Monday, 30 April 2012

Out of Darkness there is Light

Today it will be announced that the BOA By Law banning convicted drug cheats from representing GB at Olympic Games has been ruled non compliant with the WADA Code by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The ban will be no more. This CAS decision had been widely anticipated. The outcry from many sections of the media and also from many athletes has equally been swift and predictable. There are fears that this marks a softening of approach towards dopers. The By Law had received overwhelming support from British athletes. GB was the only country to maintain such a stance towards athletes found to have committed serious doping offences. However in my view the BOA has not wasted its precious funding in fighting this battle. The spotlight is now firmly back upon WADA. Is international doping policy too soft? The BOA is urging more significant bans upon WADA. BOA would like a starting point of 4 years rather than 2 years for serious offences. That would guarantee that cheats miss at least one Olympic Games and would constitute a serious and effective punishment which would significantly interfere with the short competitive life of an athlete. WADA now needs to achieve a worldwide consensus for such measures. Easier said than done as many countries are extremely protective of their champions'  and reluctant to lose their services for any longer than strictly necessary. Nonetheless the baton has successfully been passed to WADA.

David Millar


What of the most affected British athletes? Much has already been written about Dwain Chambers ( I have had my own views in previous blog posts). Carl Myerscough has largely escaped attention due to the less glamorous nature of his event (shot put).
David Millar is the case which interests me most. My views have vacillated along the way, but solidified after reading his book, Racing through the Dark. Millar was a successful cyclist, capable of winning a stage of the Tour de France before he ever doped. The book describes his gradual slide into doping when faced with the realities of competing clean against systematic dopers. Once caught and exposed, he confessed, co-operated and began the long and painful journey towards redemption. Having served his 2 year ban, Millar has travelled a very long way. He has worked with the authorities including WADA, he sits on their athletes council, and has been a centre piece of a Garmin team created with a strong anti doping ethos.Millar has kept quiet about the BOA By Law and not sought to challenge it. The book is a searing insight into a journey from a spoilt child to a serious and credible adult. It would be wrong, when so many are able to return, often with indecent haste, that a man who is now in credit, in doping terms, could not. Doping bans must be fair and proportionate. Nothing is served by double jeopardy and double standards. I will applaud Millar's participation at the Olympics and hope he is able to play a part in British success.

Team GB
UPDATE 19.11.12
Today WADA announces that its draft new code will not attempt to resurrect the 'Osaka Rule' (banning drug cheat athletes from the next Olympic Games), but instead will increase the sentencing starting point for serious drug offences to 4 years. This would appear to vindicate the stance taken by the BOA in contesting the WADA decision to seek to outlaw their bylaw. A better day for sport!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Thanks to Social Media, Ingrid Green and Joli Academy I have become increasingly fascinated with the world of Women's Soccer. Please do not take offence at the use of 'Soccer' I suspect that its the predominant word for the beautiful game the world over. That fascination has nothing much to do with the female form and everything to do with the obvious energy, enthusiasm and tremendous potential of the women's game worldwide. Nonetheless the aesthetics of women playing the game have aroused enormous controversy. Sepp Blatter infamously and stupidly called for tighter shirts and shorter shorts for female players in 2004. Yesterday's man, he is of no great consequence in the future of Soccer, and in particular the female version. However at times women have given the impression that, perhaps through lack of confidence , they do feel the need to 'sex up' soccer. Players from Dutch club FC de Rakt convinced their management to allow them to wear short skirts and tighter tunics. They argued that the new uniforms were 'more elegant and also comfortable'. At the last World Cup in Germany, French players, including Elodie Thomas, posed naked in Bild to 'publicise their sport'. Germany were quick to follow suit with a Playboy spread.

