On the Couch / Over the sticks and on to the hairdressers
We're into a month of fairly lean pickings - if tennis or golf is your TV game. Apart from Britain, soccer is also winding down for its end-of-year break. However, cricket's still in full swing, though if you're like a snobby friend of mine, you might recall the "Manchester, Third World" signpost in a grim-looking neighborhood in Monty Python's "Meaning of Life" - and say "England vs. Sri Lanka isn't for me." What rubbish - Colombo and Candy boast two of the most beautiful grounds in all of cricketdom.
Still, if you get a kick out of pretending to be elitist, you might consider looking elsewhere for the very best in sports viewing: Move over soccer and basketball, step in curling and show jumping.
If you choose curling, you won't regret it. And, I don't mean some curious hairdressing play. What's that, you plead in ignorance - that curious mix of lawn bowls and 10-pin bowling on ice, that agonizingly slow rolling of 20-kilogram rocks ("stones" not rocks, m'dear) to a target 40 meters away, while other players brush the ice furiously ahead of the stone like a couple of crazed "sponga" specialists?
Precisely. It's actually the farthest you can get from elitism. The cunning of curling is riveting though - the intense concentration, the skill, the breathtaking excitement of whether the stone will, or will not, edge out a rival as it glides into the "house" and on to the "tee", the camaraderie. It looks exactly the way we all ought to be spending Friday afternoons rather than on the beach hounding others with our beach paddles. I certainly hope you didn't miss this past week's European championships at which Scotland nabbed the men's gold from Norway and also won the silver in the women's event, behind Sweden. For the TV purist, there's stunning access to extrovert and introvert player alike, cameras that get in so close you literally see hearts aglow and minds a-buzz - only snooker matches that. You might, however, need simultaneous translation to decipher the deep Scottish brogue and the unfathomable sing-song Norwegian which dominated the ice as Dave Murdoch and Oslo pin-up guy Thomas Ulsrud battled for the gold. In between stones, from the commentators you get such interesting tidbits about the amateur players: the guy who topped his engineering class at the University of Oslo, the brilliant five-handicap golfer, the overweight 30-year-old ordered to lose two stone (12 kilos) or risk being dropped, the dairy farmer who informed his dad he's quitting the family farm on the Highlands to be closer to the curling rink, or the captain himself, who owns a string of upscale gyms all over Norway (upscale? - the kind of establishment where the question is, "manicure after your weights session, sir?").
It doesn't only have great geometry, it's got quite a pedigree, this game. The Scots claim to have invented it, though there's some flimsy evidence it began on the Continent. Then, however, the Dutch also take credit for giving us the first glimpses of golf. Canada is now the most popular curling country. You would think that it has to be rooted in a winter sports culture, but it's said to be fast becoming "the thing" in more and more countries. There seems no bad reason for it not to make a mark in Tel Aviv, too. It's so well-suited to the mentality - at least as an antidote. Seriously, didn't cricket also use to be a genteel, silent game? But, just watch the drums and trumpet band in action at Colombo encouraging England and Sri Lanka and you know it's a changing global world of joy we inhabit.
So, please join the campaign to pressure Eurosport to give us more and more curling and less and less alpine skiing. That's really dull viewing - only interesting when the skiers divest themselves of their goggles and hats which only happens once they've finished their turn - and then they all smile broadly and wave enthusiastically. So what else is new?
What you definitely shouldn't miss out on, though, is one of the great Christmas-time attractions - the horse show at Olympia next week. It includes the latest round on the Rolex Grand Prix Tour plus a host of other enticing events from west London and here, too, I'm trusting Eurosport to get its priorities in order.
I'll be looking out especially for one of the great hopes of British show jumping. Not just because 17-year-old Daniel Neilson apparently has such a terrific way with a horse, but because of how he's breaking all stereotypes and demolishing all cliches about the sport. In the northeast of England, soccer is king. Most miners' sons and grandsons wouldn't put show jumping very high on their list of favorite sports. Daniel's story rather resembles that of ballet wannabe Billy Elliot, though his mom and dad (also, a former miner) have, all along, given their son full support in his choice of sporting career.
"It was quite unusual," Daniel told BBC. "All the lads either play football or rugby, do boxing or kick-boxing. As far as I can remember, I always wanted to ride. You hear about kids who get the mickey taken out of them. I was lucky because I played for the soccer team and did boxing as well. They messed around with me a bit, but they never took it further than that." Still, Daniel always had a ready argument at hand to put a pugnacious pugilist in his place: "Friends would say, 'what's hard about jumping over a few sticks?' I'd tell them, it's a living animal you have to control, not just a bit of old leather. It's stronger than you, more powerful than you, and to get them to do the things they do is very technical."
Another great thing about show jumping is that it's sex blind - which is not the same thing as saying it's sexless. Quite the contrary. But, no questions are asked about gender origins - of horse and rider alike. The judgment is on skill alone. Tennis has mixed doubles but that's only a sop really to the game's amateur origins and genderless competitions are pretty rare.
In team games, though, I learned a few years ago, there is one sport that's very deliberately mixed - korfball, a mixture of basketball and netball played mostly in Holland and Belgium. A team consists of four men and four women and while women are equal in the tactics of the game, duels are man-to-man and woman-to-woman. A woman may not defend against a man nor a man defend against a woman.
Wikipedia insists that korfball is now played in at least 50 countries and that the appeal is not only the unisex aspect, but the "clean play" - the outlawing of most physical contact and the encouraging of players to outsmart, rather than outmuscle, the opposition. (Another must for the Tel Aviv beachfront, it seems clear.) Ironically, these qualities often also serve as a foil for ridicule. Korfball players, like netball players, are mocked by both cynical female and cynical male basketball players. The korfballers have a ready riposte: scoring in basketball, is much, much easier because the hoop is lower than the korf.
Either way, I find this the one thing about my passion for curling that's difficult to justify: Why is it not gender blind too, as indeed, lawn bowls and 10-pin bowling should also both be? Unless, it's because the girls are worried they might get outplayed. Surely not?