A warm welcome and fond memories of my first trip to States

It was with a mixture of fear and trepidation that I boarded American Airlines flight 55 from Manchester to Chicago. I had never travelled abroad on my own before and I had never been to America.

I passed the eight-hour flight chatting to Ollie, a second-year medical student at Keele University who told me he was visiting his girlfriend in Tennessee.

Tennessee? How things have changed. The furthest away any girlfriend of mine had ever lived was Tunstall.

Stepping off the plane at Chicago O’Hare was a daunting experience.

I had just over an hour to collect my luggage and catch a connecting flight to Indianapolis.

Of course, I hadn’t realised that O’Hare is the fourth busiest airport in the world and handles more than 66 million passengers each year.

The sheer size of it was what hit me – something which would be a recurring theme during my time in the States.

As I arrived at immigration a stern-looking bloke who was the spit of Poncherello out of CHiPs! (how are you on your Eighties TV trivia?) asked me whether my visit to the U.S. was for business or pleasure.

“Pleasure,” I replied.

“And what’s your pleasure?” he asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Playing Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu,” I replied, with utter sincerity.

“Oh,” said Poncherello.

Nothing quite ends a conversation like telling someone you’re attending a games convention.

It was sod’s law that my plane to Indy would be delayed but nothing could diminish my enthusiasm.

As I waited by the departure gate, soaking in the sights and sounds, a woman sat next to me, leaned over and said: “Excuse me. Would you like a hamburger?”

As chat-up lines go, it was a new one on me.

“I don’t know why but they gave me two,” she added – motioning inside a McDonald’s paper bag.

Well it would have been rude to refuse and for the next hour and a half I chatted to Pam – a 59-year-old psychologist.

She was so friendly and so interested in everything from the royal family and the Titanic to the Olympics that I actually enjoyed being delayed.

By the time we boarded the plane we had swapped business cards and she had invited me and my family to her farm in Nebraska where she and her husband breed horses.

That has certainly never happened to me while waiting for a PMT bus up Hanley.

Pam sort of set the tone, really. Almost everyone I met – with the notable exception of Poncherello (who, to be fair, is paid to be miserable) – was incredibly friendly. People of the south of England, please take note…

Take, for example, Herschel – my 70-year-old taxi driver.

He brought me up to speed on the trials and tribulations of the Indianapolis Colts American Football team and gave me the heads-up on their new quarterback.

This was to come in handy the next day when I toured the impressive Lucas Oil Stadium – the 63,000 seater home of the Colts which comes complete with a retractable roof and artificial turf.

I learned that the Colts had only won two games last year and their fans had endured a torrid time.

As a Vale fan I could empathise and I adopted the Colts there and then.

That is where any similarities between the Hoosier state’s finest and the Valiants ended, however.

In light of their terrible season, the Colts were given the first NFL ‘draft’ pick this year – allowing them to choose from the cream of the crop of young players coming out of colleges and universities.

As a result, they picked up Andrew Luck – the best young quarter back in the country – for nowt, on account of how bad they were last season.

It’s the equivalent of the worst team in the Premier League being given first dibs on the best teenage footballer in England – irrespective of how much money Manchester City or Chelsea wave in his direction. Can you imagine?

Having ticked off a top-flight football stadium, a visit to a genuine diner was next on my list.

I finally settled for Johnny Rockets and enjoyed chilli beef sandwiches and a strawberry milkshake at the bar while throwing money into my own personal five cent jukebox.

Eat your heart out, Fonzie.

It was while walking around Indy that I realised that everything in the U.S. is BIG – from the blocks and the skyscrapers to the vehicles.

I was told that Indianapolis is a relatively modest, mid-western U.S. city, so Lord only knows what the really big ones are like.

Then there are the people.

We think we have an obesity problem over here but I can tell you it is nothing compared to the epidemic America is facing.

I was genuinely gobsmacked at the sheer girth of some of the folks waddling down the street and how many of the people were grossly overweight. It made me think long and hard about portion-sizes and the kinds of food I shovel down.

Not that I had much time to eat.

I had booked myself in for four solid days at Gen Con – the world’s largest gaming convention – showcasing tabletop games, board games, card and computer games.

Yours truly and 40,000-plus other geeks met authors, game-designers and artists, play-tested new games and took part in competitions.

