Sunday, 29 July 2012

Sour Vino

Eerie silence descended upon the crowd on the Mall yesterday as it dawned upon them that home favourite, Mark Cavendish, would not be able to deliver the cherished first home gold, and perhaps worse, that Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan was instead going to be on top of the podium. Vinokourov was banned for 2 years in 2007 for failing a drug test (blood doping) taken during the Tour de France. He was, of course, perfectly entitled to participate in these Games, having served his ban some time ago in much the same way that Team GB's David Millar was eligible. I have written elsewhere of my support for Millar and his journey towards redemption through admission of past crimes and his embracing of the anti doping culture. Had Team GB have triumphed through Cav, I would have been more than happy to salute the role of Millar. Drug bans should be proportionate and equal throughout the world. I am not against longer bans - 4 years would be more appropriate to me thereby guaranteeing the missing of at least one Olympic Games - but sanctions must be universal. WADA has thus far been unable to achieve consensus amongst signatory nations for stiffer penalties, although watch this space.
However the Gold for Vinokourov is quite hard to swallow - an emotional and moral reaction - rather than a legalistic one. Vinokourov has shown not the least repentance since being caught. He won the 2007 TdF time trial, but failed a test the next day. He was targeted by testers because he was closely linked with drug tainted Italian doctor Michele Ferrari. The outcome was no great surprise. Unfortunately in spite of numerous declarations of retirement the Kazakhstani rider returned aged 38 for one last swansong at these Olympics
 The crowd's understandable reaction meant that the early Olympic euphoria was dampened considerably.
On a brighter note, the glorious unified, but ultimately unsuccessful efforts of Team GB in support of Cavendish gladdened the heart.
Team GB Heroes

Sunday, 22 July 2012


If ever there was a vindication of a policy of positive discrimination, it is the case of Hashim Amla, South Africa's current number 3 test batsman. When I originally wrote this he was 282 not out in the First Test of this English Summer at the Oval. It was a brilliant performance. Today he has reached number 1 in the ICC Test Batsmen rankings.
Summer 2012
Overnight Amla is 99 not out and hammering the Aussies in the decisive final test of the latest series.
However it is quite possible that without a controversial selection policy, heavily influenced by racial politics in the Post Apartheid era, Amla would not have been given the opportunity to forge a test career, or if he had initially been given a chance, he would not have survived his initial travails. Ironically he failed in his first 4 innings v England.

Following the fall of the Nationalist Government and the release of Nelson Mandela, South Africa regained its place in the fold of international cricket. Its isolation had deprived South African greats such as Barry Richards, Mike Proctor and Clive Rice of their opportunity to grace test cricket.
In order to redress the imbalance caused by racist policies which prevented the development of cricket amongst 'people of colour', South African cricket introduced a quota system which required that there were at least 4 such players in the national 11 at any one time. The policy led to the advancement of players such as Amla and JP Dumini. Conversely South African born players such as Kevin Pietersen and Jonathon Trott believed themselves to be unfairly disadvantaged. Both decided to qualify for England and are now stalwarts of the English team. Interestingly though Pietersen had shown, but glimpses of the player he would become when competing for selection with Natal in South Africa. Other white players such as Graeme Smith decided to stay and fight successfully for their places.
The policy has been abandoned now, but it undoubtedly had a significant impact. Watching Amla in his pomp, one can only wonder and be thankful that such a player was advantaged by a political decision.

Saturday, 21 July 2012


I was 9 years old and was beside myself with excitement as my first remembered Olympic Games began in Munich in 1972. I had the souvenir scrapbooks and photo albums. I knew about quite a few of the athletes who would become household names such as Lasse Viren and Valery Borzov, foreign and very different, yet compelling human specimens. It was quite a fairytale. 
Suddenly there was the grim interruption of harsh adult reality. Black September Palestinian gunmen stormed the Israeli Team hotel and took hostages. Ultimately the gunmen killed 11 members of the Israeli team. 2 women were widowed as a result. The Games themselves continued. Terrorism should not be allowed to triumph. I cannot fault that decision.

One of those widows, Ankie Spitzer, has been seeking to persuade the Olympic authorities and LOCOG to incorporate a minute's silence into the London 2012 Opening ceremony. The IOC and LOCOG have repeatedly refused. They have refused at every previous Olympics as well. They say that the Opening Ceremony is not the time for commemoration. That refusal was confirmed by IOC President Jacques Rogge today. This is in spite of a campaign which attracted worldwide support and included the backing of President Barack Obama. The US Government stated that "We absolutely support the campaign for a moment of silence to honor the Israeli athletes killed in Munich".
Conversely, Mitt Romney meanwhile sat on his hands. He is a guest of the IOC at the London Games in reward for resolving difficulties with the Salt Lake City Games debacle. He is unwilling to alienate his hosts or court controversy. His position is typical of spineless, self interested politicians.
My position has nothing to do with support for any general Israeli position. It is about decency and respect. 
The Olympic Games were resurrected in 1896 to celebrate an ideal. The Olympic Games resurrected a tradition known as the 'Olympic Truce'. In Ancient Greece rival kings agreed to suspend hostilities during the Games so that athletes could travel in total safety, participate and then return home.

