The time I tried to become an Olympian

‘Babe, I’ve decided I want to go to the Olympics,’ I yell out from the lounge.

‘What’s that?’ Kerry cka-boomalls back, elbow deep in cake batter.

‘London. 2012. You know? Fireworks. Opening ceremony. Lady athletes with moustaches.’

Silence for a moment. ‘Okay. I suppose it could be fun. But we better start saving. It’s an expensive holiday. Especially in the UK.’

‘Oh, I don’t think you understand. I don’t want to go as a spectator. I’m talking about going as an athlete.’

Face with question mark pops into lounge. ‘You want to do what?’

‘Become an Olympian,’ I say with a flourish. Hearing it out loud has a nice ring to it. Five rings, really.

‘I’m sorry? You want to become an Olympian? An actual O-l-y-m-p-i-a-n?’


‘Track or field?’

‘Javelin,’ I say pointedly (geddit?).

Kerry takes a moment to absorb the news.

‘Makes sense, I suppose. At least now we’ll get some use out of all those old javelins you’ve got stacked up in the garage.’

Of course my wife is being sarcastic. Nowhere in our house will you find even a photograph of a javelin. To be fair, I don’t imagine anyone owns an actual javelin. Unless you’re from Scandinavia. In which case you live in a house made of javelins and drive a javelin car to your job at the javelin factory.

‘Couple of things,’ my wife begins, holding out the cake-battered hand of belittlement and ridicule. ‘One, you’ve never owned a javelin. Two, you’re 34 years old. Three, you’re somewhat … um … fuller-figured, shall we say? Four, you haven’t set foot in a gym in twelve years. Five, you’re 34 years old. Shall I go on?’

‘Why is it that whenever I have a dream all you want to do is stomp all over it?’

Kerry purses her lips together which is her way of warning me to tread carefully. ‘How long has this been a dream of yours?’

‘About 15 minutes,’ I reply, then hasten to add, ‘could be longer though. There was an ad break between the javelin and hammer throw.’

At this point, dear reader, I need to explain something about my personality. I’ve always been heavily influenced by what I see on screen. After watching the film, Rocky, I was utterly convinced that I could become the Heavyweight Champion of the World (it could still happen). After basking in the near-perfect glow of the The Shawshank Redemption I wanted to be a kind old black man who befriends an annoying white guy with a permanent faraway look in his eyes, as if he’s constantly searching for his golf ball.

Kerry looks down at the TV and watches as some Norwegian behemoth picks out a candy-cane-striped javelin from the world’s longest kitbag.

‘You’re being ridiculous. This happens every time you watch something that inspires you.’

‘No it doesn’t.’

‘Yes it does.’

‘No, it doesn’t.’

‘Yes it does.’

‘No, it doesn’t.’

‘You’re being a child.’

‘Am not.’

‘Yes you are.’

‘Am not.’

Gareth … I’m not going to do this—’

‘Am not.’

There. I win.

Kerry regards me with a flamboyant eye-roll and storms back to the kitchen.

‘Look, I’ve given this a lot of thought … these past few minutes,’ I say following behind her. ‘I’ve always been able to throw things really far.’


‘Yes … uh-huh. For your information, I once threw a tennis ball into the ‘Big Brother’ house all the way from the street. The throw was definitely good because my friends and I wrote our names on the ball and when we switched on the TV ten minutes later, the housemates were playing cricket with it.’

‘Doesn’t sound that impressive.’

‘The street was like a mile away from the house.’

‘You threw a tennis ball a mile.

‘I said like a mile. The point is that I have an immensely powerful throwing arm – a cannon, really – and it would be an offense against nature and maybe God himself not to make use of it. I really think I can throw the automatic qualifying mark for London.’

‘Which is what?’

‘Well I obviously don’t know that yet, but I reckon it’s probably around 50 metres.’

‘And how far do you think you can throw today?’

‘Dunno. A hundred metres.’

‘Wouldn’t that be a world record?’

‘Exactly,’ I nod. ‘Now do you understand?’

A puff of the cheeks. ‘This is you wanting to play for Manchester United all over again. You need to get past this childish obsession of yours to become a professional sportsman. I’m sorry, but it’s too late. You need to settle for what’s realistic. Be practical.’

