Monday, 18 February 2013

Pistorius - A Most Sensational Case

Latest 22.2.13
Pistorius was in court this morning hoping to hear that he will get bail. His coach was already planning the resumption of light training next week. This seemed to  be premature and optimistic at best. Meanwhile interest could not be greater.
The answer re bail eventually arrived at about 1330 our time. Pistorius was bailed with conditions including surrender of passport and guns and payment of a surety. The Magistrate concluded that the State had not satisfied him that any objections to bail could be made out. The case remains nonetheless a Schedule 6 premeditated murder case. The Magistrate expressed serious reservations about the Pistorius account.
The decision and the whole process seems pretty incredible to an English Criminal lawyer. I cannot believe that Pistorius would have been bailed here. A young woman senselessly lost her life at his hands. He fired a weapon several times when it was impossible to argue that there was sensible justification. He was also in possession of an illegal weapon and would be facing a serious sentence here for that alone.
I doubt very much that Pistorius will be able to resume training. The psychological difficulties and the  public scrutiny will make this immensely difficult. It is hard to imagine that the Paralympian can resume his career in any event. For me, its over. His moment is gone.
The Arguments
The world is coming to terms with the ever more sensational and horrifying details emerging from South Africa with regard to the killing of Reeva Steemkamp, seemingly at the hands of Oscar Pistorius, early Police reports leaked to and published by the media, and myself,  asserted that  illegal steroids had been recovered from the Paralympians home address where the killing took place.
The South African Police Service  (SAPS) has not been slow to disclose evidence to the media and indeed seems to be conducting a mini trial in front of the world's press. Speculation was rife initially that Pistorius may have killed Miss Steenkamp accidentally. SAPS were very quick to refute that possibility. Pistorius had not even appeared in court at that stage. Police and consequent Press reports  indicated that he had been drinking heavily, had rowed with his girlfriend in the hours before the shooting (possibly, according to South African press reports about texts to Miss Steenkamp from Francois Hougard, a Springbok rugby player and former boyfriend of the victim), had fired a number of shots through a locked bathroom door hitting his victim a number of times. The case then took an even more lurid turn when a bloodied cricket bat was allegedly recovered from the scene. It was suggested that Miss Steenkamp's skull had been damaged by something other than a bullet. Miss Steenkamp's family were told by the Police that Pistorius had smashed her skull with the bat prior to the shooting. They say that they witnessed horrific head injuries before her body was cremated. This will undoubtedly form a major plank of the prosecution case at trial. It was not revealed at the bail hearing. Whilst this assisted the athlete in getting bail, he was forced into making a sworn declaration which may come back to haunt him. The bloodied bat is likely to become as synonymous with the case as OJ Simpson's 'bloodied glove'. The defence tactic of attacking the investigating officer, Botha, was, in part, an early attempt to cast doubt upon the integrity of the crime scene, the very same ruse employed by OJ's lawyers in respect of avowedly racist cop, Mark Fuhrman.
 It is hard to imagine that so much detail would be available so quickly in the UK and it certainly could not be published.
SAPS were keen to stress at an early stage that Pistorius would be undergoing psychiatric evaluation, but also that drug tests were being carried out.