Elodie Thomis


Meanwhile there have been converse arguments about the suitable attire for female Muslim players. FIFA has now allowed the wearing of hijabs after protests from countries such as Iran. Their national team had to forfeit qualification for London 2012 because of the then ban on wearing head scarves, allegedly for safety reasons. A level playing field has been created and it is exciting to see that so much of the world is ready to embrace the game.
Ironically this might have happened almost a century ago had it not been for an act of chauvinism which endured for 50 years. I am shocked to learn, but not entirely surprised that the English FA performed the role of 'villain of the piece'. Following the First World War the Women's game in England took off, particularly in the north of the country, and associated with munitions factories, to such an extent that it was not fanciful to compare its potential popularity to that of the men's game. Indeed in 1920 53,000 spectators were inside Goodison Park, Liverpool, home to mighty Everton, to watch a women's game. Reports estimate that some 10 - 15,000 further fans were locked outside. For reasons that are difficult to comprehend now, the English FA killed this rival stone dead by introducing a ban on women's football matches at grounds of FA affiliates. The ban remained in force until 1971.

Today the 'custodians' of the game have embraced women's soccer. The game is played by an increasing number of female players and the organisation and professionalism of the sport is gathering pace. Women's soccer has been accepted. Major international competitions such as the UEFA Women's Championship inaugurated in 1982 and the World Cup, which first took place in China in 1991 and was won by USA are now well established in the soccer calendar. The 1999 World Cup Final in Los Angeles between USA and China attracted a crowd of 90,000 fans and was the most viewed soccer event in US television history.
At club level things have proved more problematic. In England there are 2 reasonably well established competitions for the elite. the FA Women's Cup and the FA Women's Super League. I sense that exposure is growing , but to give some perspective, last Sunday Chelsea visited Arsenal Ladies at the Emirates and attracted a record crowd for a FAWSL match' of a mere 5,000 odd fans.
Across the Channel French women's football continues to develop. The FWNT has achieved a better image than the men, and that has nothing to do with Bild. There was widespread disaffection with the men's national team after the scandals of WC 2010. The elite French Women's league contains 12 teams. Some, such as Lyon are professional, but the majority are not as yet so advanced. Some French players have had exposure to professional leagues in the US. One indicator of advancement is the accessibility of TV coverage of games online.
There is a theory, at least advanced in France, that the French are disadvantaged vis a vis their American counterparts by the school system. The days are long and there are only 3 hours of sport per week. It has been suggested that the French lack the strength and conditioning of the young American players. The French are very technical and seek to work on this aspect of their game to compensate for other perceived weaknesses. Judge for yourselves on the 25th July. France kick off the Olympic Football 2012 against the USA at Hampden Park.
The USA is the most volatile, but also the most promising staging ground for elite club soccer. There is every chance, if it is organised correctly, and the internecine warfare of recent times can be overcome, that a professional league in the US can establish itself as a forum for the world's greatest players to perform.
The Women's Profesional Soccer league (WPS) was founded in 2007 and commenced in 2009. It survived 3 seasons, but it was beset by instability. It did attract players from all over the world, but the number and nature of the teams kept changing and it made significant losses. There were legal wrangles which do not need further discussion here, but which ultimately caused the league to be suspended from the end of January 2012 and this season will not happen. This is a particular pity for myslef because I have an interest in the fortunes of JOanna Lohman and LIanne Sanderson (JOLI) who would have performed for the Philadelphia Independence.
However it has recently been announced that the Women's Professional Soccer Elite league will attempt to take the place of WPS. WPSL is due to commence on the 10th May 2012. It will include 3 teams with WPS experience, Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars and 2011 WPS Champions Western New York Flash. There will be 13 teams in total.
There is enormous potential in the women's game in America. The game is widely played amongst girls and women and players such as Alex Morgan, of the USWNT and lately of Western new York Flash, are huge superstars. Alex has currently got half a million twitter followers. I have 384 at the last count!