Ouch. The Honesty General is out in full force.

Now it’s my turn to purse my lips. ‘It’s not the same as football.’

‘Really? How so?’

‘Football is subjective. If a coach doesn’t like you – no matter how talented you might be – you’re never going to make the team. With javelin it doesn’t matter if you have the personality of Pol Pot. If you throw the damn thing far enough, you make the team. End of story. That’s why I love the Olympics. It’s pure and it doesn’t discriminate.’

‘Look … I just don’t want you getting your hopes up … again. That’s all I’m saying. Throwing javelin is probably very difficult and even if you do have a naturally strong arm the guys competing at the Olympics have been throwing since they were kids. The odds of you making it are astronomical. And you’re 34. You’ll be 38 in London. Competing against men half your age.’

Or at least that’s what she probably said. Couldn’t say for sure. I could see her lips were flapping, but all I could now hear was AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ as I imagined myself at Wembley carrying the flag out for South Africa.

Na … na … na … na … na … na … na … na.


So that Monday I phoned the national Olympic throwing coach.

As one does.

To protect his identity, we shall call him Bob. This is pretty much how our conversation went:

‘Hi. Is this Bob?’

‘It is. Who is this?’

‘A future Olympian, actually.’

‘Really? You sound a little old.’

‘That’s weird. I’m only 34.’

‘I’m sorry. Why are you calling?’

‘I’ve decided I’d like to go to the Olympics.’

‘I think you’ve been misinformed. I’m not a travel agent. I’m the throwing coach for South Africa. Hammer throw, shot-put , javelin—’

‘I’m a javelinist.’

‘That’s not a word.’

‘Really? Sounds like it should be.’

‘Look, is this a serious call?’

‘Absolutely. I have a really strong throwing arm and I need you to coach me. You know … privately. I’m happy to pay.’


‘Look, I think I have what it takes to get to the Olympics, but realise that I need professional help with my technique.’

More silence as Bob wonders if he’s speaking to someone who earlier in the day had been sawing his way out of a sanatorium.

‘I realise how iffy this must all sound, but I have a really powerful arm. It’s rather immense. You need to trust me.’

‘But you’re 34.’

‘Men are at their strongest in their thirties.’

‘That’s a myth. They’re also slower in their thirties.’

‘But I’m double-jointed,’ (not entirely true – I have a dislocated thumb) ‘so the rules are probably different.’

I hear Bob sigh. ‘How far did you throw in school?’

‘Oh, we never had javelin at school. We didn’t even have field events,’ I reply, then lower my voice conspiratorially. ‘Just grass, if you know what I mean …’

Bob’s not in the mood for jokes. ‘How far did you throw at university?’

‘Didn’t throw there either. Actually, online correspondence colleges don’t have athletics tracks. And since we’re being honest with each other, you should probably know that I’ve never thrown a javelin competitively (or even uncompetitively). But I have thrown a tennis ball into the Big Brother house.’

‘Are you having me on? Did someone put you up to this call?’

‘No, Bob. Unless destiny counts as a person.’

Bob ignores my witty retort and thinks for a moment. ‘Do you live in Joburg?’

‘I do.’

‘And you’re really convinced you can throw?’

‘I am.’

‘And if I turn you down now, are you going to keep phoning me?’

‘Phoning, texting and maybe hanging out in your driveway. It would really be in your own best interests to give me a shot. I can be quite annoying.’

‘Hard to imagine.’ Another sigh. ‘How’d you get my number anyway?’

‘I used to be a journalist. I pulled some strings.’

‘Who gave it to you?’

‘Sorry, I can’t say. That would be unethical.’

‘And phoning me on my private number isn’t?’

At this point I thought it prudent not to reply.

After what seemed a long while, Bob spoke again. ‘Come out to the UJ stadium on Friday afternoon at five. I’ll give you half an hour. Bring a competition and a training javelin and we’ll see what you’ve got.’

‘Uh, Bob.’


‘I don’t own any javelins. Could you bring some? That’d be tremendous.’


Friday afternoon arrives and Bob makes his way into the stadium hauling a pair of javelins that are so long they look like pole vaults to me. But they must be javelins because they have pointy bits at the front.

