OPINION: Rochdale’s Olympic Spirit
Reporter: John Hardcastle
Date online: 29 March 2012
“If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?" Vince Lombardi
In June, the Olympic torch will wend its way through Rochdale and Heywood, carried aloft by people deemed worthy of the honour no doubt but nary a mention for John Hardcastle – but I’ll come back to that one.
I note that it will pass through Spotland, home of ‘The Dale’. Let’s sincerely hope that the flaming brand will still skirt the home of a struggling Division One side rather than that of a team relegated to more familiar territory.
It seems very appropriate that the torch comes through Rochdale. It was here after all that the true Olympic spirit was born. “What’s that?” I hear you ask as you reach for your ‘Book of Olympic Lists’ and search feverishly through the index for mention of our fair borough. Let me save you the trouble.
Some things are not always recorded or given the recognition that they might truly deserve yet it was here indeed that the Olympic spirit was born or at least re-dedicated and it was I, your humble correspondent who was responsible for it.
I was never much good at sport. Correction – I was the most useless, ineffectual, lumpy, uncoordinated schoolboy who ever stepped onto a sports field or into a gymnasium. I was once bowled out first ball in an inter-house cricket match and let in an amazing twenty seven goals during a catastrophic thirty minute five-a-side football match; a record unequalled anywhere in the world. At rugby, I could never ever get the hang of passing the ball backwards when the damned goal was dead ahead. It seemed to defy the laws of physics and still does.
Consequently, ‘No Kit Hardcastle’ was always the last to be picked out for any team in any sport. (I earned the sobriquet ‘No Kit’ for very obvious reasons and always had to play in whatever grot the sports teacher could salvage from the kit-bag.) I was worth twenty goals to the opposing side or fifty runs if the game was cricket. You see it seems that I took the word ‘game’ far too literally.
At footie, I invariably ended up in goal. They thought I could do least harm there. The fools! I stood around shivering up at Lenny Barn on freezing winter mornings; fearful of the ball coming anywhere near my own half. Invariably I had a lighted cigarette concealed up my sleeve. Occasionally, a teacher would bellow out from the other end of the pitch, “Are you smoking Hardcastle?”
“No sir. Not me. It’s just the frost making my breath steam.”
Goal was a bad place for me to be, apart from presenting me with the occasional opportunity to pursue my nicotine addiction. I mean, for chrissakes, did they really expect me to dive in that freezing wet mud to stop that round leather whatsit from going in between those two wooden things? It seems that they did although I never really understood it. OK, if I could stop the ball by sticking my hand in the air without running, jumping, diving etc then I suppose I was as good as the next man but it seems they wanted more than that. More than I was prepared to give.
So how did all this change? How do I justifiably claim to have discovered the Olympic spirit?
It was the day of the school inter-house swimming gala. I was ok at water sports just as long as they didn’t want me to swim further or faster than the other guys or dive higher or with more grace. I enjoyed splashing around, messing about underwater, standing on my head etc. You know the sort of thing
They had entered me for the ‘plate-diving’ that day for Lister House. The idea was simple enough. The teacher flung thirty-odd plates in the water and you had to dive in and see how many you could retrieve before surfacing for air. Simple.
Swimming underwater suited me despite the effect of the fags on my youthful lungs. I didn’t have to swim fast or far. Just one dive, grab more plates than the other lads and it was over. A doddle.
I was up against one of my best mates that day. You probably know him; Robert Law of Kenyon Street, small, wiry chap with bandy legs and sticking-out ears. No? Come on, you must know the one I mean - not very academic but good at every sport imaginable. There was one like him in every class, in every school in the country it seems. He probably went by another name in your school.
Robert was almost always a winner and was diving for Newton House that day. He could run the fastest, score the most goals, take the most wickets and all the rest of that nonsense. Unfortunately, he got so good at winning that it became an obsession. He sucked it in like oxygen but we were still the best of mates.
We were lined up on the poolside with two other lads representing their own Houses while some bully of a sports master, resplendent in maroon track suit and whistle checked our positions. After a dramatic pause for effect, he shouted “On your marks” blew hard on his whistle and we were away.
I took a large breath and flung myself forward. As the momentum of the dive carried me down beneath the cold, chlorinated water of Rochdale Baths, I could still hear the muffled screams and shouts of encouragement from the rest of the school who sat there on the side willing their favourite on.
It was strange there underwater. A bit like that scene in ‘The Graduate’ where they lead him out in his frogman suit and he relishes the freedom of his isolation from the crowd even if only for a short time.
I took to collecting up the shiny plates. I could hold my breath for ages so there was no particular rush. After about thirty seconds or so, I became aware that one of the other boys had had enough and was heading up towards the surface with his three or four. The rest of us carried on with our task. I already had six or seven by this stage and then I could see that another lad too was hurrying up to the surface with his own meagre hoard of five or six.
That just left me and Robert.
I carried on and collected another two or three. I had plenty of ‘puff’ left at this stage but looking round, I could see that Robert was struggling a bit but as eager as hell to beat me and it was then that I made my decision.
For whatever reason, Robert needed to win this far more than I did so despite the ample supply of oxygen still available to me; I thought, “Sod this for a lark” and I too headed upwards clutching my eleven plates. Robert followed a few seconds later gasping and spluttering alongside me at the edge and deposited his haul of crockery on the side.
I’ll never forget the look of triumph on his face as the plates were counted and he was declared to be the winner with a total of twelve, beating me by just one. I was happy for him. “I won Hardcastle. I won.” he said still gasping for breath as we headed off to the changing rooms; he with his medal round his neck, the cheap, red ribbon clinging wetly to his skin.
I said nothing and just enjoyed the moment with him.
Around the time of the Olympic Games, they tell us that it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts although in this case, it seems I lost by cheating.
However, when I look back on it, I still like to think I won... in a manner of speaking.
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