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The Adventure of the Aspiring Athlete
Robert Cantwell
March 19, 1973
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a first-rate competitor in numerous sports. Although he eventually came to detest writing about Holmes, he couldn't resist equipping the great detective with formidable physical skills to go along with his unmatched intellect
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March 19, 1973

The Adventure Of The Aspiring Athlete

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a first-rate competitor in numerous sports. Although he eventually came to detest writing about Holmes, he couldn't resist equipping the great detective with formidable physical skills to go along with his unmatched intellect

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Sherlock Holmes. "Rather over six feet," in the words of Dr. Watson, "and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller." His eyes sharp and piercing, his nose thin and hawklike. And that superb mind. But you might never suspect from the old movies in which Basil Rathbone portrayed Holmes largely by turning up the collar of his greatcoat that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle conceived of his peerless detective as an athlete, as well as a man who could live by his wits on Baker Street in London and amaze the good Watson by his feats of deductive reasoning, his profound knowledge of rare drugs, secret societies and the criminal mind. Yet it is all there in the stories: Holmes' lightning reflexes, his stamina, his skill as a wrestler and marksman. Even Watson, in his first attempt to appraise his new friend, marks him down as "an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman."

Conan Doyle could, without the least difficulty, invest Holmes with a credibly lithe and active image—so unlike many of his fictional descendants, wizards of detection who had no physical resources at all. Doyle himself was a superior amateur athlete. The theme of sport ran through his whole life and much of his writing. If Holmes was Doyle's major and enduring figure, he created others that he loved far better and who had an even greater connection with the active world of sport. Still, many of the Holmes stories are flecked with sport and sport is central to a few of them—the celebrated mystery of the disappearing racehorse and the dead trainer in Silver Blaze, for instance, and the unexplained absence of a famous rugby player from a crucial match in The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter. (Typically, since organized sport was quite outside Holmes' ken, he had never heard of the missing man. "Good Lord! Mr. Holmes, where have you lived?" he is asked.)

The late William S. Baring-Gould, in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes , makes note of nearly 150 references in the Holmes stories to polo, billiards, yacht racing, bicycling, poaching, fox hunting, big-game hunting, pheasant shooting, rowing, salmon fishing, hunt meets, fencing, tennis and other familiar and unfamiliar sports. The most exotic of them was baritsu, a form of Japanese wrestling, mastery of which enabled Holmes to overcome that Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty, when the two met on a narrow ledge above Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.

Battered ex-fighters occasionally pop up in the Sherlock Holmes adventures. In The Sign of the Four, the second story Doyle wrote about the detective, a coachman drives Holmes and Watson to their meeting with the mysterious Thaddeus Sholto. The coachman has penetrating eyes and moves "briskly." No wonder—he is the former lightweight champion of England. In that same story Conan Doyle revealed a little of Sherlock Holmes' notable athletic past. A former fighter, now a porter and bodyguard, recognizes Holmes as a fine amateur boxer who could have become a famous one. Holmes' ring exploits happened offstage, but there can be no doubt of his credentials as an athlete. And with good reason, it turns out, for a super athlete is what Conan Doyle always wanted to be.

When Doyle in later life wrote his literary reminiscences, one of his earliest recollections was of fights he had won between the ages of seven and nine. His father was an amiable if unprosperous artist and civil servant in Edinburgh, where Doyle was born in 1859, and the family lived in modest circumstances on a street where numbers of rich young Edinburghers also lived. "I rejoiced in battle," Doyle wrote, describing how he became the champion of the poor kids against the best the rich could put up from their side of the street. He did not believe in reincarnation (though he thought people should have an open mind on such things) but as he remembered his pleasure in fighting he wondered if perhaps the spirit of some old English bareknuckle prizefighter—someone like Jem Belcher—had briefly taken possession of him.

