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Hail to the Queen

Sport in the UK

By Matt Zedler

For our first few months in the UK, many of us from MIT found it somewhat difficult to sustain conversation with random English people. Instead of exuding that American warmth and extroverted appeal, the stereotypical English tend to wear a tougher exterior. Typical conversations would be short and dry, leaving one in an awkward silence within a few minutes. Then many of us started to discover a subject which would instantly build a rapport with the English — “sport.”

The English are raised in a culture where sports are as important, if not more so, as religion (Many see the founding of the Anglican Church as the result of Henry VIII’s womanizing pastime rather than the birth of a legitimate religious body.) From an early age, they can be found kicking the football (“Football” refers to soccer), learning how to bat or bowl in cricket, or tackling each other in a muddy rugby match. Ask any Englishman about his favorite sports team, especially in a pub, and expect to be engaged in conversation for longer than you probably would have desired. Every Saturday, be ready to watch replays of the latest and greatest football moves and goals on “Match of the Week,” and don’t even dare think of turning the television to some other channel. Imagine the level of passion shown by Red Sox fans multiplied over the entire country rather than just one lonely state.

One of the favorite activities of many students at Cambridge University is sport, and there is more unstructured time to encourage the pursuit of such activities. A strong intercollegiate competition system helps foster this sporting culture. Think of it as a glorified intramural system, with people actually caring whether one living group beats another and coming out to support their team. There are university-level sports as well, and a few MIT students were skilled enough to play for the “Light Blues.” (Cambridge has light blue as its color, while the rival Oxford has dark blue. Why the English couldn’t widen their color selection to make it easier to distinguish the teams still eludes me … ) The range of sports is large, with fencing, polo (water and actual horse), netball, and badminton in addition to many of the more typical ones familiar to Americans.

The MIT bunch quickly dove into this sport-obsessed culture, with some students racking up more sports practices than lectures in the first few weeks. I started with a sport I knew, moving later into the painful, confusing, and exciting world of rugby. While I had hoped to end the year by learning cricket, I instead got caught up in exam stress and World Cup fever.

When I came to MIT, I decided to try rowing. Learning the sadistic pleasure of erging, how to balance a boat with all eight members rowing, and how to get into a Spandex one-piece took up many pleasant hours during my freshman year, but other activities took precedence during my second year. I figured that getting back into rowing would be a good physical and social introduction to Churchill College. The biggest problem I had was in deciding at what level to participate, as rowing for the first college team would mean sacrificing much time and sleep. The rowing teams in Cambridge row early in the morning on the small creek that is the River Cam, going out in the rain, snow, and sleet during the Michaelmas term to build up for the all-important Lent Bumps. Because of the small size of the river, passing other boats is not an easy option, so boats that “bump” other boats are considered to have beaten the boat they bump. It’s somewhat confusing to explain, but makes more sense when one is out on the river. To be fair, I never actually made it to bumps, as I found the time commitment of rowing in the first boat was a little more than expected. Instead of becoming a serious “boatie,” I dropped the sport at the end of the Michaelmas term, taking up rugby instead.

Whereas football is described as a gentleman’s game played by ruffians, rugby is often called a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen. It is somewhat similar to American football, but there are definite differences in the pace and rules. There are fifteen players on each side, with forwards who do most of the tackling and heavy work and backs who do the running and often score the “tries” (touchdowns). While I had played some pick-up American football back home, I was unprepared for the intensity and number of rules involved in rugby. I had to learn to tackle, to support the scrum, to spin the ball when throwing it, to “ruck,” to support the “pill” at all costs, and to execute several different plays, all while several large English blokes were doing their best to take me out. Needless to say, the learning curve was steeper than expected, but luckily my worst injuries were black eyes and bruised muscles.

As spring came around, the cricket nets started to come out, and it was common to see batsmen and bowlers in their sweaters on the grounds behind Churchill College. Still a little confused about how one could play sports in a sweater, I instead became swept up in World Cup fever, learning more about football in a few short weeks than in the entire rest of my life. After the USA was knocked out by the Czech Republic, I became an avid England supporter, even going so far as leaving the library during exam term to watch the England-Paraguay game on a large video screen in the middle of the field where football is purported to have been invented. While England may have lost in the semi-finals, my ability to talk with the English grew exponentially after I involved myself in the great tradition of sport.