The defence countered today at the bail hearing which is now adjourned into a 3rd day that the 'steroids' are in fact a herbal remedy delivered in syringes called Testo compositum (little known). The truth will undoubtedly be established on this point in due course, but for now the whole case seems to be about points scoring re bail (perhaps the only victory that Pistorius could hope for (not to go to a prison where his prostheses would be removed as potential weapons and he would be helplessly confined to a wheelchair). The defence also discredited claims that witnesses heard a lengthy shouting match. They were seemingly some distance away. The Investigating Officer Botha, seemed hesitant and ill prepared for interrogation in court. This is hardly surprising. The case is being conducted like a full scale trial before the evidence has been properly considered. In the UK I suggest that such a bail hearing would last about half an hour, be held in private and would almost certainly consider the current state of the prosecution case at its highest. Pistorius would not get bail here.
Breaking news this morning 21st February 2013 is that yesterday Botha was informed that SAPS are reinstating Attempted Murder charges against him in relation to an incident in 2011 when he and other officers fired at a taxi. Even less surprising that he performed so badly yesterday, but one can only wonder at a decision to place him in charge of such a high profile investigation when he is under such an enormous cloud himself. They certainly do things differently in South Africa.
The fact remains that Pistorius' story is incredibly weak and implausible on many levels. Putting so much of his case in the public domain at this stage in a sworn affidavit in an attempt to get bail is a high risk strategy. Robert Shapiro, the man who defended OJ Simpson in another notorius case involving a sporting superstar, declared that the defence tactic of declaring there hand in writing at this early stage was unprecedented in his experience and dangerous, because Pistorious would now be effectively held to that declaration. For instance claiming that he was not wearing his prostheses when he fired the shots (why did he ever need to?) can easily be disproved by firearms experts unless true. It was pitch black, he claimed, so he did not see  his girlfriend was not in bed, but he managed to arm himself with a lethal weapon and discharge it several times without bothering to 'find out' who was the other side of a locked door. Presumably the lights worked in his luxury house. His defence counsel has a far bigger battle to fight in future than bail. The prosecution suggest flight risk. Certainly  Pistorius might find that attractive given his trial prospects.
The World is in shock because Oscar Pistorius represented an almost entirely positive image for sport, for disabled persons and for South Africa. He has frequently been described as a national hero and beacon of hope. He first appeared at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens aged 17. His legend has grown ever since. His progression through Beijing to London 2012, his achievement in breaking down barriers by being the first disabled man to compete at the Olympics against able bodied athletes, has seen him rise to become a global icon. This has been coupled with an explosion in commercial opportunities for Pistorius himself and the accumulation of substantial wealth. He is said to have earnt £5m from commercial endorsements last year.
This week Nike has been forced to withdraw an ill fated and ill advised advertising campaign which featured the athlete as the 'bullet in the chamber'. Nike has suffered a series of high profile disasters amongst its stable of sporting superstars (Armstrong and Woods) and currently appears jinxed.
Pistorius has found himself under unbelievable pressure to continue to improve and to aspire to new heights. He did not in fact meet the qualifying standards for the able bodied 400m individual event, but the South African authorities and the IOC, perhaps mindful of his commercial and marketing value, value let him compete anyway (he reached the semi finals where he came 8th in his race). With the able bodied World Championships this year and the Comonwealth Games in 2014 Pistorius would be expected to push for qualification for the finals. Pistorius needed to keep the story moving forward.
Within South Africa he has been identifed as a rare unifying force, but there have reportedly been signs that the role model mask has been slipping in recent times. The World's first glimpse of a less heroic side to Oscar Pistorius came during the London 2012 Paralympics.

