Fives – the Olympic Dream?

This article was first published in the 2009 Fives Federation Annual Review

Giles Coren lays out his vision of Fives in 2012…

The 2012 London Olympics are now less than three years away, and the completion of the Olympic stadium not much more than four. Soon after that, the Olympic Village will be almost ready and I have no doubt that all the necessary transport links and other infrastructure needed to link the new sporting facilities on the Eastern marshes to London proper, and the rest of the world, will be ready in time for the next time the Games are awarded to Britain in, ooh, 2036?

Unless, of course, the Olympic Committee accedes to the popular will of the people and decides to include Eton Fives in the main event. By drawing attention away from the unfinished running track (which may yet lead to the Olympic 300 metres being contested for the first time), barely dug swimming pool (look forward to Michael Phelps in the 12 metre paddle) and undersized equestrian centre (where Zara Philips will seek to emulate her Olympian mother insofar as one can do that while riding a St Bernard), and refocusing on the excellent new courts at Westway, the Olympic Committee may yet persuade the world that Britain leads the way in modern sporting facilities. I mean, they've got showers there and everything.

Indeed, seeing as part of the plan with the Olympics is to highlight the tourist potential and historic interest of London and the South-East, what better way than to play the massive, ungainly preliminary rounds at Eton and Harrow (a perfect way to advertise those schools' glories to the Middle and Far East sector on which they have come to depend) with quarters and semis at Westminster (a rare opportunity for sport in Central London itself) and then a final played under lights amid the rare urban beauty of Westway – as long as one of the finalists remembers the £5.75, of course, and someone can be persuaded to come down and switch the lights on.

Eton Fives has, for some reason, never before featured in the Olympics. The closest thing, I suppose, was the Pelota tournament at the 1900 games in Paris. Only two teams competed in the event and thus only one match was played, on June 14. Alas, the score is unknown. Truly, it is hard to imagine anything more like Eton Fives than a ball-and-wall tournament to which only two teams show up and nobody writes down the score. I imagine that the Mike Fenn of the Pelota world, some ancient Basque fellow, was still calling the participants, nagging them to send him the scores, well into the 1950s.

They do play 'handball' at the Olympics, as we know, but it's that daft-arse, proto-football throwing game so popular with German women and weeny Koreans, not the wall-oriented version of the game now known as "Peteball". They played Jeu de Paume (which is basically a Frogiform Royal Tennis) at the London games in 1908 and again in Paris in 1924 as a demonstration sport, alongside a demonstration Pelota event. That they managed to accommodate exhibitions of two utterly demented and arcane ball-and-wall sports, without featuring the greatest game of all, is one of the enduring Olympic tragedies.

And, indeed, it occurred to me that our best chance of getting Eton Fives into 2012 would be as a demonstration sport – hard Basque lobbying got Pelota played at the Barcelona Olympics as recently as 1992 – to which end, I phoned the Olympic Committee and spoke to one of Lord Coe's flunkies directly.

"Now listen here," I said, because that is the only language these people understand. "I am calling to demand that Eton Fives be included in the Olympics as a demonstration sport. You probably don't know the game. It's quite simple: you have a concrete court with three walls and two steps and two teams of two, two up, two down; when the serve is nice and juicy the cutter cuts and then there is a rally, but only if the cut is up, then only the serving side can win a point, which is best done by putting the ball in the pepper pot, then you carry on until somebody has eleven points – or, sometimes, 12, 13 or 14, but never 15, I think, or maybe sometimes 15, I never remember – and they go to foot and then if they win that's the game, and three of those is the match."

"Eh?" said the flunky.

"It's basically squash with your hands."

"Oh. Isn't it terribly painful?"

"No. You have lovely, nice padded gloves which you get by sending a cheque to Harold Wiseman. Unless you are Gareth Hoskins, in which case you use fingerless weight-lifting mittens which make you look like the Artful Dodger."

"Very interesting, Mr Coren," said the flunky. "But I'm afraid it won't be possible."

"Not possible?" I cried. "But I have heard that you have been considering such ludicrous so-called 'sports' as poker, bridge, croquet and, so help me, skateboarding as demonstration sports for these Olympics. I will have you know that Eton Fives is the sport which kick-started the Victorian sporting revival and paved the way for the formalisation of codes for football, rugby and cricket, not to mention the very revival of the Olympics itself in the modern era!

"Fives," I went on, "was far bigger than football in this country until the early 1860s and may well have been played by CB Fry. Or possibly not. Ted Dexter certainly played it, and also Christopher Martin-Jenkins. When I see what is going on in world sport today, with these wretched referrals of umpiring decisions in cricket, and footballers constantly poking referees in the eye, and tennis players clenching their fists all the time, I just weep to think of the good that could be done by showing people how we comport ourselves in Fives. If you are not going to include Eton Fives then I and the whole Fives community, which runs well into the dozens, are going to want to know why!"

"Because the Olympics doesn't have demonstration sports anymore," said the flunky. "They were abolished after 1992."

Which is a shame. Because while I have always believed that Fives would make a terrific demo sport, even I would have to admit it would make a rather weird addition to the main roster of games.

Or would it? One of the main objections that would no doubt be raised – it is one that my friends always bring up when ribbing me about Fives – is that it is a "posh" sport. But what's wrong with that? Great Britain only ever wins "posh" sports. If it weren't for shooting, sailing and horse-riding we'd never win a thing. At least Fives isn't a "sitting-down" sport. And, anyway, Fives isn't only for posh people. What about Dave Mew?

Then, I suppose, there is the argument that you can't have an international Olympic event in a sport played only in England. To them I say what I always say to those same teasing friends: "Fives is played a bit in Switzerland and is very popular in Nigeria, although with a tennis ball". And when you bear in mind that Shrewsbury is practically in Wales, well, I don't know how a game could really be more international.

Anyway, if Fives did make it to the Olympics then I am sure it would proceed very much along the lines of the County championships. You know, where someone calls you up the night before and says, "I hear you once bought a packet of Rolos at the Oversley Mill service station – would you like to play for Warwickshire?"

Nigel Cox would captain France. John Reynolds is married to an American, so that's the US team sewn up. And two of my grandparents were born in Slovakia. Even with my crap cut, I've got to be one of the six best Slovakians. And you're always hearing Australian accents on court these days. And all these young kids coming through from the schools are from all over the place: India, Africa, China, Japan...

Indeed, the main reason for forcing Eton Fives into the 2012 Olympics is that it may well be the last Games in which Great Britain can be unquestionably regarded as favourites. By 2016 Eton Fives will no doubt have joined football as yet another game we taught the world only to be thrashed at it by everybody.