Tag Archives: sport

The 2012 Olympics and the deep sporting culture of Britain

Robert Henderson

The  breadth of British sporting involvement is readily shown by the performances in the 2012 Olympics.

The  final medal tally for Britain  was  65 – 29 Gold,  17 silver and 19 bronze. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/aug/05/team-gb-every-olympic-medallist). These were obtained across 17 sports, more than half the sports on offer at the Olympics .

There were  eleven  events in which gold (and often silver and gold as well) was won: athletics, boxing, canoeing, cycling , equestrian events, rowing, sailing, shooting, taekwondo, tennis and , triathlon.

In addition,   there were six events  in which only silver or bronze  was won:  diving, gymnastics , hockey, judo, modern pentathlon , and swimming .

The only sports where a medal was not achieved were: badminton, basketball, beach volleyball,   fencing, football, handball, table tennis,   volleyball, water polo, weightlifting, wrestling, a total of  12.

By way of comparison, the USA, a mature sporting super-power which  headed the medals table with 104,  also won medals in these seventeen sports:  athletics, swimming,  rowing, shooting, diving, football (women), taekwondo, tennis, cycling,  beach volleyball, water polo, gymnastics, fencing,  judo, boxing,  basketball,  and archery. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/datablog/2012/aug/10/olympics-2012-list-medal-winners)

In the history of the Olympics (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/8660580/Olympic-Medal-Table.htm)  t he figure of 29 golds has only been exceeded by the USA,  the USSR/Russian Federation, China, East Germany and  a unified Germany (33 in 1936 and 1992, the first Olympics after German reunification when they benefitted from the immense resource which was the East German Olympic machine).

The USA and Britain are both  mature sporting  first world nations so  it is reasonable to link overall performance with population.  The USA has approximately five times the population of Britain with 311 million (http://geography.about.com/od/obtainpopulationdata/a/uspopulation.htm) against Britain’s 63 million (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/greenpolitics/population/9403215/Census-2011-population-surges-by-3.7-million-in-a-decade.html).  If Britain had the same ratio of medals to population as the USA they would have captured 325 medals.

The jibe made against some sports that they provided  cheap medals because the sport is only practised seriously by relatively few countries is not the  knock-down argument its proponents imagine.   The most popular Olympic sports such as athletics may nominally have national associations of something approaching the total number of nations in the UN (around 200), but  that does not mean most of the nations who have national associations are serious players.  Being generous there are no more than thirty  serious athletic nations and many of those like Jamaica (sprints) or Kenya (distance running) concentrate almost exclusively on a small part of the athletics programme.  Even the most popular and widely played sport in the world, football,  is far from being a sport with depth at the highest level. In the 82 years since the  first World Cup in 1930 only eight nations – Uruguay, Italy, Germany,  Brazil, England,  Argentina,  France, Spain  – have won the cup.   Arguably the best pointer to the strength of a sport is generally  the number of developed countries taking it seriously.

There is also the question of the difficulty of a sport. A good example is the triathlon.  This involves a 1,500 metre swim, followed by a 43 kilometre bike ride and ending with a 10,000 metre run. The three events take place  without  a break between events.

Although a sport growing in popularity participation is tiny compared with athletics, the winner of the triathlon gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, Alistair Brownlee,   ran a time for the triathlon 10,000 metres which was only 97 seconds less than the time run by the winner  – Mo Farah – of the 10,000 metres  run in the Olympic stadium. Had not Brownlee slowed to almost a walk for the last 150 yards or so when he was so far ahead that he could afford to slow and take the prolonged applause of the crowd he would probably have been very close with Farah’s time.

The two times are not strictly comparable.  Farah  had not swum 1,500 metres and cycled 43 kilometres before he ran 10,000 metres.  Then there is the difference between running  round a stadium track and  running on a course which is cross-country  and varies considerably in its topography.  Running in a stadium will  involve sophisticated race tactics because of the inhibitions of the track with many runners clustered together . Running on a cross country course   removes the press of runners close together  because the track is wider and the standard of the runners more variable than would be the case in a track 10,000 metres. Against that the cross-country course will demand regular changes of approaches as the terrain changes and  is not uniformly flat.    It is not unreasonable to suspect that he would be a top class track distance runner very quickly  if he put his mind to it.  It could be that Brownlee , with some track training, would be faster over a  track 10,000 metres than  Farah despite there being far fewer triathletes of quality than track distance runners .

Sports also make vastly different psychological demands on participants.  Some demand far more physical courage than others, most obviously combat sports such as boxing and less obviously activities such as cricket (try facing a truly fast bowler),  pole vaulting, horse riding and  cycling where serious falls and crashes are a constant possibility.  Conversely, there are sports such as golf which require more moral courage because the game is played so much in the mind. It could be that the genetically determined distribution of personality amongst human beings make one type of personality far more common than another.  That could mean there are far fewer potential  participants suited to  one sport than are suited to another.

Just as personality differences in a population may be determine how many people are suited to a sport so may differences of physique.  For example,   if top class high jumpers have to be abnormally tall, there may be a relatively small number of people who could potentially become high jumpers.

