Today it was school sports day for the children. A scorcher of a day for a change, the blue sea shimmered in the distance as the kids tried their hand at throwing a foam javelin, running with bean bags, the penalty shoot out, throwing bean bags.
All modern games for sportsday they are, with the focus on participation rather than winning. Parents stood around watching benignly and sipping coffee and munching on a muffin or two. No-one made a bollix of themselves disputing a photo finish or calling foul after a false start stopped their kid winning some dubious race. It’s the way of the modern sportsday. No-one gets to be a dick. Everyone wins. The children are happy. It’s all very genteel. There’s not even a parents’ race.
The parents can go home safe in the knowledge that their beloved child has seen them see them come fourth in the sack race, last in the egg and spoon and first in the beanbag throw. A bit like a politician electioneering, you’ve gotta be seen to be there.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether little Jim Bob, Jimmy Ray, Tabatha or Delfina win one of these benign inoffensive little races. No-one remembers and everyone forgets. If Big Mickey, Jimmy Ray’s dad took a psycho, wrecked the joint, busted the teacher, kicked over the bean bag holders and fucked everyone out of it in a moment of sportsday rage, now that would be memorable. Sadly, if nothing else on entertainment grounds, that doesn’t happen.
Was it ever thus. Roll it back 35 years or more to our school sports. Firstly, parents weren’t present, weren’t welcome and in fact if they had turned up at the sports day they would probably have been told to fuck off home by their children let alone the teachers.
My memory of Sports Days at St Colmcille’s in Omagh was of hard-bitten affairs down in St Patrick’s Park beside the river. I don’t remember the weather being good at all. Ever. The sports included proper manly activities like the Long Kick competition. That required you to root a big heavy brown size five football out from under the goal posts as far out the field as you could. Often the goalmouth in St Pat’s Park would be flooded so you would have to clear the water in the manner of a Ryder Cup golfer. After a few practice goes and then the real thing a whean of times, the knee ligaments would fair feel the strain. I think I did well in it once.
There was a bit of a sandpit maybe for the long jump. The grass overhang would be trimmed around for the sports. But none of us boys wanted to be Eamon Coghlan, or Alberto Jauntorena, Lasse Virén or even Edwin Moses. My heroes were Tyrone’s Eugene McKenna, Patsy Hetherington that played for Tyrone and Omagh Town, Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell of Man United. I still remember my first Tyrone match at the then Omagh St Enda’s standing on a grassy knoll with my brother John as Tyrone beat Sligo.
Moving on the Brothers the Sports Day raised a notch. Only just. Obviously there was some sort of schools athletics board for we were marshalled and entered into various events and it was taken seriously enough. Being a lanky hoor I was entered for the high jump and long jump. My later knowledge of sport confirmed that not being fast, in fact being downright slow, I would be incapable of jumping too much.
Improbably however I won the high jump with some mediocre clearance. The dubious prize was to represent the school in the Northern Ireland [sic] championships at the Mary Peters track. It was on a Saturday and off I set on the school bus with my gaelic shorts and football boots.
I was totally underwhelmed by the Mary Peters set up. For all the talk I expected some sort of stadium with spectators. It wasn’t that much better than Omagh St Enda’s in fact the Omagh ground was better because it had gaelic goal posts. My main memory is of a long bus journey. And sitting around all day. I was only in one event so I had to sit about while the other boys went through the motions in theirs. The only excitement really was the fact that some of the older lads were fellas we knew were good footballers maybe playing Corn na nÓg or Rannafast so when they spoke to us we felt a million dollars.
Suffice to say my performance was shite. The height I failed at was lower than the improbable but still mediocre height I’d cleared down at the playing fields in Omagh. It was no surprise. I didn’t know what I was doing, hadn’t practiced and was crap. Never again did I get selected for the school athletics team. And there was one simple reason for that. I was calculating and made damn sure I never won anything. Nothing, ever again.
That’s not to say even had I applied myself I would have been any use at running, hurdling, sprinting or jumping or indeed putting the shot, javelin throwing or firing the discus (Sadly we’d no hammer throwing for I had a few hoors I would gladly have aimed at. Yes, Tusa?). But my unremarkable field athletic career was firmly stamped with mediocrity.
I was happy playing gaelic football and hurling for the school. The other athletics were a dalliance, an excuse for a time out of school at sports day down in the playing fields. On the way there and back we might leer at a few Omagh Academy girls. We would tog out and go through the motions of whatever sports we had been forced to enter by Terry McGurk or Mick O’Kane. All teachers put their hand to the pump to help out. It was a great exercise in the whole school coming together in common purpose.
I remember Lewis Meenagh was always very diligent in running off the javelin competition. He never struck me as a javelin fan, and sadly I never got to ask him what he thought of Fatima Whitbread or Tessa Sanderson. Now that would have been a meeting worth seeing.
In upper sixth the whole thing took on a farcical new context. We would dodge about smoking, barely able to hide our contempt for the whole sports day participation thing. Taking the piss was the thing.
My good mate Decky Coyle had decided he would win the triple jump competition, merely to prove a point. He had practiced his technique is Strabane [probably chasing women] and loudly proclaimed that he would win easy which was unlike the man for he was unathletic and that’s seriously understating the fact.
On the day at the Playing Fields we gathered around the Triple Jump pit as Coyle went through an elaborate stretching routine. He was serious about this thing. When it came to his turn he took off like a bat out of hell down the track, launching himself on the hop part of his routine but when he stepped he did his hamstring and collapsed in a heap of shite ending up in in a roar of agony lying in tatters in the sandpit. The rest of us had to walk away bent double as a few lads managed to hold back the laughter long enough to help him out of the pit.
The games the following year was marked most notably by my other good mate Cormac Cunningham winning the 800 metres. Having cut across the track half way around the second circuit he won the race easily. No-one in authority was paying sufficient attention to notice this outrageous assault on the Olympic ideal. I may be wrong but he may in fact have been selected to represent the school on the back of this stunning feat. Faster, quicker, shorter indeed.
There were other feats of gamesmanship, cunning, deceit and downright cheating. But no-one took the thing sufficiently seriously to notice or care. There were no parents present, no strops and no rows.
And best of all, there were no fucking beanbags.