Once upon a time, when the fingerprints on the Wimbledon trophy were more or less exclusively British, you could win in SW19 whilst wearing trousers. Even a tie if you go back far enough. But then, back in those days, tennis was a no-sweat sport.
Well, perhaps a drop or two, but essentially there was much less of it around than today, when sweatbands, perspiration and frequent towelling off are part of a fetishised display of effort and strain – one that’s often accompanied by verbal ejaculations of sometimes rather alarming severity. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been forced to mute Wimbledon at times because of the repetitive baseline grunting.
But it wasn’t always this way. Long before the relentless moaning, women once played tennis bowling underarm while dressed like Downton Abbey dowagers, while the men, like thrice-1930s winner Fred Perry, even wore sweaters. The fact that this correlates with Britain’s strongest period in the sport is intriguing.
Another great no-sweat sport is cricket: even today, unless one is bowling very rigorously for a prolonged period, one ought not perspire. Not really, not unless it’s really hot, which it usually isn’t here. And this is helped by the structure of the game, which limits the physical exertion of the bowlers to six balls, at which point they can go back to loafing around the outfield, while pondering their next Mr Kipling.
And it makes sense: who would want to disturb the gentility of tea with the fug of body odour in the pavilion? I’m sure I could bowl my slow right arm delivery for eternity without troubling a sweat gland, and I’m sure I’m not alone. In part, this is all thanks to the dependably poor English weather; where else in the world would players of an ostensibly summer sport be issued with a woollen jumper weighing the same as small dog?
But the fact remains that getting out of breath playing cricket is like breaking a sweat on the golf links: it’s your body’s way of telling you you’ve got bigger problems to think about than your batting average. It’s time to visit the GP.
Occupying the apex of British no-sweat sports, however, is croquet – the genteel face of Home Counties sado-masochism, where the ostensible object is to get your ball through hoops, but really it’s about humiliating your opponent. In many ways, croquet is similar to golf, in that the only reason perspiration should ever really occur is due to the emotional duress caused by the game rather than any physical exertion from wielding a mallet or a seven iron.
Is there any surprise that England frequently tops the leader-board of world croquet? And the Scots and Welsh aren’t far behind them.
Indeed, food and drink take centre stage in all quintessential English sports. The 19th hole in golf – the bar – is at least as important as the 18 holes that precede it in the hearts and minds of the majority of players. This is something golf has in common with croquet. Because – and I’ll let you into the secret – croquet can be played perfectly safely and competently while nursing a refreshing glass of Pimm’s or gin and tonic.
Like the other great, pure no-sweat sports it also requires zero personal fitness and there is little upper bar on age: my father toasted his 70th birthday by thrashing all comers during an intoxicated croquet marathon played in the snow.
Which brings us to snooker, another sport so sedentary that until recently drinking and smoking while doing it were compulsory at a truly elite level. Rather like darts, where having a BMI under 30 is a cause of grave suspicion, if you can climb a couple of flights of stairs and not feel a pins and needles sensation in your left arm then you’ve clearly been taking your personal fitness regime too seriously. Snooker and darts are perhaps the last redoubts of true no-sweat athleticism.
Not for nothing then have many of these fields of human endeavour been either ignored entirely by the International Olympic Committee or enjoyed an all too brief Olympic pedigrees.
Both cricket and croquet featured solely in the 1900 games (Great Britain and France claiming honours respectively), while golf was in 1900 and 1904 and was only reinstated in 2016. Darts, apparently, has hopes for Olympics inclusion.
We will see.
Of the remaining great no-sweat sports, of course, there is shooting – an undertaking that makes origami appear physically arduous. It can be mastered while wearing a tie, smoking even (where still permitted), whilst being morbidly obese, and all without raising one’s pulse an iota. In this shooting is another impeccable no-sweat sport, and its survival in the modern Olympics calendar is surely a rare victory for cavalier common sense. Long may it continue.
Why is it that the British are so drawn to sports that require such infinitesimal physical exertion? Might it be in the blood? What’s certainly in evidence is the part of our cultural heritage which considers excessive preparation or practice ahead of any competition as bad form or potentially even a species of mild cheating. It’s only proper to win, but God forbid you should try too hard. Dexterity is what most impresses the Englishman.
So the next time the village cricket team asks you to bat, or when the vicar invites you for a game of croquet, be sure to play your part but don't embarrass yourself with any overexertion. And remember to take a substantial pullover with you.