The iron Curtain – and the Irony of Iron Man

It is ironic that the rigorous training schedules of the West’s Iron Man competitors grew out of Eastern Europe’s ruthless selection of gifted children to live their lives as elite athletes to prove the superiority of Communism over decadent capitalism. And that irony deepens when you consider that the pastime of competitive running for sport grew-out from dedicated amateur athletes: British Oxbridge graduates running for the joy of it. And the fashion for jogging and marathon running en-masse grew out from dissolute British colonial administrators’ bored with boozing and eating public school comfort food. They called themselves “drinkers with a running problem”, and founded the Hash House Harriers.

The Hash was founded in the Selangor Club in Malaya before WW II, based on the British public school Hares & Hounds paper chase.  A few good runners would speed off and leave a paper trail for the snuffling hounds to follow. It wasn’t that serious, and there were “Tiffin Wagons” along the way to provide liquid refreshment. The idea caught on rapidly with British colonial expats, and “Kennels” were established in Kabul, Sinai, Addis Ababa and The Falklands. It died off during the war, but was revived shortly after, and kennels were established again wherever British expats gathered. There is even one in New York (and there was one in The Green Zone in Baghdad during the Second Gulf War).

For the elite few the running was more serious, and led to “Chariots of Fire” privileged Oxbridge graduates like Dr. Roger Bannister and Christopher Chataway, who gave their all to break the 4 minute mile barrier, and establish British dominance of middle distance running for two decades. The response of the Eastern Bloc took the form of athletes like the original Iron Man, Czech colonel Emile Zatopek, who pushed through his pain threshold by sheer willpower and swept aside the Oxbridge amateurs. The West worked hard to catch up, and the fierce determination of American athletes to sacrifice all and to win at any cost re-established dominance.  But “win at all costs” comes at a price (not the least the present drugs in sport scandals) – and for a while at least the Russians and their satellites found that finishing second and relying on charisma sometimes has its benefits.

Read my story THE MAN WITH THE FACE OF A FISHERMAN, based on The Hash House Harriers and the Bahrain half-marathon, in my book THE GULF “Reaping the Whirlwind”. You can preview the book, and download it in Kindle by following my URL:

www.amazon.com/author/mikerichards

Or if you prefer hard copy you can purchase a paperback with free delivery worldwide from: www.thebookdepository.co.uk

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