“I felt I was good enough to deal with the bowlers without using a helmet.”
Sir Viv Richards
A hockey ball weighs 5½ ounces, the same weight as a cricket ball. Hard, white, muddied in those days, and studded with the milk-teeth of unready goalkeepers... I was eleven years old and I wasn’t nearly good enough to deal with this.
This was my first club game: I’d been shanghaied into filling in as goalie for the under-14s. No-one else’d seemed to fancy it, and, quivering in the Bradford rain with nothing between me and hurtling white death but a bent stick and a pair of cast-off cricket pads, I slowly and horribly began to realise why.
When I was 12 the club gave me a pair of hobnailed leather ‘kickers’: reinforced boots for hoofing the ball to safety. At 13 I got my first chest-pad, and my first helmet. Armguards arrived at age 17 and by the time I turned 18 I was kitted out like all the goalies you see nowadays: a shambling golem of styrofoam and velcro.
I think about the innumerable times I could’ve been hurt – and the innumerable ways in which it could’ve happened – and I wonder: why do I miss those days? Why do I hate Cipriani’s scrum-cap? Why, when the F1 commentator says “Of course, with these new cars, it’s practically impossible for a driver to be seriously hurt”, does it always seem to be in a tone of regret?
I don’t think it’s about I’m-no-sissy machismo. And I don’t think it’s simple Luddism, either.
I think it’s about engagement with the fundamentals of a sport. Sport in general forces us to acquaint ourselves with the strengths and limitations of our own bodies; ball-games, for instance, are generally a question of how well we engage with the interacting realities of opponent, ball, grass and gravity. In some sports, danger – indeed, death – becomes a fundamental.
Every time we step away from these fundamentals, the appeal of the sport – to me, at least – is diminished. A padded-up hockey goalie is hopelessly compromised in terms of vision and mobility; a helmeted cricketer is insulated from certain realities of speeding ball and human skull.
I don’t wear a helmet when I ride my bike. In part, that’s because it’s what I’ve always done. In part – a particularly stupid part – it’s because I’m worried about looking like a tit. But mostly it’s because cycling’s meant to be just me, and the bike, and the hills – and anything more would feel like an intrusion.
It’s a faintly uncomfortable sort of position. I don’t want anybody to get hurt playing sport – but then, in a weird way, I miss the days when there was a better-than-evens chance that somebody would.