Conan Doyle the Sportsman
Sports as a Child
Arthur Conan Doyle was educated at a Jesuit boarding school. His outspoken nature and intellectual curiosity did not make him popular with his teachers. This part of Conan Doyle’s life was difficult, but was made more bearable by the sporting events at school. Conan Doyle was a natural athlete and took part in cricket, football (also known as soccer in the United States), hockey, swimming, and rugby.
The Jesuit school, Stonyhurst, also had some sporting games of its own invention. “Trap” was a game like tag. “Cat” was a game somewhat like softball.
Conan Doyle was a doctor before he became a writer. In 1880 he served as a ship’s surgeon on a whaling vessel. One of the items that Conan Doyle brought along on the voyage was a set of boxing gloves. Jack Lamb, the ship’s steward, noticed the gloves as Conan Doyle was stowing his gear. Lamb immediately challenged Conan Doyle to a boxing bout. After the match was finished Lamb was quoted as saying, “So help me, he’s the best surgeon we’ve had! He’s blackened my e’e!”
Conan Doyle truly believed that boxing was a “manly art.” It plays a strong part in some of his short stories including Rodney Stone, The Croxley Master, The Lord of Falconbridge and The Bully of Brocas Court.
Networking though Sports
In 1882 he set up practice in Portsmouth. He was new to the area and finding new patients was difficult. Economics demanded that he find new patients and soon! He began a program of socializing that was designed to provide him with contacts, patients and associates. In other words, Conan Doyle began to network. As he states in his semi-autobiographical novel The Stark Monroe Letters:
Above all, I learned a fact which I would whisper in the ear of every other man who starts, as I have done, a stranger among strangers. Do not think that practice will come to you. You must go to it. You may sit upon your consulting room chair until it breaks under you, but without purchase or partnership you will make little or no progress. The way to do it is to go out, to mix everywhere with men, to let them know you.
Conan Doyle joined many types of clubs and organizations including sporting clubs. He joined the Southsea Bowling Club, the Portsmouth Cricket Club and helped organize the Portsmouth Football Club.
When Conan Doyle and his first wife, Louise, moved to Switzerland in 1893 skiing was virtually unknown in the region. Conan Doyle had seen skiing in Norway and decided that Switzerland would be a perfect place for the sport. Although he was a natural athlete, learning to ski was not an easy task. Conan Doyle would later say, “On any man suffering from too much dignity, a course of skis would have a fine moral effect.”
Conan Doyle predicted, “the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for a skiing season.” Due in part to his popularization of the sport, Conan Doyle was right.
Conan Doyle was one of the earliest motorists in Britain. He was so taken with this new invention that he apparently bought an automobile without ever having driven one before. The first time he ever drove a car was when he took his car home from the dealer—275 kilometers away from the Conan Doyle residence!
In 1911 Conan Doyle took part in the International Road Competition organized by Prince Henry of Prussia. Known as the Prince Henry Tour, this contest was designed to pit the quality of British automobiles against German automobiles. The route took the participants from Hamburg, Germany to London. Conan Doyle teamed with his second wife, Jean, as one of the British driving teams.
In 1914 Conan Doyle visited the United States for the second time. While he was in New York City he attended a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Athletics. Conan Doyle enjoyed the game very much. However he did have a few concerns about professional sports. He stated, “the largest purse has the best team,” and ” there is no necessary relation between the player and the place he plays for.”
Conan Doyle golfed whenever he could. As a world traveler this enabled him to play under many, and sometimes adverse, conditions.
In Switzerland the cows were hard on his self-made golf course. They knocked down his flags. As if that wasn’t enough, they would also eat the flags.
On Conan Doyle’s first American tour in 1894 Rudyard Kipling invited him to spend a few days in Vermont. During his stay Conan Doyle was able to find some golf clubs and gave Kipling a few pointers. Conan Doyle said they played golf, “while the New England rustics watched us from afar, wondering what on earth we were at.”
In a trip to Egypt in 1895 Conan Doyle played golf at a course near his hotel. He stated that, “if you sliced your ball, you might find it bunkered in the grave of some Rameses or Thothmis of old.”
He was Captain of the Crowborough Beacon Golf Club in 1910 and his wife was Lady Captain the following year.
Conan Doyle’s childhood love of cricket carried though to his adulthood. He even played on a celebrity cricket team comprised of fellow authors and people from the theater. Teammates included James M. Barrie (Peter Pan) and A.E.W. Mason (The Four Feathers). The team was called the Allah-Akabarries. This was a combination of Barrie’s last name and an Arabic phrase meaning, “May the Lord help us.”
Conan Doyle said this about sports, “To give and to take, to accept success modestly and defeat bravely, to fight against odds, to stick to one’s point, to give credit to your enemy and value your friend – these are some of the lessons which true sport should impart.”