I actually won the blue riband event – the Cthulhu Masters tournament – a horror roleplaying game based on the writings of American author H.P. Lovecraft.

It was a special moment and the perfect end to my first Gen Con Indy. I was taking home a trophy which had never before left the U.S.

Yours truly being presented with the Cthulhu Masters brain case trophy at Gen Con 2012.

Yours truly being presented with the Cthulhu Masters brain case trophy at Gen Con 2012.

When I arrived at customs at Indianapolis airport I wondered how I would explain the large, heavy rubber-plastic brain I was carrying in my hand luggage to the nice men with guns.

Sure enough, when my backpack went through the scanner one of them said: “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to step this way. You have something organic in your luggage. Can you tell me what it is?”

“It’s my trophy for winning the Cthulhu Masters tournament at Gen Con,” I replied, nervously.

The customs man gingerly removed the brain case from my rucksack. “Joe, come look at this!” he shouted, beckoning his buddy over.

He then turned to me and exclaimed: “Dude, that is awesome!”

“I know,” I said, with a very relieved smile.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Advertisements

A golden decade for Team GB’s Olympic athletes

Believe it or not there was a time when people in the UK could choose whether or not they wanted to watch the Olympic Games.
It was a more innocent age when not being interested in handball, beach volleyball and synchronised diving wasn’t punishable by incarceration in the Tower of London.
It was a time when seeing Olympic athletes perform on telly in glorious colour was a relative novelty and BBC employees had the freedom to criticise stuff as they saw fit.
It was a period when we weren’t brow-beaten into repeating the mantra that sports we’ve never heard of are all wonderful and exciting just because it has almost bankrupt the nation to stage an Olympics.
That decade was the 1980s when colour TVs which were becoming a fixture in most homes turned some British Olympians into household names.
The Moscow summer Olympics of 1980 was the games that made baldness cool as swimmer Duncan Goodhew scooped gold in the 100m breaststroke and bronze in the 4x100m medley relay.
At the same games, which was boycotted by many countries including the U.S., Japan, China and West Germany because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Scottish sprinter Allan Wells won gold in the 100 metres in a photo finish. He was pipped to silver in the 200m by just 0.2 seconds.
It was in Moscow that decathlete Daley Thompson announced his arrival on the world stage by taking top spot on the podium – a feat he then repeated four years later in Los Angeles.
The 1980 games saw current London 2012 supremo Lord Sebastian Coe, beaten into second place by his great rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres – his speciality.
However, Seb hit back in the 1500m race to take gold, while Ovett had to settle for bronze. Coe replicated his achievements over both distances at the next Olympics in LA.
Those games in the City of Angels marked another golden period for British athletics when Tyneside’s Steve Cram – the ‘Jarrow Arrow’ – completed a one, two, three for us when he nabbed the silver in that infamous 1500 metres.
It was a race which was so thrilling that even I, a 12-year-old asthmatic and the laughing stock of Holden Lane High’s cross country course, was enthralled.
That year also saw Tessa Sanderson become the first black British woman win gold in the javelin. She went on to represent Britain at no less than six Olympics.
Meanwhile, her close rival Fatima Whitbread, whose personal story of triumph over adversity was as inspirational a tale as you could hear in sport, won hearts and minds when she scooped bronze at LA and followed this up with a silver medal four years later in Seoul.
Hockey forward Sean Kerly sealed a bronze medal for the GB men’s team with his winner against Australia in the Los Angeles games and went on to be the Aussie’s bogeyman again in 1988 when he scored a hat-trick against them in the semi-final.
Believe it or not, 1984 was the year that a young Steve Redgrave won the first of his five Olympic gold medals for rowing.
Little did we know back then that he would go on to become Britain’s greatest ever Olympian.
Swimmer Adrian Moorhouse had been expected to win gold in LA in the breaststroke but finished a disappointing fourth. Happily he made up for it four years later by winning gold in the 100m race.
My final Eighties Olympic household name will be no stranger to Sentinel readers.
Former policeman and Cobridge newsagent Imran Sherwani scored two goals and set up the third in Team GB’s demolition of West Germany in the final at Seoul.
It prompted one of the best bits of Olympics commentary ever by the BBC’s Barry Davies whose enthusiasm led him to ask the question: “Where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?”
All in all the Eighties was a great Olympic decade for Britain – before the time when the games themselves became the huge corporate monster that they are today.

