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A day at the races

Memories of school sports days evoke mixed feelings depending on your attitude to physical activity and team spirit. Players and shirkers recall the event for Pamela Coleman.

Michael Atherton

England Cricket Captain

I was lucky enough to go to a school (Manchester Grammar) which placed a high priority on sport. I was also encouraged by my parents from a very early age. My father was a keen cricketer and played football at Manchester United.

As a boy I enjoyed all sport, especially team games. I was in the first XI cricket team for five years and during that time we lost only one match. I also liked squash, but it was cricket that soon took over as the sport I most enjoyed and I played schoolboy cricket for Lancashire and England. Manchester Grammar fielded some excellent sides in most sports and I have very fond memories of my time there.

Dr Mark Porter

TV and radio doctor

Until I was about 13 I was one of those schoolboys who won cups and prizes on sports day. I was very good in the egg and spoon and sack races and quite a quick runner. Then when I became a boarder at Wycliffe School in Gloucestershire my athletic prowess seemed to desert me. Once we had formal sports days with rules and proper lanes and starting guns, all that sort of stuff, I didn't do so well. I was in the rugby and cricket teams, though, right through to university.

I remember sports days as always being baking hot and my parents looking terribly bored as they waited for me to come last in the sprint. However hot it was all the boys had to wear a cap and a blazer over all-white kit. I always got picked to take part, but I never did very well - unlike my brother, Simon, who won every race. Even though I rarely won a prize I enjoyed sports day. It was much more fun than being in class.

Jo Brand


I was actually quite good at sport when I was a kid. I was a good runner at primary school. I don't think I ever came first, but I remember getting a little cup for being second or third. I was not bad at the egg and spoon race either. I was crap at the sack race though, I used to keep falling over.

When I moved on to secondary school, Tunbridge Wells Grammar, I started to get a bit lazy. I wasn't fat then, I just wasn't sporty. I was one of those teenagers who was a bit sneery about sport. I remember the games mistress once pitting me against the three best runners in the school in the 200 metres and I was left puffing round on my own completely humiliated long after the others finished.

From then on I took an intense dislike to sport - except netball, I liked that. I was in the school team and we did pretty well in matches against other schools. We weren't brilliant but we were middle to top of the table. I don't think we were hard enough compared with the girls from other schools who seemed world-weary, cynical and a bit pushy. I hated gym, all that jumping over horses, swinging on ropes and climbing up bars and, most of all, trampolining.

Buzz Aldrin

Former astronaut, second manto walk on the moon

I was a good athlete as a boy and adept at football. For seven summers, from the age of nine, I went to summer camp at Trout Lake in Maine where I was introduced to tumbling and pole vaulting. I was a competitive wrestler too.

We didn't have sports days at my junior high school but by the time I got to Montclair High School, New Jersey, I was the top pole vaulter and competed in state championships. I dropped out of American football to concentrate on my examinations to get into West Point Military Academy which I regretted because when I renewed my interest in football the only position left was centre and I was a bit lightweight for that.

These days I spend a lot of my time skiing and scuba diving. Being under water is a bit like floating in space. Later this summer I'm planning a really enticing dive, to see the wreck of the Titanic, 12,000 feet below the North Atlantic.

Sir Roger Bannister

First man to break the four-minute mile, later Master of Pembroke College, Oxford

At primary school in West Harrow I remember representing my school in running when I was about eight. Then I went to the City of Bath Boys' School where I won the junior cross country, which was open to boys under the age of 14, at 11, 12 and 13.

Somebody told me that if you won three times you were allowed to keep the cup. The staff heard about this and clubbed together to buy me a replica of the massive silver cup which understandably the school didn't want to give away. That was the first sports award I received and I still have it, though it would take a bit of searching to find it now.

I was junior victor ludorum when I was about 14 which meant I'd won several races, probably the half mile and the mile. I never really mastered cricket, but I played quite a bit of rugby at school and when I moved on to University College School I was in the second XV.

I only really took up running seriously when I came up to Oxford at the age of 17. It didn't interfere with my studies as a medical student. I trained relatively little, only half an hour a day.

I stopped running in fathers' races at school sports days many years ago when the chap who came second to me by a very narrow margin had a heart attack and I saw that it was a potentially dangerous exercise.

Lenny Henry

Comedian and children's author

Whatever the weather, even if hail was pelting down, according to the games master at my school (Bluecoat Secondary Modern, Dudley) it was 'just the day for football'.

I was lumpy and slightly overweight and crap at games, but I enjoyed sports day. The sun always seemed to shine and it was all very exciting. Our school was quite big on athletics and I enjoyed watching the girls run. At the age of 12 watching a girl run towards you very quickly does things to you. I'm not sure watching boys run had the same effect.

There was a modicum of smoking behind the bushes from some kids but generally it was a day for all the school to sit out in the sunshine and compete. The shot put was my thing, but nobody taught me the skip, hop, jump bit before you throw. I just walked up and hurled it. If somebody had taken the trouble to teach me to throw properly I could have really given it a good go.