 In Munich that ideal was shattered and people lost their lives. The Israeli athletes were not able to benefit from that 'Truce'. Eleven did not return safely. 
The Israeli team had overcome the trauma of the Holocaust and nonetheless attended the Munich Games in the country of their principal oppressors. Basic decency demands that those who perished are honoured. In my view this should be an integral part of every Opening Ceremony (lest we forget).

The IOC and LOCOG plan a separate ceremony away from the Games venues. They lack the courage to take a stand on a controversial issue. That's no surprise at all. Nowadays the Games is dominated by unedifying commercial considerations. Saccharine schmaltz predominates, lest offence is caused.
The IOC claims that their goal is to 'protect all athletes' and that they are 'searching for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to conflicts around the world'. 

The Olympic Games is about the glory of participation.
On this issue all glory has been surrendered and the IOC has abdicated its moral responsibilities.

Not all was lost. The Italian team staged a silent vigil outside the Israeli team's hotel.
French 4 x 100m relay swimmer Fabien Gilot displayed a tattoo אני כלום בלעדיהם - in English: I am nothing without them. 
His grandmother perished at Auschwitz.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Nostalgia. Scotland the Brave!

These are very difficult and troubled times in Scotland. A massive institution, Glasgow Rangers FC was threatened with extinction, and has been thrown out of the Scottish Premier League (I ignore the legal technicalities). The consequences for other clubs of bravely invoking the rules of sporting integrity are frightening. There is though a feeling amongst some, myself included, that the breaking of the Old Firm mould (hegemony?) may in the long run produce a fairer, more competitive, and infinitely more interesting Scottish Premier League. Sadly some believe, and not without reason, that Glasgow Celtic may be compelled to leave Scottish football altogether and to travel south of the border if in fact they could be accommodated in the English Football pyramid.
This article is not specifically about those matters. The sorry tale recounted above simply brought to my mind a different period in Scottish football history. The period I am referring to began in my early childhood with the ‘Lisbon Lions’ in 1967 and probably endured until about 1977. Surely a  golden era in Scottish football. A time of dazzling inside forwards and wingers to seize the imagination like Little Jimmy Johnstone.
Wembley 1967. Scotland v World Champions England on their own turf. England have not lost for 2 years whereas Scotland did not even qualify for the 1966 World Cup. Amongst the Scottish team are Denis Law, Bobby Lennox and Jim McCalliog. Bestriding midfield is Jim Baxter, maverick and cavalier. Scotland play England off the pitch winning 3 – 2 in front of an adoring Tartan Army of 30,000 fans. To fully mark the occasion Baxter insolently plays keepy uppy near the corner flag. The legend of the Unofficial World Cup Winner is born.
Weeks before in Lisbon, Celtic become the first British club to reach a European Cup final. Against the ultra defensive Inter Milan, Celtic field a team comprising 10 players born within 10 miles of Celtic Park. Milan take the lead after 7 minutes and ‘park the bus’. Celtic pile forward raining shots and eventually prevail 2 – 1. Their frenzied attacking play is later described by Willie Johnstone as ‘dutch football speedied up’. Celtic are still the only Scottish team to reach the final, repeating the feat, albeit unsuccessfully in 1970 against Feyenoord.
Not to be completely overshadowed Rangers for their part reach the Cup Winners Cup final in 1972 defeating Dynamo Moscow 3 - 2 in Camp Nou. Their journey is not without controversy. In an earlier round they are seemingly knocked out on penalties, until it is pointed out that they had in fact won on the away goals rule. Rangers fans invade the pitch in the final with one minute to go effectively ending the match and Dynamo’s fightback. UEFA do not order a replay, but do ban Rangers from Europe for 2 seasons. They could live with that outcome.
Scotland qualify for the World Cup in Germany 1974. England do not. With a team featuring Billy Bremner and Kenny Dalglish Scotland are cruelly denied further qualification when they cannot score past Zaire.
England v Scotland matches are what I remember best. In 1977 Scotland again triumph at Wembley boosting the aura around new manager Ally McLeod. The Tartan Army invade the pitch and stage an outrageous impromptu party. The goal posts are dismantled and ‘pitch souvenirs removed’. The controversy hastens the end of Home International clashes between the two oldest footballing nations.
Scotland travel to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup with high expectations, but Peru burst the bubble 3 – 1 and although Archie Gemmill scores one of the great World Cup goals Scotland go out by one goal. It is the end of an era. I wonder if Scottish football will ever see its like again?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Terry v Ferdinand The Verdict. Disrepute.

