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Eton game spreads to Britain's inner cities

 Reuters 27 May 2019

(Originally published: 11/2009) A casual reference to Eton Fives among members of the British public prompts general bemusement. At best, some sports enthusiasts recognise a form of handball with almost incomprehensible rules played in Britain's most exclusive fee-paying school, an institution associated in the popular imagination with snobbery and privilege. Yet a dedicated bunch of enthusiasts believe Eton, which has produced more British prime ministers than any of its rivals, is also the nursery of a sport ideally suited to the special demands of the country's deprived inner-city schools. John Mehaffey reports. (842 words) - By John Mehaffey

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LONDON, UK - A casual reference to Eton Fives among members of the British public prompts general bemusement.

At best, some sports enthusiasts recognise a form of handball with almost incomprehensible rules played in Britain's most exclusive fee-paying school, an institution associated in the popular imagination with snobbery and privilege.

Yet a dedicated bunch of enthusiasts believe Eton, which has produced more British prime ministers than any of its rivals, is also the nursery of a sport ideally suited to the special demands of the country's deprived inner-city schools. They include Howard Wiseman, who trained as a professional bassoonist at the Royal Academy of Music before devoting himself to a sport in which he eventually became national champion at the age of 38. Wiseman finds the general perception of Eton unhelpful to his cause.

Hitting a ball against a wall with bare or gloved hands, he pointed out at an interview at the Westway sports complex in west London, is an elemental sporting pursuit dating back 2,000 years.

Furthermore, he said, it was the great private schools (confusingly called public in Britain) which codified the popular sports of soccer, rugby union and cricket in an astonishing burst of late Victorian energy.

"The difference was that the various handball games already had their own rules and courts specifications," Wiseman said.

"There were courts already built all over the world, whether it was pelota or Irish handball or American handball or the Danish games or the French games.

"They all had courts so it wasn't a matter of bringing the games into line; it is still a global sport but not an international one."

CHEAP OPTION

Eton Fives is played by pairs wearing padded leather gloves on a three-walled court, based on the eccentric configurations of the area outside Eton chapel. The term fives is believed to refer to the number of digits on each hand.

A similar game developed at Rugby School, with four closed walls, resembling squash without the racket.

James Toop, the only British champion in both Eton and Rugby fives, chairs a youth scheme called the City Fives Association. He said handball in any form was perfect for schools whose only outside area was a hard-surfaced playground.

"Coaching fives on site is a really cheap option. We're starting to get schools paying for fives and we've got one that's paying to have a breakfast club three times a week, running throughout the whole year; we've got another that's paying for an after-school club," Toop told Reuters.

"The aim is to have fives in every school in London, in every borough in London and to spread the number of clubs. Fives provides an outlet for kids who don't get picked up by the football teams and tennis teams and rugby teams.

"It's a lovely sport and it's so far removed from the snobbery you would expect. It's fortunate and unfortunate that it's called Eton fives because the overwhelming thing we want to do is bring the game to new people and we don't want to be held back by the public school label."

A balmy autumn day begins for Toop and Fives development manager Simon Thomas at Bentworth primary school near the Westway complex.

A handful of children as young as six eat a light breakfast then bat a tennis ball against a wall with the court boundaries marked roughly in chalk. They are all enthusiastic; a couple exhibit precocious ball skills.

HIGH ENERGY

"They eat for about 15 minutes and have a healthy breakfast and then run around; they are learning the game," Thomas explained. "Their energy levels are fairly high; you get a bit of sport, 10 minutes or half an hour.

"It's natural for kids to hit a ball against a wall. They use their whole body, they run around the court." For Wiseman, Toop and Thomas this simple setting is a vision of the future.

"It's so inexpensive; you need some chalk and you're there," said Wiseman. "When you look at fives courts, they're tiny. You can put Eton fives courts in any playground and you don't lose the playground space.

"There are so many schools in London who have playgrounds and nothing else.

"You are saying three million pounds, four courts in each of 10 or 15 schools. In political terms that's peanuts. And hundreds and hundreds of children would have access to something they didn't have access to before. I think there is a compelling argument."

A more fanciful scenario is outlined by writer Giles Coren in an article entitled "Fives The Olympic Dream" at the back of the 2008-9 Fives annual review. Coren argues for the introduction of Fives in the 2012 London Olympics but concludes: "Indeed, the main reason for forcing Eton Fives into the 2012 Olympics is that it may well be the last Games in which Great Britain can be unquestionably regarded as favourites. By 2016 Eton Fives will no doubt have joined football as yet another game we taught the world only to be thrashed at it by everybody."

Copyright 2010 Thomson Reuters. Click For Restrictions

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