Lamenting fallen idols

Tarnished metal?

Tarnished metal?

I imagine that most countries have their sporting heroes; individuals who inspire, entertain and often amaze with their outstanding skills. Sportsmen and women can have a dramatic impact upon the lives of those who watch them, whether in packed stadia or on the television. Children often aspire to follow the example of their sporting idols, and even sensible adults can become quite irrational in their efforts to emulate elite athletes. Take for example the London Marathon, run annually around the streets of the English capital, past many of the city’s major landmarks, and along roads lined with cheering fans. In the past, the marathon was an event for supremely fit and competitive runners, but the inspiration of the London event, and other similar races around the world has had the result of encouraging thousands of individuals to train for months in order to have their own personal moment of glory.

For many years when visiting India I came to accept that images of one of the world’s finest cricketers Sachin Tendulkar would be seen on billboards on every main street. I would imagine that similar exposure is currently being experienced by Richie McCaw the captain of the triumphant All Blacks rugby team in New Zealand, just as may have been the case with Pele many years ago in Brazil and Roger Federer more recently in Switzerland.

Having been involved in playing sport, albeit at a very basic level, for most of my life, I too have had my sporting heroes, and I still find myself in awe of the achievements of Beryl Burton, a sporting personality probably unknown to the majority of the British public, unless they have a particular affinity with riding a bicycle. Her courage and determination was typical of the characteristics that have inspired generations of amateur sportsmen and women everywhere. Whilst I know I could never hope to ride like the inimitable Yorkshire woman, I can still draw inspiration from her example.

Children are undoubtedly influenced by sports personalities. I am sure that there are many young boys who have been encouraged to play football after watching David Beckham, to hit a tennis ball like Andy Murray, or race bicycles in imitation of Bradley Wiggins’ exploits in the Tour de France and Olympics. I am equally aware of girls who wish to emulate the athletic accomplishments of Paula Radcliffe, to swim like Rebecca Adlington, or balance on a beam like Beth Tweddle. Such role models can encourage children to aim high and achieve great things; even those who may struggle with more academic activities.

It is therefore with great sadness that I have of late found both the back pages of newspapers, traditionally the location for sporting news, and the front pages reserved for more serious issues, reporting matters of sporting corruption and cheating. The bullying behaviour of the drug cheat Lance Armstrong, match fixing by long established professional cricketers, corrupt football officials, and over the last few days the reporting of doping scandals in Russian athletics, and probably in other countries as well, has done unimaginable damage to the image of sport.

There have been many occasions during my teaching career when I have had conversations with children who have difficulties coming to terms with the challenges of formal learning, but who have been able to demonstrate their skills with a football or cricket ball, on a bicycle or simply through the freedom of running. Often these young people have found inspiration from their sporting heroes and have looked to them as examples of excellence and sportsmanship. In schools we have seen sport as providing opportunities for encouraging team work, promoting fair play and the understanding of rules, and for the development of collaboration.

Those individuals and groups who have made sporting news of late for all the wrong reasons, have done a grave disservice to children who look to athletes for an example of excellence and achievement. This is a sad time for sports fans wherever they may be, and I fear that it may take some time before the trust that has been so severely damaged can be re-established, and children of all ages can once again attempt to emulate their sporting heroes.


United in competition

Everyone a potential athlete - regardless of need or ability

Everyone a potential athlete – regardless of need or ability

Sport has often been a unifying factor in the lives of individuals. Through participation in sport people make lifelong friendships, and some sportsmen and women who may struggle academically can demonstrate their abilities and prowess in ways that may be impossible in the classroom. As someone who has always been involved in playing sport, whether on the rugby or cricket pitch or the squash court in my younger days, of now whilst sitting astride a bicycle, I have learned to value the opportunity to meet fellow team mates and competitors from all walks of life. Thus have my horizons been broadened through participation and friendship with a wide range of other people.

In recent years, far greater attention has been given to participation in sport by those who have disabilities. Events such as the Paralympic Games and the London Marathon have enabled the general public to gain some appreciation of the dedication and competitive nature of many fine athletes who happen to be disabled. Here in  UK names such as Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Weir and Jody Cundy became as familiar during the London Olympics in 2012 as those of many of the elite able bodied athletes. Such has become the level of professionalism associated with sports organisations for those with disabilities, that many of the finest competitors, such as the cyclist Sarah Storey, are now competing and winning against their able bodied peers.

The dedication required of any athlete to reach the top of their chosen sport is undeniable. I recall several years ago driving home from work in torrential rain when I noticed coming towards me along the lane on which I was travelling a wheelchair user moving with considerable pace. My first instinct was to stop and check whether this was someone caught in the storm who might need assistance, but then at the last minute I recognised the individual in the chair. David Holding is a former wheelchair athlete probably best known for being a four-time winner of the London Marathon. He also won a gold medal at the Paralympic games as well as holding world records and winning many other events. On seeing David on the road I immediately recognised that he would have scorned any offers of assistance, as training in all weathers is exactly what all top athletes do, and why would he wish to be different from any other?

David Holding and his many achievements came to mind yesterday as I read an article from Monday’s Independent newspaper under the headline “Wheelchair basketball: How ‘reverse integration’ is overcoming the discrimination surrounding disabilities” written by Lesley Evans Ogden. In this brief article the writer reports how wheelchair basketball, once seen as a sport played solely by sportsmen and women with disabilities has become increasingly popular with able bodied athletes.