The will be weaker sports in the Olympics but the large majority  can make a strong case for being anything but a soft option.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Ire in Babylon

UK Cinema Release Date: Friday 20th May 2011

Official Site: http://www.fireinbabylon.com

Written and Directed by: Stevan Riley

Starring:  Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding, Ian Botham, Jeffery Dujon, Colin Croft

Genre: Documentary

Runtime: 1 hour 27 minutes (approx.)

Between 1980 and 1995 the West Indies cricket team never lost a series, a most remarkable thing. They did this through discovering a discipline they had never consistently shown before and the development of a bowling attack consisting of three or four genuinely fast bowlers,  a fast bowling  lineage which began in the mid 1970s with Holding, Roberts and Daniel and ended in the mid 1990s with Walsh, Ambrose and Bishop.    Their dominance was aided by the failure of umpires to implement the  cricket law banning persistent short-pitched bowling –  arguably because of a fear of being called racist – but  in truth they were formidable  even without bowling four or five short-pitched balls an over.  The runs scored against the West Indies in their period of dominance were almost certainly the hardest earned in the history of Test cricket (the first Test was played in 1877).

Those with no knowledge of cricket  will have read that paragraph and said, no, not interested.  Let them bear with me for a moment.  It is a film about a sporting side but it is far more than that.  Primarily it is  a masterclass in black victimhood and insecurities in which  cricket takes a distant second place. That explains  why  the film has been greeted with such rapture by British  film critics who are  signed up to the “ol’ whitey bad, black good “ liberal agenda  (for a wide range of quotes  see http://www.fireinbabylon.com/press.html).
The Daily Telegraph’s review is typical: “Director Stevan Riley’s joyous and uplifting film is a celebration of a sporting triumph and all its implications for black politics and culture.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/8524438/Fire-in-Babylon-review.html)

The director  Stevan Riley made no bones about the purpose of the film: “a story of freedom, independence and black pride through bat and ball”. (http://www.channel4.com/news/fire-in-babylon-what-lessons-for-west-indies-cricket-now).   The result is a film which is an unrestrained act of pro-black  propaganda,   with whites and England  painted as the colonial oppressors and the Asian populations of the West Indies relegated to the role of non-persons.  Within this context,  the West Indies team of the late 1970s to the mid 1990s is portrayed as a vehicle for the political consciousness of the newly independent West Indian countries; a means by which the black West Indian population  (but not the white or Asian West Indians) could assert  themselves and show themselves to be able to compete with and dominate  their  old colonial masters.

Those not familiar with cricket in general or West Indies cricket in particular will require some background.  The West Indies is not a nation state. Rather it is a collection of British ex-colonies in the Caribbean  (Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados being the main islands) plus one on the South American continent (Guyana).  Cricket is the only thing which brings them formally together.

The history of West Indies cricket is a mirror of the racial and ethnic tensions  in the ex-colonies.  The team until the 1970s  was a mix of whites, blacks and Asians (mainly those who had ancestors who came from the Sub-continent).   Until 1960 the West Indies cricket team (known as the Windies) was always captained by a white man, apart from the odd match where injury or other absence of resulted in no  suitable white player  being available.

Throughout the period of white captains there was a growing restlessness amongst black West Indians for a black captain. After the appointment of the first  black man ,  Frank Worrell,  to the (regular)  captaincy in  1960,   the  participation  of  white and   Asian  players  steadily  diminished  – in the case of whites it might be truer to  say effectively  ended.  Geoffrey Greenidge was  the last  white   player to represent the West Indies (in 1972) before Brendon Nash appeared in  2008 (and he was a white Australian who qualified for the West Indies through his mother), while   no Asians were chosen between  Larry Gomes’  final appearance   in 1986 and Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s debut in 1994.  This left a side entirely composed of black West Indians.   In the late 1980s the Windies Captain Viv Richards  proudly described his side as “a team of Africans”.

There is no mention in the film of this exclusion of whites and Asians from the Windies side during their period of dominance, nor Viv Richard’s celebration of the fact that he was leading  an all  black side.   This is scarcely surprising because those interviewed in the film are all black and the interviewer did not ask awkward  questions.   Famous white cricketers and commentators such as Geoff Boycott , Ian Botham and Jeff Thompson who had played against the Windies during their period of dominance   were interviewed by the director,  but strangely not a single interview of a white man conducted for the film  appeared in the film. Tellingly, white faces were almost  absent from the film  except for the action shots. Ditto Asians.   Instead the film was packed with interviews with  West Indian cricketers and  commentators who had either played in or seen the Windies at their height , and film or commentary of black West Indian   celebrities such as Bob Marley,  Bunny Wailer, Lord Short Shirt, Burning Spear  (no, I  am not making the names up) and Gregory Isaacs who happily mixed with players such as Viv Richards.

A  deep-rooted black paranoia shows itself in the interpretation as patronising of white attitudes and responses which are at worst neutral and at best complimentary.  The  description “Calypso cricket” by whites  is interpreted  as  meaning that West Indian sides play in an attractive but brittle and unthinking way. In reality it was simply a bit of lazy labelling by journalists and broadcasters  without any intent to patronise or insult.