‘Either this is an extraordinary coincidence or you must be Bob. I’m Gareth. Pleased to meet you.’

As Bob shakes my hand I can see he’s scrutinising my bald head and the wrinkles around my eyes.

‘Those are laugh lines, in case you’re wondering.’

‘You look older than 34.’

‘I’ve lived a hard life. Growing up we only had a maid three days a week.’

Bob pulls a face. ‘I don’t have much time. Let’s see what you’ve got.’

He hands me a blue-and-white javelin and points me to the track. This is literally the first time I’ve ever touched a javelin.

‘That’s where you launch from,’ he says, pointing to a bit of tartan that juts out from the track.

‘Yes, of course.’

Launch from. I like the sound of that. I take hold of the surprisingly heavy javelin – it weighs a lot more than a tennis ball, I notice – and make my way across the field. Having watched plenty of javelinists on YouTube, I feel I’m well prepared for what’s to come.

I turn back for a moment and cup my hands around my mouth. ‘As a matter of interest, Bob, what’s the automatic qualifying mark for the Olympics?’

‘It varies, but London will probably be around 74 metres.’

‘Not 50 metres?’


‘You sure.’

‘I coach the Olympic team. Remember?’ he says, glancing down at his watch. ‘Whenever you’re ready.’

All right then, I can pick up a hint as well as anyone. Time to crack on. Time to show Bob the Crocker Cannon.

I take a breath. Then I imagine the stadium filled with thousands of screaming fans. As AC/DC fires up in my ears I begin a slow run. As my feet hit the track, I consciously draw strength into my right arm. I raise the javelin above my head and can feel the pressure mounting in my shoulder. The cannon seems to have a mind of its own now and I can feel that it wants to fire the javelin right over the whole bloody stadium. As I near the throwing line, I break into a sideways crab-run – which I intuitively realise makes me look like a complete twat – before shifting my not inconsiderable weight onto my left foot. And then the moment is upon me. This is the bit in the Disney film where the cynical coach has his face blown off by the explosively talented no-hoper.

Time to release the Kraken.


Then: Booooom!

Goes something in my elbow.

Holy sweet balls of fire in a horse’s vagina! It feels like I’ve snapped every ligament in my arm. Oh the pain. The godless raw agony of it all.

Knowing that I daren’t show any signs of fallibility, I try to ignore my now broken arm as it flops about like a beached fish at my side.

I turn my attention to the sky to see if I can spot the javelin.

I’ve watched enough footage of professional javelinists to know that a javelin is supposed to slice through the air like an arrow fired from a taut bow. It’s not customary for a javelin to tumble arse over face before landing sideways.

I turn to look at Bob, holding back a grimace. ‘How far was that? Fifty? Sixty metres?’

‘Maybe 20 metres,’ Bob calls back. ‘It’s hard to say. You didn’t reach any of the measuring lines.’

‘I’m just warming up, Bob. Getting into my rhythm, you know?’

Bob makes an expression which suggests that he does not know.

I jog out to the javelin and pick it up with my left hand, praying that the broken cannon will recover enough during the walk back to the launch pad to allow me a few more throws.

Standing at the top of the runway, I can barely lift my arm above my head.

It’s at this point that I begin to wonder if perhaps I’ve overestimated my Olympianness.

However, having grown up in a house where for years we had to change the television channels manually, I’m well accustomed to adversity. I’m not about to throw in the towel now. And so I charge back down the runway, switch into the ridiculous crab run and throw for all I am worth.

Fire and acid vomit out of the devil’s arse! It feels like my arm has been wrenched off at the socket and is still attached to the javelin.

Gripping the remains of my ruined appendage with my left hand, I watch as the blue spear flies straight up into the air, stalls like a shot pigeon, and lands barely a few yards in front of me. Had I dived forward it might well have impaled me in the back of the head.

A decent person would’ve taken the moment on the chin. Put up his hand for acting like an arrogant twat and for entirely overestimating his ability.

Instead, I blamed the wind, bemoaned the decidedly second-rate javelin I’d been given and started rubbing my injured hamstring that wasn’t injured.

You thought I was beyond this sort of behaviour, didn’t you?

For shame, dear reader … for shame.

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