My earliest memories of playing sport, indeed probably of anything, go back only as far as the early 1960s, midway through my five-year incarceration in a seaside boarding preparatory school deep in the heart of East Sussex.
There must have been times when we attended classes and attempted academic work, but for the most part, it comes back to me – as someone who loved to participate in sport – as a time of learning and enjoying games.
It was a time – during the summer months – of long afternoons playing cricket in the baking sunshine under royal blue skies and wispy clouds; of endless hours in our spare time periods playing fictional Test matches with our Owzat? dice; of school sports days – watched by our parents – desperately stuttering towards, and then hop-jumping, the hurdles in the hurdles race and [this was in the days before the advent of Dick Fosbury] launching ourselves with a ‘scissor-kick’ into a sandpit during the high jump competition and making giggling fools of ourselves in the compulsory ‘cricket ball throwing’ event.
Then, during the autumn (Winter) and spring (Easter) terms, it was a case of playing football and then rugby, plus occasional cross-country runs – mostly in watery sunshine, but also occasionally in some form of rain – from spitting, through light drizzle, to monsoon – in a variety of temperatures ranging from tepid to Arctic.
The early 1960s being the age of Biggles, ‘Battler’ Britton, Second World War comics, the Beano, The Eagle, the last vestiges of the Empire and the traditional British stiff upper lip, the state of the weather was inconsequential to both our daily schedule and personal concerns.
The game was the only thing that mattered.
Looking back, I can remember playing school football and rugby matches against arch local rivals, being sent upon early morning runs, and even taking part in Cubs and Scouts activities, in conditions that – today, in 2014 – would have the school headmaster, the teachers, and indeed probably the school governors, facing Old Bailey trials, front-page splashes across the tabloid press … and possibly gaol, on charges under certainly the Health and Safety, if not actually the Child Abuse, Acts.
I’m referring to items such as ice-cold winds, driving horizontal rain … hail … and snow storms.
To an eleven or twelve year-old sports fanatic, being sent out to play in such weather was a life-enhancing and entertaining rite of passage and nothing in particular to be bothered about.
Firstly, because we were prepared for it in the sense that the sporting activity involved would have been in the advance weekly school schedule. Secondly, because – to every boarding prep school boy, far from home and family – the word of the masters was law to be obeyed to the letter. And thirdly, because somehow playing sport in all conditions, even those as extreme as freezing sleet, was simultaneously surreally absurd, but also a fun challenge in its own right.
Even to this day, as a physical experience, I still enjoy swimming in the rain, which as a theoretical concept seems a bit of a loopy thing to undertake.
In the years (now past) when I could still physically go for a run, I invariably found pounding the streets in a downpour – once you’d actually got out there and become soaked to the skin – as a physical experience much to be enjoyed, just for itself.
In summary, learning to play sport in adverse weather conditions was something that in my youth everyone did. Partly because, living in Britain, it was necessary anyway. And partly because doing so was a character-building and problem-solving challenge.
How to catch a rugger ball when your hands were wet and frozen and you could barely see it because of the driving rain and mist.
How to time a football slide tackle just right in order to take the ball from a forward in a sea of mud and spray as he sped down the wing without giving away a foul, or hurting yourself in a collision.
How to keep plugging away on a cross-country run when there was compacted snow lying on the ground and more coming at you fast and thick on the wind.
It was all just part of playing sport.
Now to my point today.
Last night I had a day-dream – if that is not a contradiction in terms – in which I foresaw the future of elite sport in 2035. I’m not sure it was a pretty sight.
By then gone were the days when ‘rain stopped play’ became an issue in an Old Trafford Test match, as it did yesterday, or when wind and rain spoiled – or even prevented – the performances on the final day of a Commonwealth Games track and field meeting and left its spectators huddling together in the stands, protecting themselves as best they can from the elements.
Why? Because by 2035 (in my day-dream) all major sporting stadia will have retractable roofs – and possibly even un-retractable ones – upon them.
Think of the benefits.
In 2035, no major sporting occasion need ever be adversely affected by the weather. It could always stick to its global broadcasting schedule times.
Revenue that would previously have been lost – e.g. when a cricket match used to be rained off with two days still to go – would be secure.
Performances of athletes years and decades apart could now be more accurately compared, because the ‘weather conditions on the day’ factor had been removed.
Of course, a few old fuddy-duddies like myself – if still around, which may not be certain – would be left to bemoan the fact that the prevailing weather no longer plays a part in sporting endeavour, but so what?
It’s practicality and commercial reality that counts, folks!