Olympic special

Until this week, I knew nothing whatever about a 19-year-old girl from Texas who is two feet shorter than my elder son, and rather good at gymnastics. Now I know more, without really having wished to know more, thanks to world media. I have also seen a video in which this Simone Biles does things in a floor routine that I did not think humanly possible; so that I found myself involuntarily cheering, and almost with tears in my eyes. I seem to remember a little Romanian girl, named Nadia Comaneci, who did vaguely similar things. On checking, I find that was forty years ago. I know nothing about gymnastics, so perhaps am easily impressed.

As a schoolboy, I was compelled to do gymnastics as part of something called “Phys. Ed.” From the start, I knew that I would not make a career of it; that if I were to find lucrative commercial sponsorships, it would have to be for something else. My instructor said I did some things he didn’t think humanly possible. He added, however, that he had not thought it possible for a boy to be so awkward. “Phil,” as he insisted on being called — in defiance of the convention that a teacher should be a “Mister” at least — was, also memorably, a strict and somewhat loud-mouthed Darwinist. I speculated that he was trying to get me killed, for the sake of the rest of our species. (To be fair, he got me sent to hospital only once.)

Like Rabelais, I keep lists. For instance, I keep special prayer lists for people I might otherwise overlook, in various groups. “My old schoolteachers” is one such example. But Phil is not on that list. Instead, he is on another, for “people I have wanted to shoot,” in my turn. These lists can never be complete, but as a Christian one must make one’s best inclusive effort.

I have no list for Olympic stars. They are, frankly, not my cup of whisky; someone else will have to take care of them. In my career as a hack journalist, when doing interviews for the features pages, I think I met more porn stars than athletes; and the closest thing to gymnasts were ballerinas. (Interviewed that Imelda Marcos once; but haven’t yet assigned her to a category.)

At this point, I do not expect to interview Simone Biles, so have no need to read up on her. I merely scanned two starstruck items in the electronic aether, in the knowledge that if there is anything unusual or interesting to tell, it will be omitted. For journalists have their mental checklists of topics to belabour, and topics to ignore; and contemporary journalists are largely interchangeable.

By now, I should think everyone knows that her mother was a drug addict, so that from age five she was raised by her conscientious grandparents, who sacrificed their holidays to take her to sports meets when they discovered her talents; that she adores them and calls them mom and dad. Which is good: to be reminded that some of the best upbringings begin in broken homes, by the grace of God.

My email correspondents send me all the good stuff, however — the stuff that “major media” don’t think we need to know. And from one of those I gleaned this additional little nugget about Miss Biles: that she’s a fixture at daily Mass, who carries a Rosary in her kitbag.

Which she will need, as the whole world conspires to corrupt her.