Daily Mail, June 23, 1904
OF all the days which break the humdrum round of a public school year, Sport Day is perhaps the most important.
It comes at the end of the slackest of the three terms, when everybody is in the mood for a little excitement. Consequently, one looks forward to Sport Day, and celebrates it, when it arrives, with fitting rites. It is on Sport Day that one first appears in a straw hat. Also it is the proper thing to eat an ice during the afternoon, without regard to the temperature, which is generally in the neighbourhood of zero. These things are etiquette, and must be observed.
If it were not for the sports, there would be no getting through the term. There would be nothing to do after school but to prepare one’s work for the following day—an ignoble pursuit. But, with the sports in view, it is possible to take quite an interest in life. It is not necessary to be an expert on the track if one wishes to enjoy the process of training. Indeed, the expert, being too much in earnest, misses the subtler pleasures of the game.
Training to the average youth at a public school means just sufficient exercise to make him enjoy his tea. He puts on shorts, a sweater, and a blazer, and wanders about the ground carrying his spiked shoes and looking as if he were going to do desperate things. Soon he meets a friend, and presses the reluctant victim into his service. The friend has to trudge off to the other end of the track with a stop-watch. After much signalling and shouting, the athlete dashes down the track. When he has recovered his breath he inquires after his time. He finds the friend inspecting the stop-watch with amused curiosity. “I say,” says the friend affably, “how do you work these rotten things? I couldn’t get it to start.”
At which the athlete disowns him in a few well-chosen words, and goes off to do a little high-jumping. Finding that all the laths are either broken or locked up, he thinks a few “puts” with the shot would do him good. On inquiry, he is told that the groundman has locked up the shot, and gone home.
So after watching the trial heats of the “under twelve” hundred yards, he returns to his house, sinks exhausted into an armchair, and discusses the problems of training with a couple of friends over a huge tea. “You know,” says one friend, “you oughtn’t to overtrain. It’s as bad as not training at all. I shouldn’t starve, if I were you, or anything of that sort.” “No,” says the athlete thoughtfully; “no, I suppose not. You might pass that cake; all the muffins are finished. And the jam. Thanks.” And he writes home that night to say that he is training hard, thereby leading his father to send him a long letter, begging him not to overdo it, and saying that he knew a man once who got heart disease.
Sports day itself is something of an anti-climax after all these exertions, but it has its points. The worst drawback to it is the unique opportunities it affords to the bore of springing on his victim. The sports always draw such a crowd of old boys and relations that there are bound to be whole regiments of people present whom you have been trying to avoid for months past. I have seen an Old Boy flying round the ring like a hare to escape some man who was at school with him (and who presumes on that accident to buttonhole him at every opportunity), only to fall into the clutches of “seven other devils worse than the first.” The men one really does wish to meet one misses, of course, in the crowd. The present member of the school is free to a great extent from this evil, but he has his trials, chief among which rank relations. Relations are particularly harassing to the junior members of the school. The prefect can personally conduct his family about the grounds, and carry it off with an air. But to the junior a relative is an awful responsibility. He never knows what deadly offence against school etiquette they may not commit at any minute, while he himself has not the savoir faire to slur over their blunders.
He can only pray for a quick death. Who can say, for instance, what that demon Jones II., the satirist of the Lower Fourth, may think of his aunt’s bonnet? And his uncle, the colonel, with his terrible habit of saying things that had better be left unsaid in his parade voice! He can see in a sort of vision Jones II. giving a spirited imitation of him before a convulsed audience the next morning. He walks along, trying to pretend that they do not belong to him. Just as he thinks he has succeeded in deluding Jones II. into the belief that his aunt is a perfect stranger, that relative addresses him as “Algie, dear.” And the whole of his school life has been devoted to an attempt to conceal from the world the fact that his Christian name was Algernon.
Sports Day has its drawbacks. But, the bitterness of it once over, and Jones II.’s head once adequately punched, Algernon will be the first to wish it would come round again soon.