Alex Morgan
I am extremely confident that the women's game will continue to progress and that it can even rival the men's game in future years.
In part 2 of this series to follow shortly, I will examine the women's game in the Southern Hemisphere and Middle East  in more depth.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

FA still in Pickle over GLT

Yet more embarrassment yesterday at the Cup Final when the crucial moment of the game was a goal line incident. Petr Cech made an amazing 'save' from Andy Carroll. Many thought the ball crossed the line. The Assistant Referee made a huge call. I think he got it right, but the point is that he would have been assisted by technology. The current haphazard system puts intolerable pressure on officials and means that games can be wrongly decided when there is a simple solution.
Here's what I wrote after the FA Cup Semi Final.
The Semi Final between Spurs and Chelsea yet again brought back into focus the issue of Goal Line Technology. Juan Mata's goal for Chelsea early in the second half, making the score 2 - 0 to Chelsea appears to have been erroneously awarded by referee Martin Atkinson (remember him from the Mario Balotelli controversy last week). TV replays demonstrated that Spurs had been done an injustice. Another major football event has ended with more discussion about refereeing mistakes than about the game and outcome itself. GLT could have prevented this. Below is my article on this very subject just a short while ago.
Are we getting to a tipping point with perceived errors by match officials? This weekend we witnessed at least 2 situations in which the officials missed events in games which might have affected the outcome. Chelsea were awarded a first goal against Wigan which was evidently offside. The assistant referee declined to alter his position in spite of the urgings of the entire Wigan team. Wigan lost 2 – 1, a result which may hasten their departure to the Championship. Very simple technology and minimal delay could have avoided this injustice.
The second incident concerned Mario (Why Always Me?) Balotelli. He launched into a hideous over the top tackle on  Alex Song making contact with  the Arsenal man’s shin. He was not even cautioned by referee Martin Atkinson.  TV replays suggested that Atkinson may, in fairness, have been unsighted. Balotelli managed to remain on the field till around the 85th minute when for yet another outrageous tackle he received a straight red card. Had television technology been used, Balotelli would have spent most of  the game watching from the stands.
Why is it so difficult to reach a solution on this issue? The game is being poisoned to a significant degree by an atmosphere of recrimination over ‘erroneous decisions’. Most post match interviews involve managers blaming officials for their teams’ results. We could avoid the Dalglish/Hughes blame game by bringing in the means to put things right on the pitch. The technology is there and it is highlighting the errors within the game. Arsenal should have had the advantage of an extra man and Wigan should have been ahead rather than a goal down.
IFAB (International Football Association Board), an interesting throwback construction based around representatives from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and 4 from the rest of the world, approved 2 of 8 Goal Line Technology systems for further testing with a view to their use in FIFA competitions from next year. Hawkeye and GoalRef will undergo further destructive testing to test their accuracy in the most extreme conditions and under floodlights. If one can be shown to be foolproof and to provide a rapid response (possibly within one second) then the rules are likely to be changed this Summer in order that the technology can be used in the professional game.
However even if this happens it will only relate to the issue of goal line decisions. These controversies, although remembered, are relatively rare.
If that technology is brought in it will mark a significant departure from the philosophy of having one 'beautiful game' played the same way from park to stadium. At present there are many, including Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini who are against the use of technology at all.
Patrick Barclay, however, has argued in The Times, that goal line controversies are extremely rare, and that FIFA should in fact have a 'video referee' (what does the 4th Official currently do?) in the stands providing assistance to the referee generally rather than limiting it to a very rare and isolated function.
The technology exists to permit a signal to be sent to the referee’s watch indicating that he has missed something important, a goal, an offside, a seriously bad tackle. Within seconds the issue could be resolved rather than changing the very character and atmosphere of the match. Its time to act now so that post match analysis can be about the match and not about the contentious decisions.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Masters, but no Mistresses

Bubba won the Masters. He hugged his mum and blubbed. Wife, Angie, stayed away looking after their newly adopted child. Bubba had blazed away with a shocking pink driver, sported in aid of a cancer charity. Excellent PR all round.
Meanwhile the Masters remains what it has always been, an uncomfortable anachronism. It looks beautiful, it is unfailingly polite and it is completely out of order. The Masters defends the indefensible, or at least stonewalls the questions. Most of the media are complicit just like most golf fans - could we expect any different?
Clifford Roberts, founding father  of the Augusta National with the legendary Bobby Jones, once infamously stated with Southern pride 'As long as I live all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black'. Eventually he shot himself on the course. Nothing much changed. Lee Elder became the first black player in 1975. The first black member arrived only in 1990. The second, and possibly last, is rumoured to be that model of decency, Tiger Woods. These things are kept secret. We don't know of any more. Why because this is a private members' club and therefore it benefits from the one exemption to the Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination. Private members clubs can select 'who they damn well please' as members, however offensive.