Australians turning out in  great numbers to applaud the West Indies touring party as they toured the streets of Melbourne at the end of the 1960/61 series against Australia was dismissed as Australians being happy to applaud losers (they lost the series 2-1).  In fact, they were being applauded because the series was (1)  thoroughly exciting with the first tied Test in history and (2)  Test cricket was going through a period when it was feared that slow, defensive play was killing the public’s appetitive for the game and the series was seen as a  renaissance of attractive cricket.

The only instance in the film of a white man suggesting that the Windies were chokers was made by  the England captain in the 1976 series between the Windies and England. This was the South African Tony Greig (playing  for England after qualifying residentially) predicting  before the series that the Windies “would grovel”.  Had he made the comment about Australia or an Australian made it about England it would have just been treated for what it was, a bit of “pre-fight” banter. In the film it is treated with an immense  earnestness as if it was the deadliest of insults.

This outrage is very odd because the central  thesis of the film is that until the late 1970s the Windies were a team  which often contained great individuals,  but hich was all too prone to not playing as a team, whether that be because of racial strife (especially under white captains) ,  the difficulties of bring people together from different countries in a representative team or the lingering effects of colonialism which led to an unconscious lack of belief in themselves.  (The alleged weaknesses  were supposedly only cured after Clive Lloyd became captain and  eventually moulded the Windies into a relentless machine for winning. )

This  story is some way adrift from reality. It is untrue that the Windies were a consistently brittle side  before Clive Lloyd became captain. They always had great players and in the space of four years in the  1960s they won two series in England and beat the Australians in the West Indies.  By 1965 they had good claims to be the strongest side in the world.  That they  declined towards the end of the 1960s and early 1970s was simply the natural consequence of a great side growing old and losing important players.  In short, it was simply  what any top cricketing  Test side experiences,  peaks and troughs of performance.

One of the most intriguing passages is the series between  Australia and the Windies in 1975/76 when the Australian fast bowlers Lillie and Thompson physically knocked the Windies about so badly that the series was lost 6-1.  That was time when the Windies captain Clive Lloyd decided on playing a three or four man fast bowling attack. In fact, what appears to have been the real turning point was the rebel Packer matches of a few years later. Kerry Packer was an Australian media mogul who signed up (to the horror of the national cricket boards who banned the players from playing Test cricket) many of the best  cricketers in the world, including most of the Australian and West Indies players.

The Packer series began badly for the Windies who folded weakly in an early match. According to the film,  Packer came into Windies dressing room and gave them a tongue-lashing along the lines of improve or you will be on a plane home.  Packer also arranged for then to use a  physiotherapist and fitness trainer by the name of Denis Waite because he was doubtful about their fitness. (http://www.catholicnews-tt.net/joomla/index.php?view=article&catid=49:sports&id=174:sports010209&option=com_content&Itemid=82).  Waite, a white Australian, got them fit and psychologically prepared.  By the end of Packer’s rebel games (they lasted two years) the Windies had started to win relentlessly.  It could be argued that the Windies built their later success on a platform constructed by two white men, Packer and Waite.

The other great  hand-up from ol’ whitey was the decision of the English cricket authorities in 1969 to relax the qualification rules for county cricket, the English domestic first class teams.  This meant that foreign players, including most of the major West Indian cricketers of the period 1970-1995, were able to play regular professional cricket in England. This both gave the Windies players a regular source of income from cricket (something which had never  been readily available before)  and a great deal of experience both of playing and English conditions and culture.

After 1995 the great days were over, although they were still competing for another five years or so as the great old players held the team together. After 2000, the Windies team declined rapidly until it became a pathetic shadow of what it had been only a few years before.  Why did this happen? Perhaps it was this:

“The things that had driven us in the past were no longer important to the newer generation. Black pride and its militancy, the shrugging off of our colonial legacy, Frank Worrell completing the West Indian version of the Jackie Robinson journey, these things have been historically severed” Calypsonian David Rudder on the difference between the 80s and today (http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/483624.html)

If Rudder is correct, that paints a bleak picture of the future of the West Indies not only as cricketers but generally.  What he is saying is that only the mixture of anger and fear left by colonialism is sufficient to energise West Indians.

From a purely cricketing point of view the film offers  many examples of great fast bowlers in action.  Those too young to have watched cricket in the 1970s and 1980s should watch the film and see the  difference between genuine fast bowling and what passes for it  now.  In particularly I was reminded of what a nightmare Jeff Thompson was at his best , not merely one of the fastest  of bowlers, but one with an uncanny knack of getting a ball to rear into a batsman’s face from barely short of a length. Most of the action shots are of batsmen being hit or nearly hit, which is a little unedifying,  but they  do  give  a graphic idea of exactly how much courage and skill is required to face great fast bowling.  The most poignant shots are  those of a 45-year-old Brian Close batting against Holding and Roberts in 1976 before the era of helmets and being repeatedly hit on the body, an assault he met with a remarkable stoicism.

Those wanting  a flavour of the film can click on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n57LPYiragE

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