The Barcelona Olympics, 1992. The first Games that I can remember.

A bright, hot, English Summer. I’m eight years old. The flamboyant, rousing, tones of Freddie Mercury and that Opera Lady playing on BBC One, over the opening titles, every night after the six o’clock news. We’d all settle down as a family to watch, until it was time for bed. 

One evening, it was time for the rowing. Streamlined boats, full of streamlined athletes, making streamlined motions, and streamlined ripples in the aqua blue Mediterranean water. So smooth, elegant, and hypnotic.

During the team races, my little brother and I notice a little figure perched at the front of the boat. They’re perched, almost motionless, gleaming, their identity fully concealed, in a white t-shirt and baseball cap.

“Who’s that?” We asked my father. 

He paused. Looked over at my Mother, and smiled, before turning back to us. 

“It’s a monkey,” he replied, before pausing to gauge our reaction.

“A monkey?!” 

“Err…Yep. A little chimp. They call him the cox. See…um…the front of a boat is too small for a person. Far too tiny. So they just use chimps instead. They help steer the boat. Yes, that’s it. Monkeys steer the boats.”

And, to my brother and I, it really did.

After all, we were children raised on the books of Dr. Jane Goodall and the documentaries of David Attenborough. We’d visit a Monkey Sanctuary, that was located an hour up the road, every school holidays, and spend hours studying the amazing human-like characteristics of the various primates that lived there. We knew, loved and respected the apes. So this news that our father was solemnly breaking to us – well of course it was true. Monkeys can do almost anything so of course monkeys can sit in boats at the Olympics!

“Monkeys steer the boats” we recited back to our Father. 

He looked back to my Mother. They both turned back to us. They smiled. 

Then, without further comment or question, we all went back to watching the Olympics. 

Turns out that it took fifteen years for me to be corrected on this matter, and learn the disappointing truth. It would have been nice if it wasn’t in quite such a public and humiliating way, but that’s life’s rich tapestry, isn’t it. 

Who knew? Turns out there’s no such thing as chimps in boats, after all.

There should be, though. It makes perfect sense. Those boats are way too small for people.


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