Augusta National has no female members. None. Zero. It never has. Clifford Roberts would rather have burned in hell than allow that. Funny thing is that attitudes have not changed one jot since then. This week current ChairMAN Billy Payne squirmed in a press conference as he was taken to task about the men only policy of the club. He had no answers. Indeed he seemed taken aback that the usually fawning press pack was actually taking him to task. He wanted to be congratulated for the clubs' modest advancements. They are not worth mentioning here.
Why was the Press so interested? Well there was a potential story brewing. IBM, beacon of mainstream America, had appointed a female CEO, Virginia Rometty.

 So what? Well IBM are one of the main sponsors of the Masters. What usually follows is gratis lifetime membership of the club. Other important male sponsor CEO have, of course, received the 'accolade'. Cue radio silence. Rometty has not been so 'honoured'. IBM response? Zilch. What a surprise to learn that IBM Chairman Samuel Palmisano is an Augusta member.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both went on record as saying they believed that women should be allowed to be members. But that was it. No censure, no condemnation.
In Downtown Augusta there is a statue commemorating those who fought to retain slavery.
Need I say more?

Saturday, 7 April 2012

KP Cracker Puzzle

Doubts have recently been raised about whether mercurial middle order batsman Kevin Pietersen should retain his place in the England Test team middle order. A string of low scoring performances, particularly this Winter in tests against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and a tendency to get out to mundane left handed spinners had seemingly put KP's head on the block. It has even been suggested that KP lost his mojo with the England Captaincy. In the first innings fo the Second Test against Sri Lanka KP responded in splendid fashion putting the osts to the sword and smashing 151 glorious runs.  Averaging almost a run a ball, this was Pietersen at his majestic best. Sri Lanka's bowlers seemed to have no answer.
Such was KP's confidence and feeling of superiority that he felt able to bring out his almost unique cricketing virtuosity. KP unleashed his famous, but recently slightly shy 'switch hit'. He switched from right hander to left hander as the bowler entered his delivery stride and accordingly decimated the Sri Lankan field placings. Never one to leave it at that, Pietersen pushed the boundaries and changed his grip on occasion too early at leas tin the view of the umpires Rauf and Oxenford. The unfortunate Dilshan was the bowler, or in fact the not bowler as several times he stopped before delivering the ball. Eventually the umpire gave Pietersen a formal warning for 'timewasting', pursuant to Rule 42.9. The rule makes no reference to switch hitting. The umpires had been presented witha conundrum, largely due to Dilshan's pulling out of the delivery. The game risked reaching a stalemate. Any further transgression would have resulted in 5 runs being awarded to England's opponents. KP was unperturbed, at one stage hitting Dilshan for 14 runs in 3 balls.

The switch hit requires considerable power and ambidextrous coordination. It has caused some controversy in cricketing circles, but was ruled to be legal by the MCC in 2010. They welcomed 'innovation' in the game. The shot raises issues about the LBW law, a batsman cannot ordinarily be out LBW if the ball pitches outside the line of the leg stump. It offers a conundrum to captains trying to set their field. But, as Pietersen himself argues, it is a shot executed with considerable risk giving opportunities for the bowler.
The MCC wants to retain the competitive balance between bat and ball.
The switch hit is fabulous entertainment. It is also extremely exciting. There is no greater sight in cricket than a confident KP in full flow. Cricket needs innovators and star quality. Pietersen demonstrated today that he has lost none of his.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

'Angrier, Nastier, Uglier'

