Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

A Question of Sport
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

I am not a sportsman, nor have I ever been one. Oh, I had my small triumphs in an earlier age, when sport was not taken too seriously, except as useful training of young minds and bodies for later service to the Empire (well, I did mention we were behind the times in Africa). In Junior School (what should I call it now, Elementary?) I would have been a fine batsman at cricket, if only I had not persisted in getting out first ball.

As a teenager I was a useful scrum-half at rugby. I was not about to devote my life to the game, however, and I spent my years in Senior (or High) School playing for teams that were lightyears away from the mighty and revered First Team. There were moments of glory even at these lower levels however. I remember a game in which I scored five tries (touchdowns) using the classic scrum-half trick, a quick dash around a five-yard scrum before the opposition even realized that the ball was out and a dive over the line. The fact that they scored five tries against us as well was neither here nor there to me - I'd scored five times and was a hero.

And that is the sum total of my sporting life in Africa; in fact, it's the total, period. When I left school I became engrossed in other pursuits and sport drifted out of my life. It was not until I came to England that I began to be drawn back to it, this time as a spectator.

They film sport so well on British television. It's Aunty Beeb (the BBC), you see. The Beeb is impecunious in comparison to the commercial channels but somehow still manages to have the best producers, writers, actors, cameramen and commentators in the business. Occasionally a major figure will be lured away to the opposition with the promise of big bucks, but dear old Aunty Beeb just produces another fresh young hopeful who turns out to be a great improvement on the previous ageing star.

It was Wimbledon that caught me first. This All England And The Colonies And Empire And Commonwealth And The Rest Of The World If They Only Knew It Great Lawn Tennis Championship is, and always has been, the exclusive preserve of the Beeb. I can only presume that the other channels did not dare to steal such a quintessentially British event from the arms of our beloved Aunty. And it was thanks to Aunty's brilliant filming of the championship that I was introduced to the subtlety, grace and intelligence of tennis at its height. Those were the great years of Borg, Connors and McEnroe and, for a while, I was enthralled by the show of passion, skill and guile they created. Then the power boys arrived with their unreturnable serves and the game degenerated into an artillery duel.

By that time I had discovered other televised sports however. Briefly, snooker (similar to pool) caught my eye but then I discovered international rugby and motor racing. Every season I watched the matches in the Five Nations Rugby Championship, celebrating with the rest of England when "our boys" won and pointing out the idiotic mistakes and bias of the referee when they lost. When the Rugby World Cup came along, I had two teams to root for, England and South Africa. But, when they played each other, it had to be England, my England.

Motor racing was a different kind of love affair. From the moment I first drove a car (at the tender age of fourteen), I dreamed of racing in Formula One, the pinnacle of international motor sport. Through the turbulent years of the late sixties and then the seventies my mind was fixed on other things but the dream remained, lurking in the background. With the discovery of televised races in brilliant color and detail, I was free to indulge my passion once again, quickly acquiring the latest knowledge and understanding, to become a licenced and paid up member of the armchair critic brigade (without this knowledge motor sport is just a meaningless succession of almost-identical vehicles going in circles).

And now I find myself in America.

Sport is so different here. For a start, the Americans do not play any of the games the English (and therefore the Commonwealth too) know and love. There is no rugby or cricket, no snooker or hockey (no heckling please - I'll get to that). I do admit that tennis is played here (far too well for the Brits), as is golf. But tennis is played on clay in this country and does not have the unpredictability of the grass court version. And besides, it was a French invention. Golf, whilst coming closest to a game played in the same way everywhere (and also, incredibly, sometimes won by a Brit or European), has to be the most boring game ever televised, with the outstanding exception of cricket. But what can you expect from a game the Scots began as an escape from their bloody medieval history?

Understand, I am discussing these sports from the spectators' point of view. I am quite sure that it must be immensely satisfying to whack a tennis ball as hard as one can and see it land within the opponent's court. And I know from experience that great pleasure can be derived from actually managing to hit a golf ball with some force, regardless of where it ends up. Even cricket has its brief excitement, when one lashes out at the first ball bowled, only to see it loop gently into the hands of a fielder. But to watch these games is the best cure for insomnia known to mankind.

The Americans also have a very different approach to their sport. To them, it is an occasion for family celebration, a generally good-natured event offering marching bands, cheerleaders and funny costumes. They will often split their games into many segments so that more entertainment can be inserted into the gaps - perhaps a heated discussion between the players and their coach as to the next plan of action or a repeat performance by some stentorian-voiced singer. In Britain we divide the game into two halves only and sit, stolidly impatient, through any attempt at entertainment.

So I find myself having to start over again (a serious matter at my age). All my hard-earned information and detail on my chosen British sports are completely useless here. Being determined to make this American adventure successful, I turn to a consideration of the options available.

Let me first deal with the objections of my heckler friend up there. Hockey is a game played by schoolgirls and Pakistanis. It is played on a grass field with sticks and a very hard ball that inflicts great pain if it strikes any unprotected part of the anatomy (and only the goalkeepers are given some rudimentary protection). The game you are thinking of is actually called ice hockey and we all know it to be merely an excuse for large Canadians to beat the stuffing out of each other. As much as the game amuses me, it is not really one of my options.

You might suggest motor racing to me. There is even an American Grand Prix in existence at the moment. But I know the Americans don't care about it and the GP is artificial and much more of a public relations affair than a race. I need something more truly American if I am to become assimilated properly.

