Cricketing Scientists

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Oxford University Plant Sciences Cricket Team prepare in earnest for the arrival this summer of the Bangladesh test side.

Cricket was included in the Paris Olympics of 1900 but never again graced the games. At the time, a French magazine observed that “cricket is… a sport which appears monotonous and without colour to the uninitiated.”

The editor of that rag had clearly never been to Oxford to witness the passionate and flamboyant play of the Plant Sciences team.

On the other hand, a British journalist reported, “We found the French temperament is too excitable to enjoy the game and no Frenchman can be persuaded to play more than once.”

In 1900, the cricket competition consisted of one match between Great Britain (represented by the Devon and Somerset Wanderers Cricket Club) and France (represented by staff from the British embassy in Paris). Great Britain won by 158 runs.

Although it is no longer an Olympic sport, I hope to play some more cricket in the coming years. I have been lucky enough on occasion to be invited to make up the numbers for the Plant Sciences team, and on Thursday night attended their AGM. It was a fun evening, and I probably drank more Kingfisher than any pseudo-Olympian ought to (even though it smelt like washing-up liquid).

Huge thanks to the team, not only for the invites to play last season and to attend the AGM, but also for the spontaneous whip-round that raised £60 for Sobell House – your donations are greatly appreciated and will do a lot of good.

Another Real Olympian

Friday, February 18, 2005

You think you know how much work and money go into the organisation of a country’s Olympic team – you inhale sharply when it is mentioned to indicate that you’re well aware of how expensive and time consuming it all is – but until you sit in a room and have it explained to you by someone who really does know, you haven’t a clue.

On Wednesday night, the University of Ulster’s Alumni Association hosted an evening in London at which the current deputy chief executive of the British Olympic Association, Dr Stephen Martin, gave a talk on how he and his team had gone about laying plans for Athens, and what they had done on the odd occasion when those plans went aglay.

I shouldn’t have been there really. I had a run-in with the University of Ulster once, but it was hardly enough to be considered an alumni. It was thanks to UU that I became a professional golfer. Having finished an economics degree in Scotland, I was provisionally enrolled on a post-grad accountancy course at the Jordanstown campus of UU. On registration day, I sat in the queue with lots of other people who had somehow been duped into thinking they wanted to pursue a career in accountancy.

When I arrived, I was already less than convinced that I was doing the right thing – half an hour in the queue surrounded by the living dead and my mind was pretty much made up. I got up and walked to the front of the line and handed the woman my form.

"I don’t want to register," I mumbled. "Sorry" I added, as though the woman might in some way have taken it personally.

"But… if you don’t register, you can’t do the course." No flies on her.

I’d love to say that I walked out of the building with my head held high and drove home to embark on a training regime set to inspiring music that culminated in me winning the Open, but actually I slunk away like a criminal and drove home very slowly wondering how exactly I was going to explain myself to my parents.

As I headed from the frying pan back to the fire, it occurred to me that moments like those – truly defining moments when you decide to swim against the tide of what’s happening to you, or even climb out of the water altogether – don’t come along very often. At the time, that wasn’t much comfort, but looking back, I’m glad I did it. I would have been a terrible accountant.

Ultimately though, that queue for registration was as close as I got to having any claim to membership of the UU alumni association, but I have friends (or my dad has) in high places, so I blagged a couple of tickets.

Stephen Martin played hockey for the same club as I did when I was at school in Northern Ireland. He played for the firsts, so I made sure not to upstage him by relegating myself to the fourths. When he wasn’t busy playing for the mighty Holywood team, he also played for Great Britain, on the team that won a bronze medal in Los Angeles, a gold medal in Seoul (“Where were the Germans… but frankly, who cares?”), and finished 6th in Barcelona.

His talk was very informative and full of little gems of information, which he managed to convey very well despite the constant heckling of a disgruntled Londoner who didn't want the games to be hosted anywhere near her house. I e-mailed him today to see if I can access his presentation anywhere online. He replied very quickly to say that his PA would mail me a copy on CD. When I get it, I’ll post a précis.

The highlight of the evening for me came when he announced that he had two books to give away – a copy of the Team Handbook and a copy of the Official Olympic Report from Athens 2004 – to the first person to answer a couple of questions. The first question had been answered before I’d processed it and the Team Handbook was gone.

The second question was "Where will the next winter games be held?"

I knew the answer straight away (largely thanks to a T-shirt John van de Poll likes wearing), but, before I could open my mouth, the heckler struck up again and bellowed "Toronto!"

