Chapter TWELVE by Alan Thatcher
John Allenby woke from his nightmare.
He was drenched in sweat. His tee-shirt was wringing wet and stuck to his body.
He had vivid flashbacks of a bad dream in which the glass court was being wrecked by machine-gun fire.
He rubbed his eyes as the persistent ring of his mobile phone roused him from his bed.
It was the call that changed everything.
It was Shelley.
“I’ve just had a call from the top. From the Brazilian government. Are you by the court?”
“No. I’m in my room.”
“OK. Get over there now and I’ll be with you in ten minutes.”
Shelley hung up and zipped up her light-blue leather jacket. John threw some clothes on without bothering to shower.
Ironically, when he reached the venue he began briefing the court crew on keeping the glass immaculately clean.
He always groaned when players wiped their sweaty hands on the back wall, causing big streaky smears to appear on the glass.
Gone were the days of towelling strips on the shorts, he mused.
Shelley attracted the usual attention enjoyed by a glamorous woman in her mid-30s as she crossed the road and entered the arena.
Men used to seeing the vast array of flesh on display on Copacabana Beach still admired the style and poise of a fully-clothed female.
She found John and grabbed his arm to usher him to a quiet corner of the arena. Event staff continued to get everything ready to welcome their first-night guests and the garishly-dressed dancers prepared for their rehearsals.
Tonight, a mini carnival was about to embellish the arrival of world-class squash to Rio.
“You won’t believe this,” she said, as she and John climbed the bleachers to find a spot where they could not be overheard. “A firestorm is about to break out here in Rio.
“Things are so screwed up here in Brazil ahead of the Olympics and the government are beginning to panic. One of the new football stadiums has been shut down for safety reasons, before it’s even opened, because the roof has failed a safety check.
“You know how passionate the Brazilians are about their soccer. It’s a major embarrassment on all fronts, and the government are worried that the rest of the world will start sneering at them, saying they’re not capable of organizing the World Cup and the Olympics one after the other.
“Not only that, but the papers are full of stories about the dangers of women travelling on public transport.
“A young woman was gang-raped on a bus yesterday, just three miles from here, and her boyfriend was forced to watch, after being smacked over the head with a crowbar.
“The tourism guys are worried that it will stop people from travelling to Brazil, and the IOC are worried it will have a knock-on effect with lower ticket sales. They also think it might frighten sponsors away.
“In the end, it all comes down to money. Everything does. Always.”
John had listened patiently.
“Why do I suspect there’s more to come,” he said.
Shelley nodded. “OK, wait for it. This is where we come in. Golf is about to be kicked out of the Olympic Games because the course will not be ready in time. The IOC have asked squash to come in and fill the gap, four years ahead of 2020. But nothing will be announced until we can prove we’re capable of doing it.”
John’s face lit up.
“That’s incredible,” he said. “How did you find out?”
“I know the right people,” she said, failing to reveal that she had taken a call from the president of the IOC himself to check on squash’s readiness to step into the breach.
“We are back to our original position,” she said. “We must make sure this event is the biggest thing ever in squash. We need everybody onside and we must make sure the players deliver. The TV needs to be spectacular. We need to convince the big American sponsors that we’re not just a pastime for rich college kids on the east coast.”
“Right.” John nodded. His brain performed cartwheels as he weighed up all the options.
The various criminal elements attaching themselves to the event would have to be warned off. The rules had changed. The goalposts had been moved. Squash was ready to take its place in the Games alongside the big boys.
And a tournament of this magnitude would surely convince any doubters that squash deserved to be there.
This new development put John Allenby and Shelley Anderson firmly in the spotlight.
It was Allenby’s turn to talk.
“We can handle the squash. The event, the players, the staging, that’s easy. That’s what we do. But we need extra security to stop anything from going wrong.
“Too many nasty people have attached themselves to this tournament and we need to keep them away. Any ideas?”
Shelley smiled her imperious smile.
“I think you’ll find much of it has been taken care of. With the government so keen to make this a success, security is obviously a top priority.
“Unlike the Brits, who screwed up so badly by outsourcing security to the private sector at the London Olympics, the Brazilians will simply call in the Army.
“As we speak, it’s already happening. Look around and you will see that they have already brought in extra troops to patrol every part of the city.
“They want total lockdown to stop anything going wrong. Nobody gets in or out of any Olympic venue without a security check. And the same goes for the squash arena.
“Our friends with the guns are already packing up and leaving town.”
As Shelley and John concluded their discussion, players began arriving to practise on the glass court.
John Allenby returned to his hotel room to shower and shave.
He chose grey slacks and a cream jacket for the evening’s opening ceremony. He thought about going open-necked, but, with so many VIP guests, including government officials and leading sponsors, he thought a tie would be the safe option.
He could always take it off if he was the only guy wearing one. He chose a new pink tie, bought in a January sale in a favourite store in London’s Piccadilly.
He smiled to himself as he prepared to welcome one special guest. He had always been a big fan of Gloria Estefan, and tonight she would be singing just for him.