Motor racing does have its local equivalents, of course - such things as NASCAR and CART. I have kept a vague eye on their progress at odd times through the years, it's true. But my European-ness gets in the way here. It seems to me that Americans are essentially concerned with speed. They want only to see how quickly something will accelerate and how fast it will go around an oval, banked track. Europeans, however, are much more interested in how fast the thing will go around corners - and the more complex and difficult the corners, the better. Britain's whole racing car industry, which has led the world for years and supplies more than 90% of CART's cars, came about because an Englishman named Colin Chapman decided to show Mr Ferrari that it was handling that counted, not sheer power. He succeeded and the rest followed his lead.

No, I do not think I can utterly deny my heritage by becoming a genuine fan of American road racing.

Did I hear someone shout, "Baseball"? To tell you the truth, I have always held this sport in disdain but recently watched a game that the Red Sox played against St Louis. I found myself becoming interested. Not, unfortunately, in the game itself but rather in the mechanics of bat and ball. How, I asked myself, was it possible that these guys, obviously at the peak of their craft since so highly-paid, could so consistently fail to hit the ball thrown at them? And why, if the task was really that much harder than it appeared, were so many prepared to sit and watch something that produced so few runs (is that what they call them?) in the entire game? This surely must approach cricket in its boredom levels.

Basketball I hardly dare mention. Sure, there is skill involved but it fails in exactly the opposite way to baseball - there are far too many points scored. A height limit for players would improve the game out of all recognition but I don't pretend that that will ever happen.

You may notice that I am getting low on options here. Fortunately, I am saved by an event that happened in England, way back in the early eighties. The fledgling Channel 4, desperate for something to improve its ratings, began to show American football games. Being broad-minded types, my son and I began to watch (actually, I think we started with the intention of mocking). Before long we were hooked. The game had a strange fascination. Although the rules are fiendishly complex in detail, the basic idea is simple enough and we were soon able to appreciate what was happening. We even managed to get past the usual British objection, that they are always stopping the game to have a chat about things, and came to understand that these breaks are not only necessary, they give us a chance to puzzle over the endless statistics constantly trotted out by the enthusiastic commentators.

There came a time when we had to choose a side to support. We had noticed that one team, the Green Bay Packers, seemed to be unusually fair in their approach to the game. Invariably they would allow the opposing team to build up a healthy lead, say 15 or 20 points, as a decent start. Then, usually in the last quarter, they would really start to play and, more often than not, would beat the opposition at the last. Now, there is nothing the English heart loves more than an underdog. We made the choice and became committed Packers supporters.

Over the following years, I drifted away from the television and became involved in other interests. But the Packers were never forgotten; such determination in the face of defeat is a thing that stays with one. If ever the subject of American football came up, I would aver my undying support for the mighty green and gold (or is it yellow?).

And here I am in Oklahoma, an unlikely place to find a Packers fan. But I hold true to my first love and wear my Packers cap proudly. After all, they also give me my one narrow entrance into the world of American sport...

Go Packers!

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


You poor fellow. Having joined the team, going through the fitting of the uniform, having a picture made (just for mom, of course) and generally getting all excited because, hey, look at me...I am ON THE TEAM NOW!...the coach sent all of my 90 young pounds (40.82 kilograms, in case foreigners are listening; 6.42 stone, if they are Brits)in for the play. Well. My football career took a turn for the bench after that huge mistake. Oh, I am good at warming those, I discovered, and the wise old coach recognized my talents right off. So let me suggest boxing. Here you have two men who may or may not speak each other's mother tongue, but that slight is unnecessary to the game, for they stand there and proceed to beat the tom-foolery out of each other without such need. It is easy to follow, plus there are no half-time embarrasments to upset the world, or my momma, for that matter. Now that's what I call a sport, sport. Hoo doggies.
Date Added: 03/12/2004

It is green and gold (looks mustard yellow) and I too am a Green Bay Packer fan! Go Pack Go! If you want to see more sports, not just the seasonal ones, check out ESPN there's a bunch!
Date Added: 15/12/2004

As a fellow displaced fan, I can empathize. I am a tried and true, die hard, no holds barred fan of the Pittsburgh Stealers!!! (and the Penguines, btw, which is an ice hockey team :P)
Date Added: 09/01/2005

I'm impressed by your fortitude Actress, you've been reading and commenting all day long. Only 22 more posts to go!! MadTV salutes you.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
I, too, am impressed with Actress' stamina! I'm chasing through trying to answer every comment and she's keeping me busy. Incidentally, I have a Penguins supporters coat...
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Hey there, As a fellow Brit living in the USA I feel your pain. There was something uniquely soothing about sitting and revising for my college exams while the 5 days of the Test match were on. Peaceful. I moved here in 2000, and was delighted that Speed Channel covered Formula One, and with 2 Brits in the commentary booth it was as good as I could have hoped. I now love David Hobbs and Steve Matchett. Great fun every race. Great season so far this year. I've attented a few minor league ICE-hockey matches, 3 IRL races, and in a few years my son will be at school. I wonder what sport he'll want to play? My wife got a job with Comcast so I've now got all the sports channels and have enjoyed catching up with my old team Newcastle United. But you're right. There was nothing like a British Saturday afternoon with BBC Grandstand, Football Focus, golf, tennis, athletics, the boat-race, the Grand National, the six-nations, and final score. I miss it.
Date Added: 21/05/2005

Gone Away
I must admit, Gareth, that as time goes on I discover more and more truly international sports on American TV. You just have to look for them, it seems (we have satellite, by the way). But what I really miss are the Six Nations matches. Those are the truly tribal contests of strength that I don't think Americans will ever understand. ;)
Date Added: 21/05/2005

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