"No – Torino!" I smugly said, hand already out for the prize. It might be my imagination, but I’m fairly sure Stephen Martin was glad that I (and not the raging mouthpiece beside me) was taking the book home. It’s a great book. If you want a copy, you can buy one here.

Many thanks to Timo for coming along with me and to Stephen Martin for giving the talk and answering questions – yet another Olympic legend who seems to also be a thoroughly bloody nice chap!

Row, row, row your... rowing machine

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Another very much appreciated donation to the cause – a huge thank you to the Prices for the rowing machine. Although, I don’t know why I’m thanking you – this pain I’m feeling is largely your fault!

It has been a weekend of pain. Top-level athletes (like me) are notoriously difficult to live with, so my wife took herself off to London for the weekend to get some peace. I have therefore spent two days distracting myself (from the heartache induced by this abandonment) with exercise.

I’m really too tired to put my mind to writing anything sensible at the moment, but suffice it to say that this weekend, in addition to christening the rowing machine, I have been for a 6km run (which turned into a couple of runs either side of a walk), taken my bike in for a service, and, tonight, I have swum 60 lengths (1500m).

The latter is the reason I’m not really able to muster the strength to type at present. I had lots of fancy ways to express the sentiment stored up in my mind, but in the end it comes down to just one cold, hard fact: I’m a long way from being able to do a triathlon.

It's Not Quite a Walk in the Park

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

I’m in the process of organising another event for the summer that might be more to the taste of the armchair fan. On Saturday 28th May, I will be doing the 50km walk along the Thames path from Lechlade back to Oxford. Thus far, about ten people have suggested they’d like to join me, and anyone else who fancies doing it is more than welcome to come along.

I anticipate covering the distance in about six and a half hours, but, for those of you with a gentler approach to life, there are plenty of good pubs along the way. In the coming weeks, I will be drawing up and posting out some sponsorship forms for those who want to take part. Drop me a mail if you want to join us.

Pale Rider

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Last night, I picked up my new bike from Neil Morrison. He did the London Triathlon last year, and has invested in a “proper bike” for this year’s race. The result is that I get to use the white stallion pictured above. I take it as a good omen that the bike originally belonged to Terry.

Neil proudly pointed out (and pumped up) the Michelin racing tyres he had fitted to the mighty beast; they look impossibly thin, like they won’t possibly keep the bike upright, but they do their job magnificently, even if the price is that you can feel every single bump. I made a mental note to avoid any form of slatted drain in the road.

Otherwise, it has no lights, the back brake doesn’t work very well and the front brake doesn’t work at all. In addition, I don’t yet own a helmet - so naturally I decided to cycle it home from Neil’s house in the dark anyway. Mostly I stuck to the pavement and didn’t cycle much faster than a brisk walking pace to avoid any trouble, but I did get one chance to crank it through the gears and see what it could do.

Holywell Street in Oxford is a dead-end for cars and, as such, is always pretty quiet. By the time I reached it on my way home last night I had familiarised myself with the controls (and the toe clips) and was beginning to get twitchy for some speed. The lights at the top of the street were green, so I slipped the bike into its strongest gear and stood up on the pedals.

I was stunned at how quickly I got from one end to the other. The road surface has recently been replaced, so the ride was almost silent once I sat back into the saddle. It was like flying! Fortunately, I resisted the urge to spread my arms and proclaim myself the “king of the world” but the sentiment wasn’t far off.

For a brief moment, I could see the appeal of the sport and that maybe, just maybe, all those hours of pain in the saddle might be worth the high to be gained from flying on tarmac. I was brought back down to earth (almost literally) when I reached for the front brake and discovered that it still wasn’t working, and then wrestled with the back brake, which only just managed to prevent me from making a more dramatic entrance onto Longwall Street than I had planned.

Despite my foolhardiness, I made it home in one piece, as did the bike. I’m looking forward to taking it out on the road in earnest once I’ve got myself a helmet and had the brakes fixed. I’m still a long way from completing the Olympic distance road race (259 kilometres – about 150 miles), but I’m a good bit closer than I was yesterday.

I'm also a lot closer to competing in a triathlon; my entry for the London Triathlon has been accepted. I have a starting place - whether or not I can convert that into a finishing place remains to be seen.


There have been several other new developments regarding Team Ultimate Olympian for the London Triathlon. Timo Kindred, who completed the event at his first attempt last year, has very kindly agreed to join the team and will be splitting his sponsorship between Sobell House and his usual charity, Hemihelp. We’re delighted to have you on board, Timo, even if you are still young enough to go in the 25-29 age group race.