After Oscar Pistorius was, perhaps surprisingly, beaten in the T44 200m final by Alan Oliveira of Brazil, he complained bitterly about his opponent's blades, suggesting that Oliveira had crucially and unfairly increased his stride length. It is right to say that he had also raised the issue in advance of the race. Nonetheless this was a side to Pistorius at odds with his public image as the pin up boy of both Paralympism and the Olympics. There was also a certain irony about the South African complaining of unfairness given his own battle to be allowed to compete in able bodied events against protests of an unfair advantage from his blades (see  Court of Arbitration for Sport here). A slightly touchy side to Pistorius was revealed during a BBC interview with Rob Bonnet in September 2011. When pressed about his desire to compete in able bodied events and about criticism from Dame Tanni Grey Thompson that he was somehow devaluing the Paralympic event, he terminated the interview abruptly listen here

Fallen Icon

Details are now emerging of some less than savoury moments in the Pistorius biography. Hints of previous domestic violence and Police reports of Pistorius being let off with  a warning by SAPS after a female complained of assault and other slightly wild behaviour. None of that though comes close to explaining this tragic tale.
However the theory of 'steroid abuse' or 'roid rage' remains a possibility (although the hard evidence does not seem to exist contrary to what was originally suggested by SAPS). Did Pistorius succumb to the temptation of illegal doping through the use of steroids in order to maintain his stellar progression and iconic status in World Sport? He has never failed a drugs test, indeed he passed 2 tests during the Summer of 2012 but then that can be said of many of the previous fallen (Armstrong, Marion Jones et al). Drug testing rigour throughout the world is currently under severe scrutiny with widespread doubts about its ability to compete with the dopers through lack of resources.
There is plenty of evidence of the dangerous side effects of steroid abuse. Pistorius is said to have revealed a number of worrying traits in recent times including possessiveness in relation to Miss Steenkamp, notwithstanding their short relationship, but also an obsession with security issues, and more seriously with guns (he was in possession of an illegal weapon).
Steroid abusers are known to be subject to mood swings and to tend towards increased aggressiveness. The drugs can provoke overreactions and extreme aberrations of behaviour (even suicide). The abuse of steroids may also unmask an underlying psychiatric disorder.
There is no evidence yet that this can explain even to a degree the terrible events of last week, but if this proposition proves to be correct, then the world of sport and society as a whole will be forced to confront an even more urgent need to address drug abuse in sport.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Death of Democracy

In 1980 Zimbabweans celebrated as their country emerged from British white rule and UDI  to become independent. Hopes for a new and prosperous nation were short lived however.

Hopes Dashed
The regime of President Robert Mugabe, which endures to this day through brutality, corruption and repression, has brought nothing but misery to the country.
The following statistics perhaps more than any demonstrate the sorry decline in living standards.

Life expectancy at birth for males in Zimbabwe has declined from 60 years to 42 years. A Zimbabwean can hope to enjoy good health for only 39 years. Infant mortality has risen from 53 deaths per 1000 children to 81. By 2009 1.2 million Zimbabweans had HIV. 

10 years ago this week during the 2003 Cricket World Cup Andy Flower, now England Cricket Director, but then a Zimbabwean legend nearing the end of his cricket career and Henry Olongo, a young black fast bowler, united to stage a dramatic protest. They issued the following statement:

"In all the circumstances, we have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe. In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we pray that our small action may restore sanity and dignity to our Nation".

Both players sported black armbands in a World Cup match in Zimbabwe.
In so doing they effectively ended their international careers and both were forced to leave their homeland. Neither has returned.
Little has changed in Zimbabwe over those last 10 years, but the 'Black Armband Protest' demonstrably cast a spotlight on the injustice wrought upon the people of Zimbabwe,

Few sportsmen have entered the political arena in such stunning fashion. There are of course parallels with Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Mexico Olympics Black Power Protest. Their exile calls to mind Basil D'Oliveira.
In 2009 at the height of political resistance to the 're - election' of President Ahmadjinedad in Iran, 7 Iranian national team players wore green armbands, symbolising solidarity with the Opposition, during a World Cup qulaifier in Seoul, South Korea. In a demonstartion of the power of a simple gesture, the live TV coverage was blacked out in Iran. The players were ordered by their coach to remove the armbands at half time. The captain Mehdi Mahdavikia retained his throughout the game however. The Government later announced that the players 'had been retired'.

Player Solidarity with Opposition Protest

Henry Olonga, who forfeited a career which might have endured for years,  has since forged a new life as a musician and public speaker in the UK. 
Asked about his motivation, Olonga stated that he wanted to be 'the slave who defies the emperor'. It had been Flower's idea after he read about the torture of a prominent opposition politician. Flower knew that the protest needed a black figurehead and that Olongo could be that man. The pair were not personally close, but united behind a common cause.
Flower of course has been as successful as a coach as he once was as a player. He averaged 51 as a test player.
He has coached England to 2 successive Ashes series victories. He has raised significant sums for Zimbabwean charitable causes and to fight melanoma.

