The Four Sportsmen.

I’m 38 years old and stuck in traffic on the M4 heading back to London from Bristol. I know that even once I reach the non-organic entity of ‘London’ the treacle roads that wind through its multitudinous districts still lie between me and my destination. I could be behind the wheel for a while, and the unnecessary prolongation of this state of existence is causing the usual restless irritability. The musical choices I have in my CD wallet have long since become repetitive and the radio channels have moved into drive-time tedium. I waste away hours upon hours of life doing virtually nothing, but the next one or two hours represent an unavoidably conscious and externally imposed nothing that fills me with frustration.

I say one or two hours, but then wonder how long will this be exactly? How many seconds, minutes and hours will it be before I’m pulling up the clutch with only a short walk to the flat and a welcome cup of tea? The M4 roadworks have already meant I’m likely to hit rush hour traffic and any kind of obstacle can crop up once among the winding streets of the City. Then again the traffic could clear meaning London is reached before the really rush hour really builds. Less than an hour is improbable, more than two possible. Generally speaking I’m drawn to something less than, but still closer to two hours than one.

I could carry on this internal conversation for a good 10 minutes before exhausting it. But I have another option. I have something in my psycho-artillery – a process and framework – that could make this an on-going narrative bringing life and meaning to the remaining journey, embracing the bad luck of jams and wrong turns rather than allowing them to torture me. The simple activity of guessing the arrival time only requires a wider conversation, it requires multiple personalities, statistics and sport. It requires Bollini, Petersen, Mr Blob and Gonzalez. So I begin.

In a controversial change to the establish order, the first to step up to the plate is Gonzalez. The ‘schemer’, Gonzalez is used to reacting to the gameplay of others but less to leading the way. He has to estimate the arrival time as close as possible to the moment the car is fully stationary and the journey over. Always tricky to be first, he pips for 5:46 – an optimistic hour and 36 minutes away. The safe bet would be an hour and 45. This is based on averagely heavy traffic resulting in 45 minutes to London then the sluggish, but uneventful trawl through to South East London being roughly an hour. However Gonzalez shrewdly opts for a positive but not too positive guess, meaning the next player, if he wants to take a similarly optimistic guess, will have to think carefully about whether to out-positive the play. This could be fascinating.

Next up is Bollini. Bollini is the old timer; steady, stoical and pragmatic. Like a line and length bowler, he favours the orthodox approach and won’t be swayed or distracted by the moves of others. His estimation will likely be the same whether he is first, second, third or fourth up – which is not to say he was ever happy with the traditional order that left him the perennial first. He opts for the safe bet, as would be expected, and a goes for a sensible 5:55.

Now Petersen takes the stand. Not popular with the fans due to what is perceived as a lack of personality, Petersen is irritatingly strategic in his gameplay. Crowd pleasing is something that has never interested him and he will simply do whatever it takes to win. Of course fans usually prefer a competitor with a human side – a mesmeric talent despite being, in some way, someone we can identify with. He certainly isn’t dwelling on on such things as, knowing Bollini is probably not far off the money but, with the motorway being stationary and arrival time likely later rather than earlier than his safe bet, he pitches a sly 5:56. Boos ring out to little effect and there is not a trace of emotion to be gaged behind Petersen’s gaunt features. His bet means that any result over 5:55 works in his favour, with winning via the closest estimation trumping any desire he has for the honour of accuracy.

Such a strategy works best of course if you are last to play. For today at least, that honour goes to fans favourite Mr Blob. The antithesis of Petersen, Mr Blob is a risk taker, preferring to gamble on glory than play safe. Pundits are split on his appeal. Some feeling his propensity for crowd pleasing stunts result far too often in poor and irrational play. Others feel there is a more genuine conviction and art to his strategy than a mere shallow, ego driven need for showmanship. His history of mixed outcomes, ranging from absurd failure to inspired success, play to theories on both sides and leave the debate destined, perhaps fortuitously, to run and run. True to form he brings gasps from the crowd when, noting the movement of cars up ahead, senses that previous estimations have been too negative. If the motorway opens up now there is no reason that London could not be breached within the hour. He pips for a crazy ass 5:30! There was no need. He could have gone for 5:45 and won on any time quicker than Gonzalez. As always this could result in something special or, in a matter of seconds, prove a massive opportunity lost. Only the next few hours of driving will tell.

