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18 August 2016

Why the Olympics remind me of the horrors of school sport

I turn on the TV and I’m back in a changing room that smelled like pencils and terror.

By Eleanor Margolis

“THUP.”

That’s the sound I made the first and only time I made myself useful in a team sport.

“THUP”. The simplest sound in existence. Like – why hadn’t it occurred to me to make this sound many, many other times before? The ball soared. I had never made anything soar. It was rounders. I was a thirteen-year-old with the coordination of a roast chicken on a skateboard. PE was a pit of worry. The kind of worry that bit and chewed, and – on one especially bad day – made me try and sprain my ankle so I could sit in the library and read Daddy by Sylvia Plath over and over and over again while the Nazi Joiner Fascist Normals played netball. My God, did I want to be a Nazi Joiner Fascist Normal though.

“THUP”, and I was. It was supposed to be that moment in a sporting underdog film where someone who isn’t hot wins at sports. Where someone with glasses wins the game, thereby plucking everyone else with glasses out of their airless maths dungeons and into social acceptability. This was supposed to be years of clenched-arse rage against my classmates who were sometimes so busy ignoring me that they forgot to call me a freak, channelled into one competent swing of a bat, followed by the scoring of “a rounder” requisite to winning the game for my whole team. It wasn’t. Stunned by my own proficiency, I ran the wrong way.

Oh how the blonde, be-ponytailed, hockey-faced little Mussolinis screamed. How my PE teacher begged for strength.

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I’ve never been officially diagnosed with dyspraxia. A few of my teachers suggested I might have it, but it wasn’t something I explored. I just filed it, with all my other suggested shortcomings, in an emotional binder labelled “wait about fifteen years then show to shrink”. I think my therapist thinks I’m dyspraxic too, but I guess it isn’t his place to say. Lack of diagnosis aside, growing up shit at sports was a hell that I – and absolutely no one like me – deserved or continues to deserve.

Olympians don’t go “THUP”. Rounders is too stupid. Still though, every four years, Giant Sports Day (which lasts over two weeks, actually) takes me back to the worry pit. I’m not entirely down on the Olympics (although I can hardly believe I’m writing about them). Athletes are hypnotic, aren’t they? All those spasm-ing muscles and exertion grimaces. In slow motion, quite often. I’ve watched Simone Biles do the sort of things I could spend the next ten thousand years training for and still only manage a quite decent somersault. I get it. It’s magnificent. Biles. Those bike people who – I’m not certain – but may have won the first Nobel Prize for Bikes. Usain Bolt. I can name them all. And I’m not sure a single one of them became a professional athlete so they could remind me, Eleanor M Margolis, of all the horrors of school sports. But they do.

I turn on the TV and I’m back in a changing room that smelled like pencils and terror, being told by a sports captain – pre-sports day – to “FUCKING WALK THE 1,500 METRES IF YOU HAVE TO IT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER”. “It” didn’t matter because “I” didn’t matter. No one could do that decent a job of the torture run that was the 1,500 metres, so they might as well give it to someone terrible. As it happens, I went one step crapper than “walk” the race; I didn’t show up to it. Luckily for me, my parents thought school sports were for WASPs and bores, and managed to get me out of every single one of my school’s compulsory sports days. Margolises, I was told repeatedly, don’t do “hitting things with sticks”.

But my family’s lack of interest in my sporting inadequacy wasn’t enough foster an indifference on my part. It didn’t even matter that I was good at other things. Writing above average essays didn’t make people like me. English lit didn’t have captains and medals and camaraderie. It had a letter home to my parents about me barricading myself in the library during lunch breaks, and outright refusing to socialise with, or even speak to, a single other student.

Other misfits in my year – queer ones in particular – managed to take a sort of pride in their weirdness. They did the things they loved. They got extremely good grades and (I’m guessing…) didn’t end up working for Foxtons like (I’m guessing…) every single one of the sports kids.

Sadly, I was too determined to fit in to realise my value transcended my inability to – on any regular basis at least – hit things with sticks. If I could say something to my thirteen-year-old self at the moment of the “THUP”, I’d tell her to keep on running the wrong way and never, never stop. Except to take puffs from her inhaler. And to get assessed for dyspraxia, because she could’ve got extra time in exams.