Young Doyle's days of neighborhood battle were interrupted at the age of nine when he was sent off to Hodder, the preparatory school for the Jesuit college of Stonyhurst. His recollections of life there include an account of how he was hit by a cricket ball batted by one of the finest professional cricketers in the history of England, Tom Emmett, who happened to be at the school showing some of the older students how to bat. One of Emmett's hits caught Doyle, a bystander, on the kneecap. The occasion was made even more memorable for Doyle when Emmett personally carried him to the infirmary. Doyle excelled in swimming, rugby, soccer, hockey and ice skating, and was the athletic hero of Stonyhurst and captain of the cricket team. For a time, what he really aspired to was to become a serious cricketer with the Edinburgh Cricket Club. He was unhappy at school, recognizing—as did everyone else—that he would never ever become a priest. The master of Stonyhurst told him, "Doyle, you will never come to any good!"

The 17-year-old Doyle chose medicine as his profession and attended the medical college of the University of Edinburgh. There he became a forward on the university rugby team. He was at the time a hearty, open, ruddy-cheeked fellow, well over six feet and weighing about 225 pounds. He loved to box and gladly put aside such matters as the dissection of cadavers for an hour with the gloves. A common love of sports led to what turned out to be an unfortunate friendship with a fellow medical student named George Budd, whose reputation as a rugby player had made him known all over the country. Budd was a violent and pugnacious man who had trouble holding his liquor and was credited with having survived a jump out of a three-story window while escaping an irate husband. Budd ran off with a very young girl and, to evade her parents, disguised himself by dyeing his blond hair. The dye somehow misfired and Budd wound up with spectacularly gold-and black-streaked hair, like the plum age of a tropical bird. Not one to abandon a friend in trouble, Doyle became one of the few regular visitors Dr. and Mrs. Budd had when they settled down to domestic life, or a reasonable facsimile of it.

One of Doyle's professors at medical school was Dr. Joseph Bell, who liked to dazzle his students by making lightning long-range medical diagnoses and equally instant deductions about the personal lives of patients brought before him in the lecture room. "This man," he might say after glancing at a subject, "is a left-handed cobbler." Dr. Bell would then point triumphantly to the inconspicuous but telling physical characteristic on the unfortunate individual that led to the deduction. Sometimes Dr. Bell's accuracy was so mystifying that his students suspected he had primed himself by secretly examining the patients ahead of time. But Dr. Bell's medical opinions were sometimes wrong and, though Doyle made him one of the models for Sherlock Holmes, he always had an equivocal attitude toward the value of instant analysis in his own practice of medicine.

His father's health failed, and at 20 Doyle became head of the family. Without money to complete his medical education he went to work as a doctor's assistant in Sheffield and Ruyton. He was underpaid, exploited, humiliated and insulted by established practitioners, and regarded with suspicion by the tough and battered miners who were sent to him. But he discovered he had something in common with them. They were as interested as he was in rugby, cricket and prizefighting: "Sometimes brutal, sometimes grotesque, the love of sport is still one of the great agencies which makes for the happiness of our people," Doyle wrote. At night, after an evening spent "listening to the throb of the charwoman's heart or the rustle of the greengrocer's lungs," he began to write short stories. Chambers' Journal in London paid him three guineas for The Mystery of Sasassa Valley. Then London Society bought The American's Tale. He went on to write Our Derby Sweepstakes (never published) and had worked on a novel and several other stories by the time he was 21.

That same year he got a lucky appointment as a ship's doctor on a whaler bound for Greenland, �2 10s (about $12.50) a month plus a share of the whale-oil money. On the first night out he boxed for the crew with the steward, Jack Lamb, whose proficiency with cakes and other delicacies later won him an appointment as Queen Victoria's personal baker. Doyle relished the voyage and, characteristically, wrote about it in sporting terms. He was allowed to harpoon a whale, and he recalled the world of perpetual daylight, the deep blue sea, the exhilarating air and the chase of the monster: "Who would swap that moment for any other triumph that sport can give?" His first post after taking his degree in 1881 was as ship's surgeon on a small steamer bound for Africa and, here again, during the worst three months of his life, Doyle described his own nearly fatal illness in non-medical terms: "fighting with death in a very small ring and without a second."

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