Phil’s Forty, 20: Armchair Olympics

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.

Olympic celebration.
An Olympic celebration.

It’s not the done thing to use these essays to promote my own products [I know, stop it – The Editor] but in observing that we are now in Olympic fortnight I couldn’t help thumbing through a copy of The Armchair Olympian.

I wrote it as a commission for Bloomsbury for publication in the run-up to London 2012, which seems so much more than eight years ago. It was my second Bloomsbury book. The first, Kissing the Badge, came out a year earlier to commemorate the approaching 20th season of the Premier League. I told people at the time that having parted ways with J K Rowling, the great publishing house could finally afford me.

We’ll maybe look at Kissing the Badge another time, when hopefully a few football wounds have healed. They were both quiz books, written to stand the test of time rather than be rendered totally obsolete by the next fixture and, though I say it myself, they’re lovely, lively publications.

Armchair Olympian.
An armchair Olympian.

My copy of The Armchair Olympian was enhanced during 2012 by a few choice autographs. Luke Campbell for obvious reasons, plus Alex Smith, both secured at the celebration dinner in Hull Guildhall which followed the sort of homecoming outside Hull City Hall normally reserved for City, FC and Rovers.

Luke completed his signature with “56kg”, indicating the Bantamweight division which he had mastered on his way to Olympic gold. Alex, 12th in the hammer competition and son of Commonwealth Games hammer champ Dave Smith, signed off with a stylish underscore of … well… a hammer. If there were medals for autographs Alex would have topped the podium.

Neither of them featured in the book because the 2012 Games came too late, but there was a place for the third to give their signature. Karen Briggs was kind enough to sign it after a judo training session at a local school. 

Karen arrived at the 1992 Games in Barcelona as the winner of four World Championship judo titles, five European titles and a gold at the Commonwealth Games. But she missed out at the Olympics when she dislocated a shoulder and couldn’t finish her event.

Lawrence Demmy represented Hull at the Winter Olympics as a referee in ice dancing, running the rule over the likes of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. Sadly the event wasn’t part of the schedule when he was in his prime on the rink, partnering Jean Westwood to four successive World Championship titles in the 1950s. He was modest about his remarkable achievements when I interviewed him too many years ago to remember. There’s a cutting somewhere which I’ll dig out.

The Armchair Olympian notes the cost and commercialism of the modern Games and that was to the fore at Saint Petersburg in 2013 when the cities bidding to host the 2020 Games made some crucial presentations to try and influence the voters.

The IOC awards the Games but the influence of the individual sporting federations and their umbrella organisations is significant. I sat in the auditorium listening to the pitches and aware of the question marks over the bids from Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo.

At the time the elephants in the room were the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the terror threat which overshadowed Istanbul’s exciting opportunities and the lack of adventure behind Madrid, seen as a safe pair of hands and a vote for the austerity Games given their plans to make as much use as possible of existing infrastructure.

Tokyo got it but Covid-19 remains a threat even for 2021 and there is no obvious alternative waiting in the wings, unlike five years ago when concerns that Rio wouldn’t have its facilities ready to host the 2016 edition led to some – primarily the London-based media – calling for the Games to come back to Britain.

As a preview to the 2012 Games, The Armchair Olympian comprises a mixture of warm-ups and challenges, with each section presenting 20 facts and 12 questions in categories ranging from Olympic Firsts to Howlers, Shocks and Upsets, Track Stars and Horseplay.

Try a few…

Many will know that London was the first city to host the Games three times, and that’s in the facts for Olympic Cities and Venues, but which venue hosted the tennis events at the London Games in 1908?

In Howlers, Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea had the pool to himself at Sydney in 2000 after his two rivals in the 100m freestyle qualifier were disqualified. He set a personal best which was more than a minute slower than the qualifying mark, but he left Australia with which memorable nickname?

In Tough Guys, Muhammad Ali won boxing gold at Tokyo 1964 and George Foreman took the title in Mexico in 1968 but for which nation did Lennox Lewis win gold in 1988?



Eric the Eel.


[I tried posting these answers upside down, as is the fashion, but couldn’t work out how to do that – The Editor]

Phil Ascough