TOM UTLEY: To be born a Tom is a head start to glory

TOM UTLEY: To be born a Tom is a head start to glory. Shame there’s not a gold for bunging paper in the bin

Go Team Tom! Is there a single Thomas, Tommy or Tom who didn’t feel a frisson of quiet pride over the fact that for most of this week, an impressive one-third of Britain’s haul of Olympic gold medals had been won by people who share our magnificent forename? I certainly felt it.

Indeed, there was one glorious day at the beginning of the week when if British athletes named Tom had formed a separate team of their own in Tokyo, they would have held 11th place in the medals table, among all 205 teams taking part.

With some justice, they may say that as a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking couch potato, I haven’t the slightest legitimate claim to share in the Olympic glory of Tom Pidcock (pictured)

True, some will argue it’s ridiculous for the likes of me to take pleasure in the coincidence that so many of our golds — no fewer than five of our 15 until yesterday morning, when the cyclist Matt Walls won Team GB’s 16th — happened to have been won by athletes called Tom.

With some justice, they may say that as a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking couch potato, I haven’t the slightest legitimate claim to share in the Olympic glory of Tom Pidcock (mountain bike race), Tom Daley (synchronised diving), Tom McEwen (equestrian eventing) and Tom Dean (two golds in the swimming pool).

Strenuous

To be honest, I’m not even that interested in sport. As for actually participating in organised games, I spent most of my schooldays trying to devise ways of avoiding them — particularly if they involved strenuous exertion, such as cross-country running, or violent physical contact, such as boxing or rugby.

To this day, in fact, the only sporting prowess I can justly claim is my ability to throw scrunched-up pieces of paper into the wastepaper basket at the other end of the office, with almost unfailing accuracy.

(Alas, this has not yet been accepted as an Olympic event — though since beach volleyball, sport climbing and skateboarding have made the grade, it can only be a matter of time).

All I can testify is that I did indeed feel as pleased as Punch when my colleague Ephraim Hardcastle first pointed out, soon to be followed by other papers, that British athletes called Tom were doing exceptionally well in the Games.

Some will argue it’s ridiculous for the likes of me to take pleasure in the coincidence that so many of our golds — no fewer than five of our 15 until yesterday morning, when the cyclist Matt Walls won Team GB’s 16th — happened to have been won by athletes called Tom. Tom Daley is pictured above

Call me irrational, if you will. But then for the great majority of us, whatever our forenames may be, isn’t there something equally irrational about taking pride and pleasure in the successes of British athletes, as opposed to those from other countries?

After all, we don’t put in all those punishing hours of training. Unlike many of the athletes’ parents, we haven’t coached and encouraged them from infancy. The most credit we can fairly claim is that, in some cases, we may each have contributed a tiny amount through our taxes or lottery ticket purchases to financing the facilities British athletes use.

In a perfectly rational world, in fact, it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to us whether the winner of the gold in, say, dressage, happened to come from Great Britain or Mongolia. Yet for most of us, it matters quite a lot. If you’re anything like me, you’re thrilled when our fellow Brits do well, and you’re disappointed when they’re beaten.

But then let’s face it, the truth is that the Homo sapiens is not an entirely rational animal. For it’s in our nature to experience more fellow-feeling for some people than for others.

As a species, we tend to put our families first, then our friends, local communities and fellow countrymen. Only then do we find room in our hearts to care about the rest of humanity.

If you doubt me, just ask yourself this: who would you rescue first from a fire, if you had the choice — your own child, or someone you’d never met?

My point is that if you claim the right to take pleasure in Team GB’s successes, as most of us do, then you must grant those of us who share my forename the right to feel especially proud of the medals won by athletes called Tom.

Popular

As it happens, I have a particular reason for feeling strongly attached to my name, because I am the seventh-generation Thomas in my family, in strict line of succession. My eldest son, Thomas George, is the eighth (though we’ve always called him George to avoid the confusion of two Toms in one house), while my grandson Rafael Thomas is the ninth.

Indeed, one of my sisters, who has made a hobby of tracing the Utley ancestry, tells me that since 1697, only one generation of our branch of the family has not included a Tom.

Of course, some may say it’s not surprising that so many Toms have turned up in the medals table this year, since Thomas, in its various forms, was apparently the second most popular name given to baby boys in the UK in the 50 years up to 2019.

Mind you, it hasn’t always been so fashionable. Indeed, if I remember rightly, I was the only Tom among 100 boys at my prep school during the five years I was there, from 1962 to 1967.

But by the time my four sons came along, in the 1980s and 1990s, every second child seemed to bear the name. If you shouted for Tom in their school playground, a dozen little boys would think you were addressing them.

But surely probability theory alone can’t explain the hugely disproportionate number of Toms in the medals tables — not only among the golds, but the silvers and bronzes, too. Actually, I’ve been wondering all week if, in some mysterious way, our given names may play a part in shaping our character and aptitudes.

I don’t know about you, but Tom has always struck me as a solid, no-nonsense, trustworthy sort of a name, suggestive of the type of bloke who’s unafraid to stick at a job until it’s done. OK, I may not fit that description myself, but this could be because for the first 12 years of my life everyone called me Tommy, which has quite different connotations. A few letters can make all the difference.

Benevolent

Take the name Tim, for example — only one letter different from Tom, yet to my mind it conjures up an entirely different picture.

I think of the lyricist Tim Rice, the late comedian Tim Brooke-Taylor or Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the chap who gave us the Worldwide Web for free.

All thoroughly nice, benevolent fellows, no question, but I can’t help wondering if they might have been slightly less weedy if their parents had called them Tom instead of Tim.

Of course, we don’t all conform to the stereotypes suggested by our names. I think of my friend Tristan, who played in his posh school’s rugby scrum alongside teammates called (if my memory serves me) Peregrine, Sebastian, Tarquin and Rupert. How the opposing teams from rougher schools jeered when they heard those names.

I have Tristan’s word for it, however, that they never jeered at the end of the game, when they’d been comprehensively thrashed by the team they’d dismissed as chinless wonders. 

Perhaps the posh boys had been given those names to toughen them up — on the same principle as A Boy Named Sue, in Johnny Cash’s famous song.

But I must stop now, before I insult every male reader of this column who has the misfortune to be called something other than Tom. 

All I can do is earnestly hope that future generations of my family will continue to ignore the vagaries of fashion — and carry on calling their sons by that time-honoured name of pure Olympic gold.

As for those Timothys, Ruperts and Sebastians to whom I may have given offence, I can only apologise and sign myself yours, proudly but sincerely, Tom.


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