Magazine article The Spectator

High Life

Magazine article The Spectator

High Life

Article excerpt

To Manchester for an address to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society for the Kilburn Lecture on 'The Future of the Olympic Games'. The learned society is Britain's second oldest, after the Royal Society, having been instituted in 1781. John Dalton, the father of modern chemistry, was one of its important past members. My NBF Peter Barnes (I had to explain to him that the acronym meant new best friend) picked me up at the airport and whisked me to Manchester Metropolitan University, and within 45 minutes I had changed into evening clothes and was facing a jolly gathering of bearded professors, smiling ladies and an all-round appreciative audience who laughed at my jokes and were extremely generous with their applause. I spoke for 45 minutes and had an intelligent question and answer period of 15 minutes - one gentleman asked me why Lindsay Lohan hadn't come with me, and I told him that, alas, she was most likely in jail and incapable of travel.

A lively dinner followed and the wine flowed, as did the vodka later on in the university's bar. Oh, I almost forgot. A three quarters of an hour speech is quite long, and although I had six months to prepare it, I had only begun to write it down three days before. But I knew my subject by heart and, after a few fervent prayers, I was pretty certain I'd somehow wing it. What also helped were two double whiskys just before going up on the podium. One more double would have meant disaster with a capital D, a single double would have meant close but no cigar. But as I said, the society's members were very friendly, many of them are Spectator readers, and one gentleman even knew about my ships and those of my father.

I began with a short history of the Games, which first took place in 776 BC. I mentioned Arrachion, the famous Pankration athlete who won his third medal posthumously because just as he expired he broke the toe of his opponent, who surrendered. Of course, in AD 339, the Games were abolished because they had become too corrupt. Nero hadn't helped by disqualifying all entrants and winning the chariot race unopposed. I then ran through my favourite moments of the modern Olympics, Bob Mathias winning the Decathlon in 1948 as a 17-year-old Californian of Greek extraction, and with his Apollo-like looks repeating it four years later; Emil Zatopek's triple victory in 1952, the 5,000, the 10,000 and the Marathon; the German Armin Hary winning the 100 meters in Rome in 1960; my friend Tony Madigan beating Cassius Clay - aka Muhammad Ali - in the boxing semi-finals in Rome and being robbed by a split decision; the barefooted Ethiopian sergeant Abebe Bikila smiling his way through the Borghese Gardens and down the Via Veneto and receiving the greatest cheers from the Roman crowd. …

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