Evans Ogden suggests that the sport has changed many previous ill-conceived perceptions about both wheelchair users and the nature of sport. Here is competition played by athletes with a broad range of needs and abilities who play as equals in a game that requires immense skill and courage, but does not discriminate between individuals. Danielle Peers a former national wheelchair basketball player is quoted in the article as stating that this inclusive approach to sport could be perceived as a way to “do disability differently.” Peers, who does not have a disability recalls her own assumptions that as an able bodied athlete she would be able to compete alongside those who depended upon a wheelchair and soon excel at the sport. She now recognises that this was both arrogant and naïve and reports having been quickly taught a lesson about the competitiveness and skill of her new team mates.

Progress has clearly been made in both encouraging more people with disabilities to become involved in sport, and affording them the respect they deserve as athletes. Marni Abbott-Peter, a four-time Paralympic medal winner in basketball for Canada who now coaches the British Columbia team in Canada, sees many advantages in having a more inclusive approach to her sport. “Once we started having more able-bodied involvement, it brought a lot more ‘sport people’ to the sport,” she says.

This form of what has been termed “reverse integration,” in part aims to bring able bodied athletes closer to the world of those equally dedicated competitors who happen to have disabilities. I am sure that the understanding and appreciation gained by all who participate in such sporting activities is more focused upon the competition than it is upon disability.

A different kind of education cut!

Haircut sir? There is a charge, though opinion is free!

Haircut sir?
There is a charge, though opinion is free!

I wouldn’t want to be a hairdresser, it has always seemed to me to be a fairly monotonous trade, though I would never question the skills and dexterity exhibited in even the most rudimentary of barber’s shops.

I can easily invoke memories of when I was a child, and endured a monthly ritualistic visit to the barber who was well established at the corner of Granville Street where I lived in Gloucester. Ted Brint had cut hair and proffered advice in his small shop (he would have cringed at the term salon), indicated by its blood and bandages pole, for as long as anyone could remember. His loyal customers (again clientele would not have featured in his vocabulary) entirely male of course, would sit patently on the uncomfortable wooden chairs which formed an inner ring around the walls of his emporium awaiting their turn for the standard “short back and sides” which was the sole “style” on offer. For amusement, a large pile of magazines, I particularly recall Rugby World (rugby is the main religion in Gloucester), and Reveille, along with annual collections of Giles Cartoon books were strewn around the room, and were certainly useful for passing away the tedious time spent waiting. There was one elderly gentleman who always seemed to be in Ted Brint’s barbers; I never once saw him having what little hair he had cut, and I am convinced that he viewed the shop as his own personal reading room.

It is often said that smells are particularly potent in dragging up memories of our past. This I believe is true. There is a particular type of pipe tobacco; I have no idea which specific brand, which when wafted across my nostrils always brings to mind Ted Brint’s barber shop. As his scissors and comb were navigated across the heads of his customers, Ted would puff on his pipe, occasionally stopping to knock out spent dregs and recharge before recommencing his task. Occasionally a fall out of ash would land on the lap of his current victim, though I suspect he never noticed this occurrence, and I recall a number of  times when he commented upon my “nasty cough”, oblivious to the fact that it was caused by a sudden inhalation of bitter smoke. It always seemed to me as a child, that the acrid smell of tobacco would remain in my clothes for the remainder of the day.

The length of time it took to cut hair was totally unpredictable in Ted’s shop. This had nothing to do with the length of the customer’s hair, or whether they requested a shave; a service applied with a lethal looking cut throat razor, but was entirely determined by Ted’s judgement of the quality of the conversation. A knowledgeable rugby man could be in that chair for an hour, or at least until the master of ceremonies decided that he was gaining no further inside information about the happenings at Tredworth, Longlevens, Matson, Gordon League or some other local rugby club. I soon learned that unless I wanted the visit to turn into a day’s excursion I said as little as possible about my recent performances on the rugby field.

Why have these memories come to my mind today? This is quite easily explained. I have just returned from having my hair cut at the local barber’s shop – this is in fact called “The Barber’s Shop” with no sense of irony intended, though today’s barbers are young women;  a fact of which I suspect Ted would not have approved. These days I can be in and out of this establishment in less than half an hour, I am sure that now I pay more in a search fee than for the actual cutting, since my youthful locks are only a distant memory.

So it was that as I was returning from this latest visit to my local hairdresser, I was reflecting on the contrast of conversations between today’s establishment and those I recall from Ted Brint’s. This morning I was asked, “what do you do for a living?” “Teacher”, I replied (this is always simpler than trying to describe the role of a university professor). However, within seconds I was rueing the error of judgement that led me to make this response. For the following fifteen minutes I was subjected to a perpetual reverberation, the hairdresser hardly drawing breath as she explained to me the multiple problems with today’s schools. Lack of discipline, too much time devoted to useless knowledge (I almost rose to this bait but managed to resist), teachers who are too friendly with children, homework that parents can’t understand. In fifteen minutes I was informed of almost every ill associated with our clearly ailing education system.

Sitting as still and silent as I possibly could, fearing that the slightest comment might result in the loss of an ear, I respected the lady’s tirade until at last she finished her work with the immortal words:-

“I wouldn’t want to be a teacher, you must have the patience of a saint!”

Paying my bill and making with a sense of relief towards the door, I wondered if perhaps I should have taken the initiative and begun a conversation about Northampton Rugby Club’s excellent performances this season, or maybe asked her opinion about the suspension of Dylan Hartley, or England’s prospects in the coming World Cup?

I will store these ideas just in case the next time I go for a haircut the same lady is standing by with her scissors and low opinion of our education provision.