I’m bored of the Olympics already. How about you?

NEWSFLASH: Contrary to what you may have been told, not everyone is obsessed with Olympics.

Despite what Lord Coe would have you believe, we aren’t all sitting at home wearing skin-tight, Team GB branded lycra outfits and waiting for the opening ceremony.

Some of us can live without tickets to the eagerly-anticipated Uruguay versus Outer Mongolia badminton clash.

Simply put, I reckon there are quite a few people like me – for whom – London 2012 can come and go. Really.

I won’t be sitting glued to the telly in 10 days’ time and assessing whether our opening show was better than the one in Beijing.

I can live without watching BBC presenters run out of adjectives again like they did during the Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant.

And don’t get me started on those ridiculous, one-eyed mascots – Wenlock and Mandeville – which are enough to frighten small children.

If truth be told I struggled to feign interest when the defective, fiery cheese-grater (sorry – I mean Olympic Torch) came to the Potteries.

It’s not that I don’t wish Team GB well. It’s not that I don’t want local heroes like pole vaulter Steven Lewis or rower Anna Watkins to be on the podium.

It is simply that I’m not that interested in the vast majority of sports served up by this overblown, over-hyped and over-commercialised behemoth.

This is sacrilege, of course and I will doubtless be roundly condemned in The Sentinel’s newsroom.

You see, I work in the media and thus I am obliged to get excited about any event involving more than half a dozen people, animals or vehicles. But I simply can’t stand the hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s my age but I can’t be doing with people becoming instant disciples of sports that they have never shown an interest in until five minutes before. Unless you are a child, of course.

I have friends who are hugely excited because they entered the lottery for tickets for London 2012 and managed to get a couple of passes for the first round of the weightlifting.

“It’s all about being able to say you were there,” they croon. “It’s about being part of a huge global sporting event. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Oh come on. It’s actually about sweating like a stuck pig on rammed tube trains and queuing for hours to watch eastern European athletes you’ve never heard of do stuff you’ve never tried in sports you’ll never understand and then wittering on about the ‘incredible atmosphere’.

For all that the Olympics is supposed to unite people through sport it’s actually a pretty bizarre and, I would argue, divisive event.

There are so many popular sports which aren’t even represented at the Olympics and a number of very odd, niche ones which are.

Let’s examine some of the sports on offer, shall we?

Beach volleyball: Do me a favour. We all know why lots of blokes will be watching this and it won’t be to enthuse about the Rally Point System.

Diving: This can’t be a sport, can it? Discuss.

Handball: I honestly had to look this one up and I’m still none the wiser.

Synchronised swimming: See diving. More a concept for entrants on a Simon Cowell talent show than a sport, surely.

Trampoline: Fun to watch the kids do at Rhyl. Beyond that I can’t see the point.

Wrestling (Greco-Roman or Freestyle): Can’t be taken seriously as Kendo Nagasaki, once of this parish, has now retired.

You see what I mean? The remainder of the offerings are niche at best – take canoeing, cycling, equestrian and fencing – hardly mass participation sports are they?

And when the Olympics does try to go mainstream we end up with some unique fudges.

For example, all but three of Team GB’s footballers have to be under the age of 23. Random or what? No wonder the governing bodies of world football sneer at the tournament.

Granted, the 100-metres final may pique your interest and you may enter the office sweepstake on the number of drug cheats caught out but, beyond the athletics, let’s not pretend most of us care. Especially if you live north of the Watford Gap.

As for it being an Olympics for the whole country I take my hat off to the organisers for doing their best to peddle that myth.

But I would suggest the only tangible legacy for the UK from this multi-billion pound extravaganza – funded during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – will be new housing and sports facilities for a deprived area of London.

A small number of pottery firms may have made a few quid but I can’t see Northwood Stadium benefiting too much or see London 2012 inspiring a generation of youngsters in the Potteries to take up rhythmic gymnastics.

If this all sounds incredibly cynical then I make no apologies because the Olympics itself is a cynical, money-making enterprise.

