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Tuesday, 16 March 2004

This Sporting Life
Many English sports travel well to America. Soccer and rugby have massive followings. But for a handful of American athletes, most of them in the Boston area, and another small group of their counterparts in the UK, a little-heralded English sport holds particular interest -- for its tenacious, if unlikely, existence in Britain and in the United States. The game is an arcane form of handball known as Fives, and the sport has many history-minded Britons, even those notoriously loopy, eccentric types, increasingly shaking their heads over how the 150-year-old game can survive, much less -- as its adherents hope -- thrive.

I´ve learned bits and bobs about Fives over the years, but I only got up close and personal with the game when Rick Umiker, a long-time instructor at St. Mark´s School, in Southborough, Mass., invited me to taste some of the sport´s competitive bite.

In America, the game has had about as much success in attracting an audience as that other Old Boy ''public'' (read, ''private) sport of class consciousness, cricket. Not surprisingly, then, the venues where Fives has made its American toehold, St. Mark´s and the Groton School, another New England boarding school, have often been associated with the patrician American hauteur.

With the game restricted to these two schools -- the Union Boat Club in Boston also has a ''public'' court -- the sport has few players and even fewer fans. The result, as might be expected, is Fives´survival hangs by a thread -- in Britain, I learned, as well.

It´s not for want of excitement. The game, played with both hands in a four-walled court, is fast-paced, heart-throbbing, and, thanks to leather-covered cork balls travelling at collosal speeds, even more than wee dangerous.

The real problem is the game´s image as an upper-class past-time, some British players, some of whom had travelled the St. Mark´s circuit, told me when I attended a two-day national championship in London. That cast, coupled with the growing disenchantment by much of the British public with the high-jnix of the Royals, has resulted in the game, at best, being ignored or, worse, being dissed as another fuddy-duddy relic of the ritualistically-minded Great and Good. In the end, the Empire was lost -- as well as won, of course, during an earlier time -- on the playing fields (and on the Fives courts) of Eton, Rugby, and Winchester.

Another drawback to Fives' popularity is cost. Ian Fuller, president of the Rugby Fives Association and Britain's (the world´s?) third-ranked player noted that each Fives court is valued at about $30,000, not the kind of cash that financially-strapped council (that is, public) schools can allocate to a ''minor'' sport. The upshot of this financial reality is that game´s association with wealth and privilege is continually underscored by where -- in Britain, as well as in America -- it is played. The London Open Championships that I attended were held at St. Paul´s School, a well-respected -- and well-heeled -- private school in west London. St. Paul´s has no less than six courts.

Dave Hebden, another Rubgy Association official, also blamed press coverage -- that is, the lack of it -- for the game's low profile. He was right, of course. During the time I was in London, The Daily Telegraph did carry the championship´s results -- in agate. The Times didn´t bother.

The game has another cross to bear. Young players, increasingly drawn to school sports that result in personal acclaim, if not lucrative cash rewards at the professional level, see no fame or glory in Fives. It's unlikely, moreover, that Fives will ever be an Olympic sport, even at the exhibition level. In most people´s minds, even the Sport of Kings, polo, stands a better chance than Fives, the Sport of Old Boys. ''It´s not a TV sport,'' Hebden asserts. Case closed.

Still, Britains´s Fives association -- expressing an optimism that's supported by a new, $20,000 PR video --has embarked on an effort to increase its national membership, now about 500. Thanks to club manager Denise Hall-Wilton, that recruitment drive now also targets female players. About 15 years ago, Hall-Wilton became the game´s first female players in modern times, and now about 50 members are women. (In the early 20th century, a few women played. But their numbers dwindled by mid-century). ''When I first started, I was laughed at a bit,'' Hall-Wilton remembered. ''I was told that Fives was no game for a lady.''

In America, at Groton and St. Mark´s, the game got off the ground at a time when both institutions were exclusive, all-male feeder schools to Harvard and Yale. in the 1880´s, the Rev. Endicott Peabody, Groton´s famed founding headmaster, transplanted the sport after a visit to Britain. Certainly, Peabody´s thinking went, Groton's blue-bloods were no less deserving of the sport than aristocratic Brits. The rest is history, though largely unrecorded history.

One legend has become the little-known rivalry between Goton and St. Mark´s for Fives supremacy. St. Mark´s took up the sport in 1891 when William Greenough Thayer, a Peabody protege and former Groton master, became St. Mark's head. In subsequent decades, the rivalry has become, in prep school circles, at least, the stuff of folklore, akin to ''The Game,'' Harvard and Yale's annual grid-iron contest.

As some English sports go, cricket, for instance, Fives isn´t that ancient. It got its start at Eton in the 1840´s, whilst other similar forms of the sport were evolving at Rugby and Winchester. David Barnes, a Winchester graduate and the Rugby Association´s unofficial historian, told me that for a long time no one really bothered much about actual rules, much less recording them. Rugby Fives rules were only formulated in 1927. ''Until that time, schools played by their own rules. Nobody knew actually, until then, what a Fives court's size should have been. That´s part of the game -- evolving rules and dimensions of courts,'' Barnes said.

Hall-Wilton sees the game's eventual survival linked to a ''hands-across-the-sea effort'' to encourage American youngsters at Groton and St. Mark´s to stay the course. Without enthusiastic coaches like Umiker and his St. Mark´s predecessor, John Carey, British Fives officials are convinced that the game would have long ago disappeared in the United States.

The British-American connection got a tentative boost in the late 1980´s, when several British players, including Neil H. Roberts, the UK´s second top-rated player (Briton Wayne Enstone, 45, is the world´s top-ranked player) accepted a one-off invitation from the now-retired Carey to play matches at the Union Boat Club and at St. Mark´s in what was known as the "Massachusetts-UK Open." "The most important thing is to keep the game going at the school level,'' Roberts, 36. told me.

Hebden added, ''When you have good support from masters, the kids love it.'' Hall-Wilton interjected, ''What impresses me most is the sportsmanship. There's no money in it. It´s a 'gentlemanly´ sport. That´s the nicest thing about Fives -- other than playing it, of course.''