In the cross country it was always me and my friend Stuart who were last of the 50 or so who competed. Cross country running always seemed to me some kind of arcane punishment. Stuart and I would stop off to hide in the bushes to get our breath and sometimes we tried to tag on at the end and pretend we'd run the whole course, but we were always caught out.

At school they tried to foster the competitive spirit but I was a bit of a loner and more interested in things like swimming, which you could do on your own, than team sports. It is only in recent years since I started to play tennis suddenly I've found I have an amazingly competitive spirit and get really angry with myself if I don't play a shot properly. What school sports day did for me was to give me a sense of belonging.

Frances Edmonds Writer, TV and radio broadcaster and co-host of The Greatest Sports day at my Ursuline Convent in Chester had to be held at a local playing field after a Roman arena was discovered under the school sports ground and the excavations shaved off more and more until all we had left were three tennis courts which doubled for netball.

Physical endeavour wasn't particularly encouraged at the school. Gym and swimming and a bit of netball were considered suitable for young ladies, but nothing like putting the shot or throwing the discus.

I was quite fit as a girl and enjoyed tennis and swimming and, because I had long legs, I was quite a fast runner, but I didn't excel. We're not talking Sally Gunnell. I was keen on sport because my three brothers were incredibly sporty. At home we had a large garden and I played a lot of sport with them. They were all very good at team games and won cups in school competitions. There were lots of little silver trophies on the sideboard at home - but none of them were mine.

Vanessa Feltz

Columnist, broadcaster and TV celebrity

I was so bad at sport I did a Greek O-level to get out of playing lacrosse. I hated school sports days. I was always worst at everything and would have done anything to get out of taking part. I was just totally unathletic. Every kind of game and sport was anathema to me, and still is. I was one of those girls who never got over the horse in the gym and was the last to be picked for any team.

My mother and my Grandma Sybil always came to my school sports days at Haberdashers' Aske's in Elstree. Grandma Sybil was so lovely she always congratulated me as if I'd won everything. She also gave every girl in my class a chocolate which made my stock rise.

Bob Monkhouse


Dulwich College was all swimming and rugger and cricket and team spirit when I was a pupil there - and I was sluggish and inept and completely lacking in team spirit. I hated games and was hopeless at all sport. I remember appealing to the Master, Mr Gilkes, to be allowed off games, which were compulsory. He refused my pleas on the basis that he himself was an atheist but taught divinity.

Ever resourceful, I affected a terrible limp and managed to convince the family doctor that the pain in my left shin was periostitis. He gave me an off-games note which I used from 1942 to 1946. Eventually there was a hole in the paper where the date had been rubbed out and changed so many times.

I remember being forced to play cricket just once. I was banished to the out field where I sat dribbling on ants. I couldn't, and still can't, see a moving ball and I don't see the slightest point in hitting any kind of ball with anything. We have a pool at home, but I can't swim either. Computer games, draughts, ludo and chess are my idea of sport.

Darren Gough

Yorkshire and England cricketer

At St. Helen's Junior School in Barnsley I was captain of the football and cricket teams when I was nine, two years younger than the other players. I remember winning the three-legged race and the egg and spoon race.

When I went to senior school, Priory Comprehensive, I was captain of the football, rugby and cricket teams and captain of my house, the Reds. On sports days Reds generally did well. I liked high jump but I didn't like running so I used to get somebody else to do that.

I left school with two O-levels, in English and metal work. I should have done a lot better, but all I cared about was sport.

Kelly Holmes

British 800 and 1,500 metre champion

My PE teacher, Miss Page, gave me a lot of encouragement when I was at Hugh Christie Comprehensive School and persuaded me to join the local athletics club when I was in my early teens.

Athletics was always my favourite sport, even as a child, but I liked rounders and martial arts and gymnastics too. I was in the cross country and netball teams and represented the school in athletics in the Kent and English schools championships. At school sports days I won prizes for athletics and I still hold the record in some races.

I enjoyed the team spirit of school sports days. School sport was good in my day but now I feel that it is not given sufficient time to encourage children to develop a serious interest.

Carol Thatcher

Daughter of the former Prime Minister and author

When I was at boarding school, Queenswood in Hertfordshire, I was quite sporty. I recall being in the hockey team which gave you a good chance to thwack others round the ankles.

I remember sports days as rather good fun and I think I did once win a cup, for long jump. I was just average at sport, with occasional winning bursts. At prep school I remember being captain of the rounders team for one match.

My brother, Mark, played racquets very proficiently and was good at cricket. Dad was sporty, he was a rugby referee, and mother did once claim that she had some prowess at hockey.

I've become more sporty since I grew up. Now I live in Switzerland I ski a lot and I'm just off on a charity bike ride from St Petersburg to Moscow.

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