What an appalling spectacle the John Terry criminal trial presented at Westminster Magistrates Court this week! Terry was being tried for Racially Aggravated Insulting words or Behaviour. The maximum penalty if convicted by the Chief District Judge was a fine of £2500. The trial  lasted 5 days and no doubt cost thousands. If convicted Terry would undoubtedly have appealed to the Crown Court and the cycle would have started all over again.
As it happens the Magistrate decided that it was 'possible' that it was all a misunderstanding. Given the burden on the Crown to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, the Magistrate had no choice but to acquit Terry. It is no vindication in my view.

There are no winners. The evidence of Anton Ferdinand  and the cross examination of him by Carter Stephenson QC guarantees that the so called ‘Professional Game’ of Association Football will be revealed as about as professional as a vicious game of British Bulldog in the playground. Whilst the ‘Billion Pound’ business of football is marketed to the World, Terry and Ferdinand, no doubt evincing a widespread culture within the game, engaged in an unedifying and puerile battle of verbal abuse designed, supposedly, to put each other off their games. Although they are probably not intelligent enough to realise it, this trial marked a nadir from which they and probably football in this country may never recover. It almost does not matter who wins and who loses, and I am lost now in the who said what when of it all. Both these players, by their conduct have dragged the game and the name of those who play it into the gutter. No wonder Ferdinand did not want to complain to the Police. Who would want his admitted conduct scrutinised before the world. He said in court that he is a ‘Winner’. What a joke, even without an analysis of his footballing record.
Don’t get me wrong, racial abuse is totally unacceptable. Terry should have been before the FA in the week following the game, and if found guilty of racial abuse, banned for a lengthy period. There seems to be to be no worthwhile distinction between this case and that of Luis Suarez. No Police, FA Charge, Tribunal, verdict and banned for 8 games. No appeal either!
I am no supporter of John Terry – read my other posts elsewhere, but I cannot help thinking that Terry was before the criminal court because he is John Terry. That is not right. And this endless circus will go on damaging the soul of the game for a lot longer.

Now is the time for the FA to stamp out the behaviour and tolerated culture behind this incident. The childish, boorish abuse of players and officials. At the eleventh hour We might just then benefit from a less poisonous and vindictive atmosphere within our football grounds generally. Following this verdict, both Terry and Anton Ferdinand should be banned for bringing the game into disrepute. Both have admitted conduct which easily justifies the charge. God help football.
Update 27.7.12
On the day of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics the FA decided to announce that John Terry, but not Anton Ferdinand, would be charged for his part in the above referred to game of insult trading. Whether the timing was intentional or not, it is pretty well buried by the Olympic coverage. Terry intends to defend the charge at a personal hearing. The charge is aggravated by the racial element. If upheld Terry could expect a ban of the magnitude of that handed out to Luis Suarez (8 games). Whilst Terry escaped at the Magistrates Court where the Crown were hampered by the criminal standard of proof. The FA hearing will be decided on the balance of probabilities. I wonder if Ferdinand, who was said to be dismayed by the criminal result, will continue to support the process.
Update 2.8.12
Rio Ferdinand has now been charged by the FA with bringing game into disrepute in the aftermath of the Terry criminal proceedings. This relates to comments about Ashley Cole who was a  witness for Terry and seemingly undermined the case against Terry.
Ferdinand responded to this tweet 

 "Looks like Ashley Cole's going to be their choc ice. Then again he's always been a sell out. Shame on him." Ferdinand responded "I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic! hahahahahahha!!"Ferdinand has denied the charge and requested a personal hearing. This mess has plenty more legs and will continue to contaminate the new season. The FA finds itself engulfed by a racial quagmire.