That’s how he felt, anyway.
For the first time in his career, he had been given the budget to put on something truly spectacular, and Ms Estefan was his first choice to sing at the opening ceremony. Luckily, she was available, and the fee was agreed.
She was flying down with her backing band to perform for 30 minutes before the squash began.
That moment was about to arrive and he chuckled as he thought of the opening lines of one of his favourite songs.
“Sometimes it’s hard … to make things clear.”
He always cracked the same joke to himself as he focused on those first three words. “Story of my life,” he mumbled.
He nodded to himself in the mirror as he smartened up, ready for show time.
More than 1,000 spectators crammed into the venue as the big night began.
The crowd went wild as the dancers paraded into the venue, with booming music and a spectacular laser show.
Gloria Estefan performed a magical set on the stage at the front of the court, and it was the proudest moment of John Allenby’s life as he kissed her on both cheeks and took the microphone to announce the first competitive match in the 2014 Rio Beach Classic.
Local TV crews fought with the squash crew to get the best vantage points. John hoped the TV stations would focus on the squash, as well as his favourite singer.
Fittingly, the first match featured the top seed, Karim Bashir, the world number one from Egypt.
One of the most talented players in the history of the game, he had been unbeaten for almost a year.
His opponent, a young English hopeful called Tom Sharp, put up a great show, diving all over the court to get the ball back as Bashir entertained the crowd with an astonishing display of racket skills.
Mixing power with touch play, and with a brain able to invent new shots seemingly at will, Bashir won comfortably in three games.
Wearing a yellow tee-shirt saying ‘Bashir loves Brazil’ he had won over the crowd as soon as he set foot inside court.
To the local squash fans who understood the intricacies of the game, he was a superhero.
To many of the guests in the crowded VIP stand, and other newcomers to the game, he put on a show that won them over in the first few rallies.
Some had heard that squash was boring. Bashir proved them wrong.
Two more matches followed, with victories for Frenchman Jean Tresor and England’s Jimmy Evans. Tresor would be facing Bashir in the next round, with Evans waiting to see who would win the final match of the evening, between American Steve Ennis and the Brazilian wild card, Carlos Oliveira.
The crowd stayed to the end and their noisy support helped Oliveira raise his game. He pushed Ennis all the way and at five-all in the fifth the American began to cramp up.
After a brief injury break, Ennis returned to court and was unable to maintain the tempo required to close out the match.
Oliveira stepped up his game to win the decider 11-6. He would be sharing the headlines next day with Bash the Smash.
As the crowd filed out of the arena, a laser show lit up the hotels across the beach.
The party would continue back at the hotel, with a special reception in the ballroom.
Shelley Anderson was schmoozing the room in one amazing sweep. Charming the money men, showing earnest interest as she talked to local politicians about developing squash through local school programs, she also did her best to convince the small group of IOC delegates that squash was ready to step up four years early.
The Brazilian squash federation was the biggest immediate beneficiary now that the sport had been admitted to the 2020 Games.
Local officials were all decked out in new blazers, ties and chinos.
Clearly some money was finding its way into the game now that squash was an Olympic sport, even if it went to purchasing fashion items ahead of building new courts in city centres.
But Shelley had news even on that score.
It was her turn to grab the microphone and talk to the guests.
“The Rio Squash Festival, held in advance of the professional tournament, was such a huge success that a new 12-court squash club is being built as part of the Olympic sports centre.
“The centre will have a permanent glass court and the World Tour is helping to recruit the best coaches in the world.”
Smiling at friends and guests from US Squash, she added: “The Ivy League colleges at last have some competition from south of the border when it comes to recruiting top coaches.
“It’s all part of our Total Squash World Plan and Brazil is leading the way with the world’s biggest tournament taking place here in Rio alongside a major development program.
“This is not just a one-off. This will be a fabulous annual event and we will grow the game alongside it.
“With Olympic status leading to increased funding, we aim to double the numbers of players worldwide to 40 million.”
Shelley received a standing ovation.
John Allenby greeted her with a glass of champagne and a hug.
“Well done. That was great.”
Shelley smiled, took a welcome sip from her champagne flute and looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping.
“The hard thing is making sure that the funding goes to the right people, and is not syphoned off by governments, federation officials and middle men.”
John nodded. So many times he had seen his ambitions of holding major events thwarted by incompetent and corrupt politicians, not to mention small-minded local officials who had no idea how to grow the game.
Finally, he was putting on the biggest show the game had ever seen. With Shelley by his side, they made a great team.
Despite so many so many issues threatening to stall the event, squash was finally in the big league.
About The Author
ALAN THATCHER is a lifelong sports journalist. He started writing for his local paper at the age of 14 and has worked in national newspapers for the past 30 years. Having fallen in love with squash in his 20s, he has promoted a number of major tournaments including the British Open, Liverpool Open and Kent Open. He is also co-promoter of the Canary Wharf Classic and MC and Media Director for the North American Open. A regular commentator for Sky TV down the years, he is a joint founder of World Squash Day and is President of the Kent SRA.
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