And with that, such mental distractions have filled at least 30 minutes of my journey. The subsequent period of time, though not wholly occupied by thoughts of the competition, will make use of it to turn lane closures, diversions and traffic lights into intense debates on the state play – usually in American accents. You will be pleased to note (if my mental preoccupations haven’t disturbed you enough already) that on arrival, and sometimes before, the whole sporting carnival is instantly forgotten. I really couldn’t tell you who it was that won the last grand slam World Arrival Time Championships, though I think it might well have been Bollini.

I’m not exactly sure when Bollini, Petersen, Mr Blob and Gonzalez first came into my imagination. I know there was once another competitor called Spike, long since retired, who remains the legendary figure of the past. It all probably began when I was about 9 or 10 years old. However as a child it was more. I might remember a whole summer series of events from the overall champion that year to the winners of sub category tournaments. The contemporary discipline of arrival time estimation is the one remaining sport among what was, pre driving-licence, a vast array of events ranging from card games, stop watch second stopping (closest wins), coin flicking and games of miniature snooker. Left on my own, a simple game of throwing stones closest to the random object could have its interest extended from minutes to hours by the simple introduction of the ‘Four Sportsmen’. The most badly designed, limited in gameplay and boredom inducing ZX spectrum games could be embellished and given new meaning by the introduction of an imaginary world of pundits, crowds and statistics. At 38 they now only live on when called upon to help drag the tedium out of long journeys, but the function is essentially the same. Then, as now, they were a method by which, via an unseen internal embellishment, very little became a lot. And nothing in terms of reality ever needed to change.

I consider this internal world when I think about sport in general. As a football fan, unlike some, I am also a fan of the game in its essence. I’ll stop and watch an under 11s game and observe the tactics, the stand out players and the team play. Put a Dutch 2nd division match on TV though and most people won’t watch it. It may be claimed that this is because of the quality of the game, but that wouldn’t be the reason why. It’s because all sport is embellished, in reality and then through the imagination it’s embellished by pundits, crowds, characters and statistics. It’s given meaning beyond what it actually is by the surrounding fanfare. Without this, it might only occupy a tiny amount of conversation, rather than fill – as a single Classico does in Spain – full days of non-stop television analysis and discussion.

Another example is the Olympics. Why would people suddenly watch archery? In what circumstances could archery entertain anyone if they didn’t know anything about who was doing it and why? I reckon, given a British medal hope, arrival time estimation could capture the imagination of the nation. It would be embellished in the collective imagination much as I embellish car journeys in the personal – but how much more actual meaning does this add?  The social reality of the fanfare merely adds a sense of legitimacy to an overindulgence in small things.

The statistical and obsessive relationship with sport might be associated with an innate autism found, in particular, in men. However I like to think we are all on the spectrum, however mildly, of pretty much everything. At Primary school I was once tested for deafness because my teacher thought I could’t hear her when she was speaking to me. They discovered my hearing was fine and that, in fact, I was simply so absent minded that the noises coming from my teacher were not being processed consciously. The assumption was that if I didn’t respond I must not be able to hear. That I could often recall what was said meant listening back to what I had heard but not processed – there was no conscious effort to ignore anything.

So I wonder how I would appear, as I remember once doing, sat on a beach on my own throwing stones at a single point for three hours or so? If someone was watching me doing that they might think there was something seriously wrong. The focus would be on the smallness of the action, stones being thrown in a similar direction time after time. This kid can’t be thinking anything – if he was thinking he would stop. Mindless. Lost. Weird.

This is what helps me think differently when around children diagnosed with autism. The assumption, while a child repeats an action over and over, is to focus on the action itself. In wondering why this is happening we then naturally assume that the simplicity of the action is matched by a simplicity of thought. If we really wonder though, we might be better off challenging our own imaginations to consider how something so simple could work if it was embellished by something more. Much more. We should challenge our imaginations, not to project them, but to apply them to see how there might be more than meets the eye in any case.

For me personally that means remembering that the child throwing stones was not alone but had Bollini, Petersen, Mr Blob and Gonzalez along side him. There could be a whole lot going on down there on the beach, not to mention the car behind you.

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