There are many heroes and villains in sport and life. This week I read about an unsung hero whose story has not been made available to a wider audience or if it was it has tended to be forgotten or obscured by the role of others and our very short memory spans. I also reminded myself about a villain and how their roles became intertwined. I was shocked at how far we have had to travel in sport and life. I was amazed at what is now considered heroic, but was at the time vilified by many.
In 1968 the Olympic Games were held in Mexico City. The build up to the games was marred by volatile student protest in Mexico and its government's response. Anybody who has ever been to that country cannot fail to be struck by the incredible inequality between haves and have nots. Mexico's government sent in the army. They opened fire on unarmed demonstrators and over 200 people lost their lives. In America black civil rights protests were bloody and fraught.  Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. America was on a precipice.
The Games themselves, held at altitude, featured some extraordinary performances. Nobody who witnessed it will ever forget the mighty one off long jump leap of Bob Beamon. He practically jumped out of the pit on the way to a new world record which stood until 1995. Lee Evans of the USA smashed the 400 m world record. Our own golden David Hemery grabbed the longer hurdles gold medal.
The mens' 200 metres resulted in gold and bronze for USA with a silver for Peter Norman of Australia. It was not the result which caused a sensation, all were amongst the favourites. It was the aftermath. Norman was said to sympathise with the plight of aborigines in his native land and to detest 'racist white government policies'. Winner Tommie Smith (USA) and bronze medallist, John Carlos (also USA), decided to make a lasting and unforgettable political statement at the medal ceremony. Both athletes appeared wearing black socks and no shoes. This was to symbolise 'black poverty'. Smith wore a black scarf for 'black pride'. Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped in solidarity with 'blue collar workers'. He also wore a necklace of beads which represented dead black victims of murder, lynching and other racist atrocities in the US.
 Peter Norman, my unsung hero, supported their protest. All 3 men wore 'Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR)' badges. During the playing of the Star Spangled banner Smith raised his right black gloved hand. Carlos held up his left black gloved hand in symmetrical fashion. The glove in fact belonged to Smith. Both Americans bowed their heads during the playing of the national anthem.

At its conclusion the crowd roundly booed all 3 athletes. I wonder what would have happened today. I am not sure that the outcome would be very different. Sports fans are generally uncomfortable with political interventions in their world.
The Establishment was horrified. The Head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, suspended Smith and Carlos from the US team and the Olympic Village. The US Olympic Committe showed some resistance and were consequently threatened with the exclusion of the entire team. They capitulated. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games.
Avery Brundage had form. He is the villain I referred to. In 1936 when head of the US Olympic Committee he had defended the Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympics as it was the 'national salute of that country'. He was implicated in the replacement of the only 2 Jews on the US team. This was to appease Hitler who did not want Jews on the medal rostrum.

 He opposed an IOC Boycott of the Berlin Games and caused the most pro boycott campaigner to be expelled from the IOC. Astonishingly Brundage was able to replace him on the IOC. He was a leading Nazi sympathiser even after the outbreak of the 2nd World War. He praised the Nazi Regime at a rally in Madison Square after the Berlin Olympics. Brundage secretly showed Leni Riefenstahl's film 'Olympia', a Nazi celebration of those 1936 Games to his friends. By 1968 Brundage had completed his ascent to the summit of the IOC. I am still amazed and appalled by the hypocrisy enshrined in his leadership of such an august organisation.

One of the main stated aims of the OPHR was the removal of Avery Brundage from his headship of the IOC.
As for Smith and Carlos, they were not welcomed back to America, indeed they were shunned. They featured in a hostile front page article in time Magazine with a headline 'Angrier, Nastier, Uglier' which drew its 'inspiration' from the Olympic Motto 'Faster, Higher, Stronger'.
Tommie Smith lamented  ''If I win I am American, not a Black American. But if I did something bad then they would say I am a 'negro' "
Peter Norman was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee. He was shunned by the Australian media. He was not selected for the 1972 Munich Games in spite of the fact that he was ranked 5th in the World and finished third in the Aussie trials.
Smith and Carlos sought refuge in American Football with mixed success. It was only many years later that they were rehabilitated and became heroes to a wider audience. They were welcomed back into the athletics fold and in 2005 a 22 foot high statue of them was erected at San Jose University, California.The following is said of them 'It was their misfortune to be far greater human beings than the leaders of the IOC of the day'.
When Peter Norman sadly died, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.
An Olympic Hero
Salute the documentary film by Matt Norman has been voted best documentary film of 2012.