Tim Sorrell (a.k.a. Swiss Toni) has officially entered the event and has also been busy trying to find out a) how we can go about setting up an online donations page that doesn’t involve someone like Just Giving taking a 5% slice of your generous donations (click on the 'terms and conditions' link at the bottom of the homepage), and b) if there’s a sprint triathlon somewhere convenient with an open-water swim that we can have a practice go at before the main event.

There has been some fighting talk from a pair of Simons – Bentley and Ferguson – both of whom have suggested that they might fancy doing the triathlon. Frankly, I think there’s about as much chance of either of them taking part as there is of me winning the whole thing, but I hope one or both of them may yet prove me wrong. They need to make their minds up pretty soon - entries close at the end of February.

I’m in the process of organising another event for the summer that might be more to the taste of the armchair fan. On Saturday 28th May, I will be doing the 50km walk along the Thames path from Lechlade back to Oxford. Thus far, about ten people have suggested they’d like to join me, and anyone else who fancies doing it is more than welcome to come along.

I anticipate covering the distance in about six and a half hours, but, for those of you with a gentler approach to life, there are plenty of good pubs along the way. In the coming weeks, I will be drawing up and posting out some sponsorship forms for those who want to take part. Drop me a mail if you want to join us.

A Real Olympian

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Ian Raspin - Canoe slalom legend and thoroughly bloody nice chap.

It’s all well and good for me to casually bandy about the word “Olympian” as though it in some way applies to me (when clearly it doesn’t, even slightly), but today I spoke to a real one: someone who participated in Barcelona in 1992 and again in Atlanta in 1996.

I’ve rubbed shoulders with the odd Olympian in my time. I’ve played hockey with Sean Kerly, Imran Sherwani, Stephen Martin and had a penalty stroke saved by Ian Taylor (they all came to the gala opening of a hockey club I used to play for).

I’ve fondled Sally Gunnell’s gold medal and asked her the kind of mind-numbingly dull and blindingly obvious questions that are now her stock and trade (“How did it feel to win the Olympic final?”… “Amazing!”… “Oh - you must have trained a lot.”… “Yes”).

When first I set about getting fitter to improve my golf many moons ago, I trained under the watchful eye and advice of Mary Peters at her gym in Northern Ireland. Only last year, I stood mere yards from some of the country’s top Olympians and Paralympians before gingerly holding more medals at lunch afterwards.

And yet, despite all this glamorous acclimatisation, and despite his very helpful, friendly and easy-going manner, it still felt strange to find myself having a phone conversation with Ian Raspin this afternoon.

In the Olympic canoe slalom, Ian finished 17th and 9th respectively in Barcelona and Atlanta. In 2000, he retired from competitive canoeing and took up coaching. From what I’ve read of him online and what I heard in his voice on the phone, he’s not a man to shirk a challenge, no matter how difficult it may be – which may go a long way to explaining why he has agreed to help me with the canoe and kayak slalom sections of my Olympic quest.

In assessing my existing capabilities, the first thing he wanted to know was whether or not I could swim. Encouraged that I could, he added “in fast moving water, upside down and wearing a helmet?” I’ll try anything once I suppose.

And so, thanks once again to Swiss Toni’s endless help, and in this instance his hospitality too, I hope to travel to Nottingham on 16th April to the National Water Sports Centre, to receive some coaching from an Olympic coach in an Olympic discipline.

It’s exciting, and it’s terrifying - apparently the odds against a complete novice completing the full 500 metres of a flat-water course in a Canadian canoe without falling in aren’t good, and the odds against that novice making it down an Olympic slalom course in one piece are verging on astronomical.

The Triathlon Squad

Tim and Caitlin present me with come essential reading.

I think it is now safe to say that Team Ultimate Olympian for the London Triathlon in 2005 has increased in number by 100%. Swiss Toni has officially declared his intention to enter the event, bringing the number of us now doing it to raise money for Sobell House to… well… two.

The picture above was taken at my 30th birthday party last weekend - huge thanks to everyone who came, and especially to those who came bearing Olympic gifts and handfuls of sponsorship money for Sobell House. My mother, fuelled no doubt by her seemingly endless supply of cooking sherry, produced a fabulous collage of my sporting prowess. I’m not sure the picture below will be quite of a high enough standard to give you the full effect – at least, I hope it won’t – but I’ll post it anyway.

Nothing to see here... move along!

I have been somewhat lax in my training (for want of a better word) in January, but I’ve been inspired by the encouragement of my family and friends (not to mention the frightening thought of having to do an Olympic distance triathlon in a little over seven months) to get back at it with renewed vigour. I have a course of antibiotics to complete for an eye infection, but as soon as that’s done, I’m going to hit the swimming pool and running track with a vengeance.