The compulsory school cross country race occurs only in the English-speaking world. The French have never heard of such a thing. And if some upstart Italian schoolmaster were to try to make his charges run around the olive groves he'd have to answer to their mothers, who would descend on the school en masse and club him to death with raw pasta.
The cross country tradition derives from the English public school where exercise and Christianity formed a two-pronged attack on masturbation. Though neither had any effect in that little battle, both went round the globe with the British Empire and proved persistent for a while. But since the Second World War Christianity has faded to irrelevance and now it seems cross country is following it.
For according to a newspaper of unknown vintage that I picked up in the urologist's waiting room, more and more schools are dropping the compulsory run. And they're wise to do so. For there was never any point to it beyond cruelty.
At the school I attended the race was true to its name. We crossed country. We skittered down hillsides into the bogs of misery and we climbed back out up slopes that made mountain goats shudder.
Every year I dreaded it. I'd wake on the morning of the race with stones in my gut. Yet I was an athletic kid who, though never much of a runner, would generally finish in the first 30. How did the unathletic regard it? What dread ate the souls of the bookish or the plump on the morning of the race? I neither wondered, nor cared. Nor, it seemed, did anyone else, least of all the PE teacher who oversaw the thing.
There were three races: junior, intermediate and senior. As the stragglers from one race lumbered towards the line, the PE teacher would start the next race in the opposite direction. With the result that even today, half a century later, I can't hear the words cross country without seeing an image of a boy I'll call Singer.
Singer was a huge and owlish child, eager and willing, but bespectacled and ill-coordinated. He'd given his all but was finishing last by some distance in the junior race, exhausted, limping, whimpering to himself, and still 50 yards from the line when the PE teacher, for the pleasure that was in it, started the intermediates off. Boys are not kind creatures. Two hundred of them ran gleefully at and over Singer. When two sympathetic masters hauled him out of the mud, he emerged with an audible plop. His glasses were never found. And how we all laughed.
Apart from the annual race, cross country was the standby PE class when the teacher was too lazy or hungover to bother to teach. "Right boys," Dave Bunker would say, "three laps", and we would set off pointlessly round the school field. As we passed the gym each time, Dave Bunker would emerge from his office, grinning, one hand stroking his prognathous jaw, the other plunged ruminatively down the front of his track pants. Nothing was better designed to create a hatred of exercise.
And that surely is the point. For though it is true that too many kids today are fat, what's needed to slim them down is exercise they'll actually enjoy. Compulsory cross country is more likely to send them shrinking back in horror to the screens and snacks and darkened rooms that have fattened them like so many pigs for market.