Coming, as it does, hard on the heels of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Euro 2012 football tournament (I enjoyed both) I just don’t think I have it in me to get excited about something which may as well be taking place on the other side of the world.

There may be too much football, cricket and rugby on the TV but you can always switch it off – just like I do when Wimbledrone and that awful John McEnroe person put in their annual appearance.

If the Olympics is your bag then I hope you have an absolute ball and thrive on every minute of it.

But if, like most of us, you’re not the slightest bit interested, then you’ll do your best to avoid this London-centric bonanza of weirdness.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Forget London, the Olympics will be what we make of them

I was never very sporty. In fact, my only moment of glory was winning the wheelbarrow race during a school sports day when I was seven.

And, to be fair, most of the credit for that narrow victory has to go to the hands and arms of my best friend Glyn Shelley.

At secondary school I was always last pick for football – either stuck in goal where there was no running about to be done or lurking about in my favourite position of striker (AKA goal-poacher).

In my head I was Kenny Dalglish, pouncing on a through ball from Graeme Souness, turning on a sixpence and lashing the ball home.

In reality, I occasionally stuck out a leg, got lucky and claimed a soft goal from eight yards out.

Meanwhile, my classmates bemoaned my lack of effort and mobility, questioned my sense of fair play and wittered on about the off-side rule.

The truth is the fat lad with asthma just didn’t want to have to use his Ventolin inhaler more than twice in PE.

But if I was useless at football, I took sporting incompetence to even greater heights on the cross country course.

To say I dreaded this weekly chore would be an understatement.

If memory serves me correctly, our county ‘athletes’ could run the course in under 20 minutes.

I shambled round in about 45 – leaving me just enough time in the hour-long session to get changed out of and back into my school uniform.

I would, of course, comically run at the start and end of the course to give the impression that I gave a monkey’s.

My mates Richie and Rob would always walk part of the course with me, thus undermining any chance they had of finishing in a respectable time. But that’s what mates are for, isn’t it?

My PE teacher, Mr Gilson, would simply roll his eyes as I trotted back through the school gates and mutter under his breath, presumably questioning the point of waiting to record my umpteenth last place.

Amazingly, Mr Gilson is still doing his bit to nurture sporting talent in Stoke-on-Trent two decades later, but he now works as a sports coach and mentor at the hugely successful St Peter’s School in Penkhull.

However, rather than wasting his time with no-hopers like me, he is now overseeing rising stars such as teenage England cricketer Danielle Wyatt and cycling sensation Kian Emadi – one of number of Potteries prospects hoping to secure a place with Team GB.

Believe it or not, The Sentinel’s circulation area has more than its fair share of Olympic hopefuls to shout about as London 2012 approaches.

Aside from Kian, we have sprint siblings Alex and Ashlee Nelson, pole-vaulters Steven Lewis and Kate Dennison, sharp-shooter Glenn Eldershaw, rower Anna Bebington, cyclist Shanaze Reade and triple-jumper Ben Williams. And that’s just off the top of my head.

So when Lord Coe, or Seb as he likes to be called, comes to the Potteries in April as the guest of honour for the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards, my guess is he will enjoy the trip immensely.

Having the man who is heading up the UK’s Olympic plans on our turf is a fantastic endorsement for the city’s event, which has now been running for 35 years.

Like many others, I’ve been a cynic. I’ve asked just what an Olympic Games for London actually means for the rest of us.

I’ve wondered what the benefits are of an event that is costing the taxpayer countless hundreds of millions of pounds – other than helping to regenerate run-down parts of the capital.

And the conclusion I’ve come to is that it is up to us to make the most of the Olympics.

We can sit around bemoaning the fact that the event is truly London-centric and will have no tangible benefits for the rest of us. Or we can get in on the act.

Local companies can tender for contracts and also help to fund our Team GB hopefuls, who are wonderful ambassadors for the region.

They should be touring schools and inspiring future generations to chase their dreams.

Why? Because sport – and keeping fit – matters in a city saddled with a chronic obesity crisis and where too many people have low aspirations.

It’s one of the few mediums that can bring all ages together behind positive goals and genuinely inspire people to better themselves.

Although, sadly, I have to confess I can’t see the International Olympic Committee ever acknowledging the true magnificence of the wheelbarrow race…