This quote was obtained from the woman herself, with the spelling subsequently confirmed by SMS, so it should be pretty much on the money. That said, she does often refer to herself in that medium as my “nun” and has been signing off from text messages “wowo” instead of “xoxo” for a year and a half now.