United Against Injustice
Regrets? Olonga summed it up best "if I hadn’t embraced the moment, I could have been a nobody, had a mediocre World Cup, and no one would have remembered. Now I’m remembered as the guy who wore a black armband".
Breaking News 12.2.13
Sout Korean footballer Park Jong Woo has been allowed to receive his Olympic Bronze medal from London 2012 in spite of breaching the Olympic Charter by holding up a banner at the end of an Olympic match which proclaimed 'Jokdo is Ours'. The IOC Discipline Commission has let him off with a severe warning and South Korea has been obliged to introduce an education programme.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Gazza - Tears for a Clown

Desperate news today that Paul Gascoigne has seemingly fallen off the wagon and plunged back into alcohol having checked himself out of the Sporting Chance clinic. He had seemingly been doing so well until he made an unfortunate public appearance in Northampton last week where he was said to be shaking and rambling about whisky. Gazza's Agent Terry Baker has called for help saying Paul's life is constantly in danger. The PFA however publicly stated today that they have frequently tried to assist the former England player including by paying for rehabilitation. They cannot however help somebody who will not be saved.
Whenever I read these headlines I feel guilty.
Memories of Gazza nearly always make me smile. But frequently he fades from my and public consciousness until we are prodded back into reality by some such similar headline, and I remember his now desperate situation.
I am also reminded (by Twitter today) that there is an unsavoury side to Gazza's history (domestic violence) which should not be pushed to one side.
The last time I saw Gazza live was when he was playing in Martin Keown's testimonial at Highbury in 2004. In many ways it was a sad and poignant occasion (no disrespect to Keown). Gazza was really up for it and displayed many of his old skills, but this was a friendly at best and meaningless. The real show was over. Highbury too was on its way out, faded, falling down and soon to be effectively demolished. Remembrance of Things Past was the theme. Gazza seemed to need the limelight and the adulation a little too much.

Unfulfilled Talent

Gazza's career is full of regrets. His peak was 1991, but only because after an outrageous cup run during which he decimated Arsenal in the semi final (the free kick) he injured his knee with a ludicrous tackle on Gary Charles and was never the same again. Self inflicted disaster is the theme of his life.
Gazza emerged in World Cup 1990 against Holland when he showed himself capable of playing with the best. His brilliance nearly carried England to the Final, but ended in penalty tears.
The Roman years with Lazio brought Italian football to the consciousness of many English fans, including myself, and also demonstrated the technical gulf between Serie A and the EPL. Gazza though was perfectly at home in technical terms in that footballing environment.
Gazza's greatest moments thereafter were during Euro 1996 when England, inspired by Gascoigne's inate ability to keep the ball,  played with an unforgettable swagger and came within a Gazza toe poke of reaching the Final. Nobody who witnessed it will ever forget our 4 - 1 destruction of Holland.
During the 1997 World Cup qualifier against Italy in Rome, Gazza, in company with Paul Ince, orchestrated a 0 - 0 draw which secured qualification for the World Cup in France, but sadly Gascoigne failed to make the Finals. His demons had taken over by then and he was in no fit state, per manager Glenn Hoddle to perform.

Star Emerges Italia 90

After that tearful exit, Gascoigne was never really the same again.
I remember another testimonial in Leicester in 1998 when Gazza was said, by Chris Evans who shared the dressing room for the match, to be smoking like a chimney and shaking like a leaf.
I just wish it could all be different and that the the seemingly inevitable never in fact happens. So if anybody can talk Gascoigne back into the clutches of Sporting Chance please do so quickly.

