I’ve never had much time for sport. Whether as a participant or a spectator, it’s just never really appealed to me. When the time came to leave my school in Germany, and I was required to source a signature from each faculty, my P.E. teachers were unanimous in their relief. After all, that would be one less forgotten gym-kit, one less sick-note and one less pair of left feet for them to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I have anything against the idea of sport, or healthy competition in general, just that I’ve always found the more common-place pursuits tedious and lacking in purpose. Now, Quidditch; there’s a sport I could get behind. Whether on the page or on screen, it periodically entertains while simultaneously driving a plot. As for participation, I have in my time finished first place in Mario Kart and taken the top-spot with my collection of Pokémon cards.
So — the morning after the night before, as it were — when I awoke to face the crippling combination of food poisoning and a hangover (I had washed the previous evening’s offending burger down with the world’s strongest Long Island Iced Tea), I was unsure of exactly what to expect from the day’s planned activity: a trip to watch the annual Komi Republic badminton championships in Syktyvkar.
Held at the скала sports centre, not far from the city’s airport or bus station, the championship heats had yet to begin when we arrived at just after 11 on Sunday morning, our bums nice and warm from the car’s heated seats. Our own contender — a fellow native speaker who also works at the school — had been there from the back of nine, but had yet to serve a single shot on any of the four active courts. The league were already in disarray.
Leaving the organisers to improvise something at least resembling a game plan, we relocated to the centre’s café while we waited for the competition to begin in earnest. Convinced I had already had my fair share of crazy Komi coffees — and seeing it as less of a risky choice than the recommended “oxygen milkshake” — I ordered a latte, and proceeded to watch in renewed horror as the waitress stirred in a scoop of ice cream, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
As we waited, talk eventually turned to other, sightly less demanding health and fitness pursuits. I was instructed that, while in Russia, I simply must experience баня: sauna-esque installations that are common in both sports centres and familial country homes around the country. A traditional banya, I was told, involved three bursts of extreme heat, each punctuated by a few minutes in the snow outside, and topped off with a brief bout of self-flagellation with various flora.
Returning to the badminton hall for the first round of the afternoon’s competition, before anyone pencilled me in for a treatment, it quickly became clear that badminton is in fact the single-greatest sport ever conceived by anyone. Ever. With its ergonomic, elegant equipment (a long-necked racket and what is essentially a ping-pong ball in a dress), I was not just amused, but hypnotised by the incongruity of bandage-clad older men, spaghetti-legged pre-teens and buxom brunettes grappling unsuccessfully with the comically gracious equipment. I was enthralled.
Our entrant would go on to claim third prize, but lost the first match to another competitor who would not even place. I left after this initial round, however, as I had arranged to meet someone at the cinema later that afternoon. My day was not destined to get any less surreal, however, as The Paperboy would go on to deliver Golden Showers, quartered crocodiles and gratuitous mass-murder to at least two unsuspecting audience-members.
How bizarre. Here I was, in the middle of Russia, fresh from enjoying a few rounds of badminton, watching Zac Efron be peed on by a badly dubbed Nicole Kidman. It was time to go home to my chipboard floors, two front doors and Timur the neighbourhood tiger before the weekend got any weirder.