As I said somewhere else there appears to be no coherence to the decision to bring criminal charges against John Terry, but not against Luis Suarez or vice versa. Apparently it stems from the fact of a complaint by an off duty officer who saw the YouTube footage. That is a ludicrous basis upon which to affect people's lives. In my opinion both Terry and Suarez should have been dealt with promptly by the FA (their regulating body). Many of the issues and difficulties which have flown from this prosecution would have been avoided.The Sport could then get on with a rebuilding process. Instead the circus continues to revolve.
On another note why should the relevant witnesses have to go through the process again.They did not apparently want to be in court the first time. The FA cannot proceed to any findings without testimony. They cannot rely upon the testimony in the criminal proceedings. FA Rule 6.8 which allows the IRC to take account of earlier findings will not be of much assistance here.  The only finding of the lower court was 'not guilty' based upon the Criminal Standard and Burden of  Proof.. Clear guidelines should be worked out between the FA/PFA and prosecuting authorities as to how, in future to deal with these matters. The criminal matter no doubt cost a fortune (max penalty £2500 fine)and used up 5 court days and the time of the Senior District Judge.
Terry announced his retirement from International Football blaming the FA for putting him in an impossible position by bringing the FA Charge. The hearing is tomorrow 24th September. Clearly Terry does not expect to win. Terry's announcement is another empty gesture. Chelsea should prepare for a short term future without their Captain (8 games?) England should prepare to do better with a new centre half.
D Day for John Terry. FA's IRC expected to return its verdict on FA charges today. Chelsea may be without their talisman for some time.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Olympic Rehearsal

Had the opportunity today to catch a close up of Jessica Ennis  and Louise Hazell  as they continued their Olympic preparation at Loughborough's Paula Radcliffe stadium. Both heptathletes appeared in the long jump competition and the Javelin at the meet. My special photographer was on hand to capture them both.
A Particular Favourite
I was surprised to find that I could park for free and without queuing and that I was just one of about 500 people watching. It was certainly a most muted occasion. The positive was that I was able to listen in as both girls received direction from their coaches during the throws. It was intimate. It did make me wonder though at the lack of drawing power of an Olympic Gold medal favourite just 3 weeks before the Games. Of course the British public will get up for the Games, just like Wimbledon, but there must be incredibly little interest in the Sport itself. There is certainly no visible evidence of 'Pre Games legacy'.
Golden Smile
I would like to have seen bus loads of children being brought to the occasion. In just over 3 weeks Jessica Ennis may become practically immortal. What a missed opportunity to get tomorrow's athletes inspired and involved. It might have provided a timely boost to both Jess and Louise as well.
Miss Hazell fascinates me. She just oozes charisma and panache. Maybe not the greatest ever athlete, but she will undoubtedly be a star long after most better athletes have been forgotten.

Photographs Courtesy of BuBu Photography

Thursday, 5 July 2012

IFAB Lives up to its Name

Football is not only beautiful, but simple. The same game is essentially replicated across the planet with universal rules and equipment (in essence). Football's initial rules were formulated in this country by the English FA. Eventually a conference (IFAB) was convened by the FA to seek harmonisation of the rules with its Welsh, Scottish and Irish counterparts. IFAB was born. This was 1886. Some while after the formation of FIFA in 1903 the international footballing community began to get a say in the rule making process. There are 8 votes in total. One each for the original 4 members and 4 for FIFA. A three quarters majority is required for change so consequently change is deliberately difficult to effect.
Rule changes are proposed and then investigated. The Board 's reluctance to make rule changes derives from its mission to preserve the essence and integrity of the game. The game is still highly recognisable to me from my childhood 40 years ago. Off the top of my head I can only think of the back pass rule, the 6 second rule for goalkeepers and a slight amendment to the offside rule (level is onside) as examples of changes to the game.
Much publicity has recently been given to the proposed use of Goal Line technology (GLT). FIFA eventually became a supporter after the fiasco of the 'Lampard Goal' at World Cup 2010. UEFA (Michel Platini) remain deeply opposed. Platini fears that the floodgates will open and than eventually the clamour for technological assistance will lead to the loss of the flow of the game as endless incidents are reconsidered before the game moves on. Others, including this blog, argue that anything which leads to greater accuracy in decision making is to be welcomed. GLT will be of limited significance. The number of disputes about balls crossing the goal line is  minimal.
In a groundbreaking announcement IFAB has approved 2 technological systems. 'Hawkeye', essentially the technology used in sports like tennis and cricket and 'Goal Ref' which involves sensors in the ball and on the goal line. Both provide assistance to the referee within one second of a request.
The implementation of either system will ultimately depend on finances. From now on there will be marked differences from competition to competition in the technology available dependent on the financial resources of the relevant stakeholder.
However you may not have heard about another IFAB decision which, in my view, has far more cultural, religious and diversity significance.
The ban on head scarves (such as the hijab) was temporarily lifted earlier this year. It has now been officially ratified by FIFA.

