Mirth and Woe: The Olympic Spirit
The Olympic Games kick off today.
OK, if you're going to be pedantic about things, they actually started on Wednesday, but nobody noticed.
As they say in Olympic circles: "Higher, Faster, Stronger", and it is a creed to which any serious athlete lives.
I went through a phase in my life, you will be pleased to hear, where I was indeed enthused by these very words, and was higher, faster and stronger than anybody I knew. And luckily, the stains came out.
In my late teens, I developed a liking for long distance running. Desperate to impress my wrinkle-faced maths tutor at college (Inventor of the mini-roundabout – 100% of FACT), I invested in a pair of trainers and signed up for the Bracknell half-marathon.
I finished it, too, in less than two hours and was well pleased with myself.
So pleased, in fact, I immediately put my name down – as a loyal member of the Air Cadets – for the Thames Valley Wing Cross Country Tournament.
So, on one exceedingly wet Sunday morning one May, several car loads of teenagers were dumped in a particularly barren part of the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, and were made to run, walk or stagger to a point several miles away, where we were to be rewarded with a cup of the finest Scout Hut quality tea.
Bronzed and rock hard from my half-marathon training, I somehow contrived to come a distant third, and went home feeling rather pleased with myself.
Months passed, and I soon came to forget about my triumph. That was until I was summoned into the CO's office one September evening.
We exchanged salutes.
"Ah, Corporal Duck", he says, "I've just received a letter from Wing HQ."
"One of the chaps in the Wing Cross Country team's moved to New Zealand and they're a man short for the nationals. Could you fill in?"
It turned out that the Wing Commander had been rather impressed by my spurt of speed in the finishing straight in the Wing Trials, and had ordered me to take part.
There was only one problem.
I was seventeen.
And, instead of training, I had spent much of the summer discovered the delights of under-age boozing at a sympathetic local pub that didn't mind small fry coming in and asking for "a cup of beer please mister" as long as they had the money up front.
I had turned from Higher, Faster, Stronger to Lower, Slower, Outstandingly Rubbish within three or four months.
After the previous year's debacle – where I had been accidentally rather good at swimming and qualified for the regional finals – I was loathe to volunteer for this one. For a start, it was a Sunday away from the pub, and for second, I now knew the kind of determined twerp that took these events rather too seriously.
In the words of Harry Flashman, I didn't fancy it above half. And like Flashy, I couldn't turn him down.
"Very good, sir", I said, engaging mouth before the brain had a chance to catch up, "I'll not let you down."
So, there I was, in the back of a minibus at RAF Cranwell, with the remnants of my school PE kit in a bag, hoping that somehow, all the other runners had spent the summer slacking off.
In fact, they were all six foot tall, had facial hair and were rock hard in their professional-looking running gear with the names of well-known athletic clubs on the front.
These were proper competitive runners. I'd once watched bosoms at the school sports day.
It wasn't any old run through the countryside with a cup of Scout Hut tea at the end, either. It was three laps of a proper cross country course, full of nasty, challenging little hills and muddy scrambles as it lamped down with rain.
I came shit last. I was still on the second lap when the last of the bronzed colossi finished, and they let me off going round again. Which was nice.
Squadron Leader Sheppard, on the other hand, wasn't best pleased. Our supposed coach (they'd left the word 'driver' off the end of his official title) emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke and finally managed to offer me the benefit of his experience.
"Duck! What the bloody hell was that?"
I had flogged my guts out against the cream of English youth, and had no words to give. No words, except:
Higher, Faster, Stronger, all over his mirror-polished drill shoes.
The following week, I was dragged into the CO's Office.
We exchanged salutes.
"Ah! Corporal Duck," he says, "I understand there's a little trouble following that running thingy."
I could not lie, and told him so.
"What d'you do?"
"Puked onna Officer."
"Who's charging you, Cadet?"
"Squadron Leader Sheppard."
"He's a prick. Case dismissed."
The Sheppard Defence – twice in one year. Bingo.