A game of doubles squash with four of the best players in the world happens so fast that at first it feels like flu, unsettling, almost queasy. It's dangerous - four men with stiff clubs in a small white room. But intelligent, too - sleek and watchful and fast all at once, explosive power brightened by collisions, competitive but constrained. A useful metaphor.
It's a bit like watching a four-man National Hockey League game on one-16th of a rink: Sidney Crosby and Jussi Jokinen, say, going against Alexander Ovechkin and Jarome Iginla, like four big angry bees buzzing around inside a stoppered bottle, to borrow the late American sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind's brilliant description of squash. It's a game so unknown it's exotic, a relic from the tribe of the vanishing WASP. Everything happens fast, but the pace changes faster. You can see the players thinking. What you can't see or even imagine is how they react so quickly.
And, of course, there's the howitzer sound as the hard, hollow ball hits the wall at more than 200 miles an hour, a gratifying cross between a pow and a thwock , the sound dynamite would make if it knew how to kiss .
The wiry guy with the red hair is Gary Waite, originally from Sarnia, Ont., the best doubles-squash player in the 100-year history of the game - a 10-time world champion with five undefeated seasons. We'll never see his like again, though he is unknown to all but a handful of Canadians.
But if a quixotic dream of Mr. Waite's comes true, a lot more people will be playing and watching a lot more doubles squash. He wants to transform the athletic love of his life - a pastime of at most 18,000 people in North America - into a popular sport. (By comparison, there are more than 540,000 registered hockey players in Canada alone.)
When the International Olympic Committee sits down in Copenhagen this October to decide if squash qualifies for inclusion in the 2016 Games (up against contenders such as karate and "roller sports"), doubles will be touted as one of its appeals.Mr. Waite is even thinking about changing the name of the game, to "rebrand" it and "disassociate it from the image of squash."
Naturally, then, in the tiny, cozy world of racquet sports, a lot of people think Gary Waite is a Philistine. Everyone else thinks that he's dreaming.
But his timing is good. The last time doubles squash underwent a big boom in popularity was the Great Depres-
sion. Something about losing 30 per cent of our collective net worth makes us want to crowd into a little room and run around like madmen while trying not to kill each other.
Born to run
Why, on an unseasonably cold morning late in April, would a man wear a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, a thin sweater and no socks to bike to a café in downtown Toronto? Because he is Gary Waite, and he's a physical lunatic.
His standard workout is an eight-mile run. "Once you lose the ability to run," he explains, "it's very hard to play sports well." If he runs three miles in less than 19 minutes, he'll let himself stop. If he doesn't make that, he has another chance to stop at four miles, but has to arrive in less than 25 minutes. If he misses again, it's 6.2 miles (10 kilometres) in less than 39 minutes. "And if I don't make that, I have to run my eight miles, in whatever."
Mr. Waite has always operated by his own eccentric rules. Six-foot-one and 175 pounds of muscle roped around a rangy frame, he deferred his entry to Harvard for a year at the age of 17 to play professional squash in Europe.
By the time he graduated with a degree in art and literature nine years later, in 1995 - having taken a total of six years off to play - he was the No. 1 hardball-squash player in the world, No. 11 in softball squash and No. 1 in doubles, playing 42 tournaments a year and flying overseas to compete weekends in Germany.
He's 42 years old now. He has five children, the youngest born last month. He makes large abstract expressionist paintings in his spare time. Brainy, worldly, active, successful - as a class, doubles-squash players are a demographic wet dream.