The ban came into force because the laws of football prohibit equipment that is either dangerous or seemingly makes religious statements.
 The ban came into place 5 years ago. A hugely significant consequence was that Iran was barred from the qualifying tournament for London 2012 because it insisted its players be allowed to wear the banned  head scarves on the field of play. Opponents argued that there were dangers inherent in wearing it for both the player and other participants. Conservative muslin countries such as Saudi Arabia seized upon the ban as an excuse to prevent women participants in football. Muslim observant women are supposed to wear head scarves in public.  IFAB's medical committee decided that the head scarf designs, which incorporate either quick release velcro or magnets,  before it posed no such health risks and FIFA has now accepted these findings.
This is a moment of liberation for muslim observant women of far more significance than GLT will ever be.
However staggeringly one of the first hostile reactions to this positive development came from France. Their Federation announced that head scarves would remain banned for their international teams and their national competitions. There is strong governmental opposition to the display of religious symbolism in France. Muslim fundamentalism is greatly feared. There is bound to be opposition, but I am dismayed that a supposedly progressive Western country should adopt this position!
For more on this subject from those directly affected

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Tour de France The Idiosyncracies

 Tour de France. I love this race. One of the great sporting events of the year with an incredible history and endless sagas - good and bad. A tweet today about a Belgian rider passing through his home town and being allowed/expected to be greeted with hugs without losing his place in the peloton made me think that there are so many special idiosyncracies about this race. What follows are some of them. Please feel free to add to them.
When a rival is inconvenienced by mechanical failure or a crash, opponents do not generally take advantage. Alberto Contador apologised to Andy Schleck during the 2010 TdF after he sped away to gain 40 seconds on Schleck. Contador claimed he had not realised Scleck's predicament. Maybe maybe not. but Contador did not want to be judged by Tour history. He will be anyway for other reasons. (See other posts)
Lanterne Rouge. Poor old last man in General Classification - they used to make him carry a red light beneath his saddle. Some motivation.
The start of most stages comes in 2 phases - le depart fictif - a gentle ambling beginning before the Director's white flag marks the le depart reel. Battle commences.
The purpose of the Tour, started in 1903 was to 'educate and improve the population about their country'. It was felt that most French people knew very little of the geography of their country.

France in hard times suffers from what has become known as  a 'Poulidor Complex'. Raymond Poulidor was the habitual loser against 5 time winner Jacques Anquetil. Surprisingly Poulidor was more popular in France than his compatriot. He never won, but finished on the podium, top 3 finish eight times.
The Tour has never visited Corsica. It is finally going in 2013.
Eddie Merckx ('The Cannibal') won all the available prizes during his first Tour in 1969, King of the Mountains (Polka), Points Classification (Green) and overall winner (Maillot Jaune - first introduced 1919). 5 Tour wins and probably the greatest ever rider. (There is loads about Armstrong in other posts). Merckx was so dominant that he was hated by many French fans and even punched by a spectator during the 1975 race.He broke his jaw too, but still managed second place. However earlier when Merckx' great rival Luis Ocana crashed in 1971 allowing Merckx to take the Tour lead, Merckx, honouring a convention of the Tour, refused to wear the yellow jersey the following day.
Just this last week, Bradley Wiggins, doing his best to stay out of trouble and protect the yellow jersey, managed to get burnt on the arm by a flare wielding fan. The fans are certainly crazy - its part of the special appeal of this race.
Voiture Balai. In a surprising moment of sympathy in 1910, TdF inaugurator Henri Legrange permitted a sweeper vehicle at the back of the race to recuperate those riders who could not continue through exhaustion or inury.
Originally riders were not allowed any outside assistance, could not use replacement bikes and had to carry everything with them throughout the race including burst inner tubes. And food.
Medical controls were first brought in after the death of Tom Simpson of GB on Mont Ventoux in 1967 from a combination of amphetamines, brandy and the intense heat. The previous year, 1966, riders had staged a walking protest during the Bordeaux - Bayonne stage against the introduction of doping controls.
In 1960 the peloton stopped to honour President de Gaulle at Colombay les Deux Eglises in mid course.
The Champs Elysses Finale was first used at the conclusion of the 1975 Tour. According to Mark Cavendish who is bidding to win the final stage in Paris for the 4th successive year "For me its the most beautiful boulevard in the world, its an iconic avenue".
Yesterday Stage 14. Following the hallowed tradition of tapping into the Tour as a great vehicle for protest (or was it just a prankster?) tacks were thrown in the paths of riders. Cadel Evans punctured 3 times. And Bradley Wiggins? He waited for his adversary and caused the peloton to do the same. Bradley just became 'Patron'. He also demonstrated that he gets it - that something more powerful than winning is taking place. Its called Sport in its truest sense.
There is more, so much more. There are 6 stages to go.
Bradley Wiggins became a Tour great yesterday.