02.04
This sporting life

If indeed it’s true that you are, as they say, what you eat, then I’m a Dorito.

Ever since coming to the States I’ve become more conscious of my weight. It bothers me somewhat that in a country as famously fat as America, I’m still deemed extra large. How can I possibly be the same shirt size as those carbohydrate-fuelled monsters that occasionally spill over into my airline seat? Admittedly their buttons appear to be taking greater strain than my looser fitting garments, but how can it be that I’m buying the biggest size available when people like this exist? You only need to see their thighs to know that I would fall through one leg of any pair of boxer shorts big enough to house their bulk. Where do the really big people shop in this country? Is there another Philip Pullman type world they can slip (or rather, waddle) into that caters for Super Size clothing? Or is the unpalatable truth that I am like them, but can’t see it myself? I know when women look in mirrors they see a magnified image and that the opposite is supposed to happen to men, but can I really be deceiving myself to such an extent? I guess it must be the case, because I know that the only reflection I ever see of myself has a full head of head.

All the evidence points to a weight problem. The ‘calculate your own body mass index’ in my New York Times Book of Knowledge punctures any notion I may have of myself as a lithe young thing. The bathroom scales that I’ve taken to obsessively standing on, normally after ridding myself of any excess weight in a somewhat pathetic and ultimately futile attempt to tip the verdict in my favour, confirms the same.

A few months ago Ros and I decided on different strategies to what we saw to be our respective weight problems. She chose the Atkins diet while I manfully maintained I could lose it all through a programme of intensive exercise. To give up Doritos, as the Atkins diet requires, was inconceivable. (To pose an existential question, what would I have become then?*)

I should have known from the outset that my strategy was doomed to failure. I needed only to have noticed that sports obsessed America is the fattest nation on this planet, suggesting, perhaps, little correlation between activity and weight loss.

Sport is like a religion here. It’s certainly taken much more seriously than it is in the land of the amateur good sport and jolly hockey sticks that I come from. It still seems strange to me that the best path to a university place is often via success on the sports field rather than through academic excellence. Having seen the facilities, opportunities and commitment afforded to promising young American sportsman and women, the thought of England producing a Wimbledon champion seems a quaint and deluded ambition. It is little short of miraculous that Tim Henman was able to win a set or two, let alone a top ten ranking on the professional tennis circuit, given what he was up against.

As well as sport, Americans also like numbers. The first question I was asked when I signed up for tennis coaching was what number was I? My reply of 42 (my age and, according to Douglas Adams, the answer to life, the universe and everything) was met with a raised eyebrow. It was eventually established I was a 4.5, sufficient to qualify for an ‘advanced tennis clinic’. My concern that I had been committed to some sort of asylum proved to be unfounded. Instead I had been placed in a weekly coaching group with an American, a Guatemalan, an Indian and a Swedish coach. The American – an educated and competitive City type – betraying the slightly shaky grasp of geographical concepts they have over here, observed that five different continents were represented in our group. I caught the eye of my Swedish coach as we both contemplated how to tell him that Scandinavia wasn’t a separate continent and we were in fact both Europeans.

Before coming here I was worried about the risk of soccer-deprivation. Mercifully though I’ve been able to feed my habit to the point of gluttony. Providing I’m discrete about it, I’ve found it possible to watch three successive live Premiership games on Saturday and then another two on Sunday. (To pull this off requires getting up early, slipping unobserved to the TV room, volunteering to do the weekly supermarket shop and generally being a good husband when I’m not closeted away in front of the screen. In truth I guess Ros knows what’s going on, but has decided she has more to gain by turning a blind eye to my addiction.)

42, ironically, is my squad number (and I guess my ranking) at Greenwich Arsenal Soccer Club. In amongst this multicultural group of ex-Pros and enthusiastic amateurs, an ex-amateur like myself finds himself way out of depth. My obsession for the beautiful game is nothing against this lot. In the height of winter my psychotic new team mates didn’t let the worst snowstorm of the past decade get in the way of a practice game. They simply moved it to the beach immediately after the tide had gone out, having worked out that the sea would clear the beach of snow. Club rule is whoever kicks the ball into the sea has to fetch it – no joke given that the winter weather here makes The Day After Tomorrow look like a reality TV show.

We had our first experience of American skiing last month with a week in Vail. One incident in particular stood out as a prime example of the difference between The Rockies and The Alps. Jay & I set off early one morning to catch the first lift up. Our day started with two very long chair lifts taking us some way from the village even before we had started skiing. We then tackled a difficult double diamond black run to get to another chair lift. After another couple of challenging mogul studded pistes, a fourth chair lift and finally a short drag-lift we were well ready for some coffee (another point of difference). We were also 11,220 feet above sea-level. The sign announcing the remote Two Elk Lodge nearly had me off the drag-lift. It told me, in big bold letters, that Two Elk Lodge had wheelchair access. Quite how they expected anyone in a wheelchair to do what we had just done I don’t know. I have no idea how you might get a wheelchair on a chairlift, let alone push one eleven thousand feet up a mountain through deep snow. And the double diamond black mogul runs in icy conditions would be something else in a wheelchair. Only in America.

Ultimately the difference is this: the runs are longer in the States, the lunches longer in Switzerland. I know this because two weeks after the Vail trip I was in Verbier for a boys weekend (that happily, and completely fortuitously, coincided with a work trip to Europe. Well, almost completely fortuitously). After these long lunches I became more aware than previously (perhaps because I now live in a fresher air environment) of the tendency of my friends to fart in telecabines. Four grown men emitting gas in an enclosed space after a heavy cheese lunch on a hot afternoon. I say four, actually it’s three; I’m far too anally retentive for that kind of behaviour. Although they disguise it with boyish smirks, I worked out that it is in fact a territorial thing. Because I’ve relocated to the States my friends are all trying to move in and stake their claim on what they perceive to be vacated territory. A dog may claim domain possession by pissing on a lamp-post, but my friends are sadly mistaken if think they’re going to get my place in Switzerland simply by filling it with unpleasant odours.

Despite all the sport I’m getting here, it’s noticeable that I haven’t taken to any American sports. One has to ask why a nation that has successfully exported every other aspect of its culture has failed to interest many other countries in Baseball, American Football, Basketball, Ice Hockey or Wrestling.

Could it be that they’re not very good?

A nation that is so into sport stuck with ones that aren’t very good. How sad is that?

Almost as sad as losing the dieting competition to my wife.

(*Existential answer: A man who gives himself up is nothing. A man who is a Dorito cannot therefore give up Doritos.)

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