(Post by John Allan, from Bridgetown, Western Australia – February 2021)
It’s not that I’m not sporty, It’s just that I’m not that good at it. I wasn’t the last boy in the playground to be picked for the team – there was always the asthmatic, myopic fat kid with a note from his mother for that – but I was usually in the last 2 or 3.
I blame it on the fact that I’m right handed and left footed. A condition that should at least have a medical name if not a support group. I could throw, I could catch, I could kick – just not necessarily in the direction I intended.
I’ve tried them all. I got a bronze medal for swimming life saving which seemed to involve a lot of treading water in your pyjamas. An unnecessary life skill I thought unless you have a serious bed wetting problem. I could have, and probably should have gone for silver but no thank you. I was happy here with my bronze.
I loved football. My bedroom was adorned with pictures of the 1970 World Cup winners, Brazil. There was a time I could recite all 11 team members from memory – Jairzinho,Gerson, Tostao, Pele and Rivellino – Google ? I don’t think so !
I remember my mothers reaction when I paraded in front of her in my shiny new cub scouts team colours.
“ Look at you in your wee blue and yellow strip”
“Azure and mustard, mother !”
I played a sweeping left midfield role.
“Left half ? Left aff the park more like !” Yes, Dad jokes never change.
I tried Judo. The names of the throws sounded so exotic although we tried to anglicise them into something sounding vaguely rude. There was one throw where you grabbed you opponents lapels, pulled them down towards you while falling back, raised your foot to their solar plexus then flipped them over your head. We called it ‘ballsinagoni’ as it often went wrong.
Then there was the Judogi.
“Johnny is wearing a white heavy kimono style jacket with matching cotton draw- string three quarter length pants topped of with a loose fitting orange belt “ Gorgeous ! (Is there a theme emerging here ?)
I could of gone for my green belt , but no, I’m happy here with my orange.
Even darts. I could hit the board alright but it took ages to count back from 501 especially as I had to keep taking my shoes and socks off. Next !
I discovered basketball in my mid teens. I was tall (though 6 foot is considered smallish in basketball terms) It was indoors. No more running about in acres of swamp in the freezing cold with the promise of a wet ball to the knackers to warm you up from dry retching. I signed up and joined a team.
I was no more a natural than I had been in any other sports but I enjoyed the intense training and savoured my 10 minutes court time per season. I was the bench warmer who had to wait until all the first 5 had been fouled out, seriously injured or deported (we had some overseas players).
One good thing though, the team were going to Yugoslavia. 10 players, a coach and an entourage of about 6 were heading to Ljubljana. As you will know from your Observer Book of Interesting Places, Ljubljana is now the capital of Slovenia but in 1977 it was part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia led by former WW2 communist revolutionary and leader of the Partisan resistance movement, General Josep Broz Tito. Dah !
We were accommodated at the university, trained hard, played and lost to the locals.
What I remember most of course was the social life.
The first thing we had to do was learn to communicate with the comrades.
Pivo (пиво) = beer.
With that under our belt we could explore the night life. Our noses took us to an eatery where we tried to get some pivos, but when we went up to the ‘bar’ we were shooed away by a stern looking lady in a white coat and head scarf.
The place was tiled wall to wall, chest height tables bolted to the floor and mostly men with either, beer, plates or tickets in their hands. Eventually we worked out that you had to go up to one area to get a ticket for a beer then hand it over at the bar to receive your drink.
Similarly you went to another area to get a ticket which you would exchange for a light snack of small kebabs, a pile of coarsely sliced raw onion and a doorstep wedge of bread which I christened ‘pig on a stick’.
The alternative was small meatballs, onion and bread – ‘jobbies on a plate’.
Young Dougie had not armed himself sufficiently with either ‘pigs’ or ‘jobbies’ but had not held back on the pivo and decided to scale a large statue of General Tito and lovingly embrace it. The local constabulary took a dim view of this and Dougie found himself unceremoniously dumped in an outer suburb of Ljubljana and having to spend half of his holiday money on taxis to get back to the campus.
We related this story to the ladies team we had befriended (who had beaten us earlier in the week) and Larry (the Yank) referred to the polis as ‘Tito’s men’ and this 16 year severe looking Slav girl stepped forward, chest puffed out.
“We are all Tito’s men !” Wow !
We continued training, playing, losing and going out on the town every night. Eating one Chateaubriand (normally a dish for 2) each as we were so ravenous and it was so cheap, drinking copious amounts of rum and coke then doing a runner and driving up one way streets in our hired mini-van ignoring the clutch. The sort of things any normal tourist would do to ingratiate oneself with the locals.
We got away with it. Nobody ended up in the salt mines.
After 3 weeks of fun filled debauchery and a bit of basketball it was time to go home.
Sitting on the train waiting for departure our team captain Jon appeared ashen faced.
“We don’t have enough money to pay the min-van hire bill. Has anyone got any travellers cheques we can cash ? ”
I did. We jumped off the train and jogged to the nearest bank. I cashed my cheques and thrust the proceeds into Jon’s hand.
“Run ! The train leaves in 5 min”
I scampered through the streets of Ljubljana into the station where I could see the train doors being closed. I picked up the pace running the length of the platform.
This was my moment. My athletic prowess finally recognised. A sporting legend.
I got to the carriage door as the last door slammed shut and was greeted with loud cheers and applause. I slumped to my seat with a satisfied smirk as the train started to engage and slowly move. The cheers dissipated to a murmur only to rise again. Jon’s bald head could be seen bobbing along side the carriage. The door flung open and Jon fell into the corridor. The bastard had stolen my thunder. I had to settle for second place yet again.
After all these years I have finally realised that I still have a role to play in sport. I’m not on the bench or in the dugout. I’m on the recliner rocker remote in hand. I’m a pundit, a punter, a spectator.
The nearest I’ve got to cricket is backyard rounders. Not leather upon willow, more rubber against cat gut, but I know my cows corner from my googly and my silly leg.
I’m even swotting up on the rules of netball and not just ogling slim Amazonian type woman in short tight skirts.
And basketball. Yes I still follow basketball. The Perth Wildcats are my team but I sometimes hark back to my days in uniform.
Black can be so slimming !