Post Script 6.2.13
Gazza has now gone to a rehabilitation facility in America. Friends such as Gary Lineker and the aforementioned Chris Evans are said to have paid for this treatment. Sheryl Gascoigne is also said ot be helping the former star.
Update 9.2.13
Reports tonight that Gazza is in intensive care in Arizona where he has travelled to enter a rehabilitation facility - say it ain't so!
Better News 11.2.13
Apparently Gazza was admitted to hospital and into intensive care as a precaution following a severe reaction to detoxification treatment, but he is now on the right track and it is hoped he can leave hospital shortly and resume treatment at the Arizona facility.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Sisterhood Trilogy (Part 3 Women's Football)

Last night at the FA Awards England's Women's Football team was given the Club EnglandTeam Award. Suddenly the profile of the female version of the game is soaring.
If I look back a year it is very hard to remember exactly where we were with Women's Football (except that a year ago Women's 'soccer' probably resonated more than 'football'). Since then I have been compelled to fall in love with the 'even more Beautiful Game' and to be amazed at the rapid and worldwide progress of the women's version. Here are some personal thoughts on the last 12 months.
 Meeting Lianne Sanderson (my hero), watching Women's Super League games live, admiring the utterly unfussy competence of referee Sian Massey, being stunned by the crowds and play at the Olympics, were some of the highlights. The atmosphere at Coventry Stadium as fans from Canada, Japan, South Africa, Sweden and football lovers generally, converged for a double headed football fiesta was joyous. The football was good too and it was quite easy to predict that Canada would go far (they reached the Semi Final losing controversially to USA). The Japanese were technically adroit, the Swedes physically dominant, the Africans raw but skilled and the Canadians an very effective combination of all the above.
Quietly Competent

 Football in the Middle East continues to grow and barriers are coming down albeit slowly and in spite of conservative opposition. There are more games, tournaments and opportunities. More of this in a future post when hopefully I will be able to report directly. The health benefits to nations with inactive population time bombs are obvious and the need to get people exercising will overwhelm the 'religious objections'. What is required is an imaginative commitment to funding. Some vested interests are standing in the way and protecting the status quo.
Women's Super League is expanding to 2 divisions from Summer 2014. Broadcasters are planning terrestrial (essential) and satellite coverage. In my view this factor alone will take Women's Football interest and participation to a whole new level. For Gary Lineker read Jacqui Oatley. The Women's Game can only benefit by comparison with some of the more tawdry elements of the Men's game. Sponsors are inevitably going to be attracted by a cleaner, but no less competitive environment, as yet unsoiled by the commercialism and materialism of the male version. There are role models aplenty.
Clare Balding is quoted as saying:
 "Women's football has massive advantages – players aren't abusive to referees, they don't spit, swear or dive and there is no racist abuse. It is a very clean sport as well as being skilful and I think its moment is here."
I have seen all this for myself. There were no Bales or Suarez in the WSL.
Meanwhile New Women's Soccer League (NWSL) has announced the latest rebirth of US Women's Pro Soccer. This model seems more considered and mature, compared to previous incarnations, with the US, Canadian and Mexican Soccer Federations financing 24 international players, thus guaranteeing a quality league whilst reducing club costs and financial exposure. The league is phasing its filling of 'rosters' with the 8 teams gradually acquiring the star names which will eventually thrill the fans. This slow burning PR exercise is frustrating some whilst wetting the appetites of others. It will soon be with us, the kick off is mid April (22 games to end August) .
I already know where Ms Sanderson will play, but cannot say, sorry. Newsflash its Boston Breakers!
Secret Location Revealed

 A stunning example of the development of the game is tiny Montenegro. UEFA reports that since the Former part of Yugoslavia joined UEFA in 2007 the number of registered female players has increased by 400%. There have been competitive debuts at junior and senior levels in European events.
Women's sport gets about 5% of media coverage and 0.5% of corporate sponsorship. Only 4 players per team can earn more than £20,000 in the WSL. England players recently got their salary package upped to a paltry ('embarrassing' per PFA Chairman Gordon Taylor) £20,000. International players supplement their income working 2 jobs. However the money will follow as the transition gathers pace. 75,000 people attended Team GB's first Olympic match last Summer. Still Birmingham v Arsenal Ladies in WSL in September attracted less than 1000 fans so there is of course a long way to go.
The FA has announced a 5 year plan to turn Women's Football into the second most popular sport in England after the men's game but in front of men's cricket and rugby. This is a wholly realistic target.