Friday, December 28, 2012

The Greatest Sporting Performance of 2012

So it’s congratulations to Bradley Wiggins on claiming the mantle of Sports Personality of the Year. And although my vote went to the redoubtable Ellie Simmonds, it is difficult to begrudge Wiggins the award following his victory in the Tour de France and subsequent Olympic gold. What’s more he’s demonstrated a fair amount more √©lan than the usual sporting suspects who can barely manage an interview beyond the normal “Actually, at the end of the day, it was, actually, quite a tough contest in a game of two halves. Actually.” Here’s a man who can conduct his interviews in French, a mixture of post-Mod chic and laconic wit. And he should probably get those sideburns insured.

Still, it irritates me that ‘Wiggo’ has got such a poor nickname. It must say something about the British psyche that the sporting world and its journalists can’t move beyond a standard formula (shorten surname, and/or, add –a, -y or –o suffix). There was a time when English cricket was stuck in this rut, with the likes of Harmy, Stewy, Goughy and so on and on and on. It reached the stage where it was a blessed relief to find an Athers to break the monotony.  Now the guys on Test Match Special chortle heartily at how they must explain to their Indian colleagues why Alistair Cook is known as ‘Chef’. How far we’ve come. Yet Wiggins did at least manage to make the journos think. Wiggly and Wiggster were dismissed out of hand and Wiggy was quite obviously never going to be an acceptable moniker, whilst Wigga would have left the sub-editors with a dangerous bout of hypertension. Wiggo it is then.

Bradley Wiggin’s achievements in 2012 were indeed great. Olympic gold is rare enough but to win cycling’s premier endurance race as well is truly remarkable. The fact his SPOTY accolade was, in part, a reflection of the fact that he was the first Briton to win the Tour only serves to cheapen his triumphs. His victories have been stunning enough without locating them in the past failings of an imagined community. Bradley Wiggins would be a sporting icon if he had been the twentieth British winner of the Tour de France. Besides, he was born in Belgium and his dad’s Australian, so some of you need to get a grip with the national pride.

All of which begs the question, I’m sure you will agree, of what was the greatest sporting achievement of the year? The BBC’s Overseas Sports Personality honour went to Usain Bolt, following his triple gold medal haul at the London Games. No quibbles here given that he is the pre-eminent global sporting superstar and, quite simply, bloody awesome. It is a mark of how incredible an athlete he is – not to mention how churlish I can be – that I was disappointed by his failure to break any world records at the Olympics.

Another contender would be Hashim Amla, the South African batsman whose imperious form made a quality English bowling attack look positively ordinary. His 311 at the Oval was probably the finest innings I’ve never seen and he was a leading contender for beard of the year as well! And, lest I risk the wrath of at least one middle distance fan, I simply cannot fail to mention the performance of David Rudisha at the Olympics. The Massai middle-distance runner won the 800m title and in the process became the first person to break the 1:41.00 barrier. That he did so with such breath-taking grace guarantees his place amongst the greats of track and field.

And, finally, who can forget the unbelievable Sebastian Vettel, the youngest triple World Champion Formula 1 has ever seen? Well, me for one. Well done, Seb, ol’ chap, but let’s face it, F1 is basically an advertising exercise carried out at ridiculous speed. Essentially he’s a crazed taxi driver with less interesting chit-chat. Nuff said.

So, to the winner of the very first Inside Left Sporting Performance of the Year Award. For me there was only ever one victor, one person who produced a performance that – quite literally – made me jump up and shout “NO FUCKING WAY!!!” And that was Aries Merritt who broke the 110m hurdles record in Brussels. He didn’t just break the world record, he smashed it, taking over a tenth of a second off the previous best. When Usain Bolt broke the men’s 100m record by a tenth of a second he was rightly lauded as the incredible athlete of his generation. Merritt managed the same achievement but did so whilst hurdling three and a half foot barriers. And he ran an extra 10 metres. It was a stunning athletic feat, coupling unerring speed with technical brilliance. For this he is the very first winner of the ILSPOTYA. I’m sure he’ll be dead chuffed and his mum will be oh-so-proud. And for those of you that want to know what I’ve been gobbing off about, you can see it in the video below. Happy new year y’all.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sports Personality of the Year

Wow, is it really that time of the year again? Tonight is the Beeb’s annual Sport Personality of the Year shindig which is, for the first time in a very long time, bordering on the genuinely interesting. Though the fact that I am yet to buy a single Christmas present is a far more pressing and urgent matter. For those of you not in the know the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award was inaugurated way back in 1954 and is dished out annually to the British sports star deemed to have had the biggest impact in the calendar year.

Of course this means that SPOTY – the irritating shorthand by which the award has come to be known – has approximately sod all to do with sporting personalities, a point that can be well illustrated by a quick glance at past winners which include the likes of Michael Owen, Nigel Mansell, Zara Phillips, Nick Faldo and Damon Hill (TWICE!). While they may well have excelled in their respective sporting fields they hardly lit up our lives with dazzling wit and repartee. 
Rather SPOTY (eugh!) is a signifier of sporting achievement: sportsmen and women are judged not on their persona but on the magnitude of their success. Yet because athletes representing a whole number of sports are involved objective criteria are inevitably impossible.  Modern codified sports may operate on the basis that success and failure are quantifiable, thus the team that scores the most goals/tries/runs/points is deemed the winner, but how are we supposed to measure the relative merits of success across two or more sports? Is Chris Hoy’s sixth Olympic gold medal a greater accomplishment than Rory McIlroy’s eight-shot victory at the US PGA Championship or Wiggo's Tour and Olympic double more impressive than Mo's long-distance double? Well, don’t ask me, how the bloody hell am I meant to know?

The irony of it all is that, in the main, the shortlist for this year’s award flies in the face of the oxymoronic history of the Sports Personality award. Not only does it contain a number of candidates who you might actually consider to be ‘characters’, it is also chock full of wonderfully interesting biographies. From the Somali asylum seeker (Mo Farah) to the trailblazing female boxer (Nicola Adams) all the way through to the rower who won Olympic gold after three consecutive silvers (Katherine Grainger) there is a wealth of backstory providing a human interest angle to counterbalance the medal count. The selection is also more inclusive than in previous years: five of the shortlist are women, and three are Paralympians.

None of which, unfortunately, gets us any closer to working out who ‘deserves’ the award. And the issue is complicated further by the question of nationalism. Sporting triumphs are assessed by what each person has achieved but are then, in turn, measured against the past successes (and, more accurately, failures)  of British sportspeople. So it is not enough to say that Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, you must say that he is the first Briton to ever win the event. Similarly, one cannot talk of Andy Murray’s victory at the US Open without noting that he is the first British man to win a Grand Slam tournament since Fred Perry some 76 years ago. Thus the line-up of sporting heroes not only competes against each other but also against a country’s sporting history. At one and the same time such comparisons both inflate and diminish the scale of today's success. And all the while politicians argue that sporting glory is a cause for happiness and an indication of the health of the nation.

It is this nationalism, as much as the acronym itself, which makes me baulk at SPOTY. And, in the year of the London Olympics you can expect tonight’s BBC event to be as much an exercise in self-congratulatory backslapping as it is an award ceremony. But as someone once said – I can’t for the life of me remember whether it was Marx or Trotsky – you can’t be neutral on the question of Sports Personality of the Year. Without doubt it’s about time a (non-royal) female athlete won the award again, and it is also an excellent opportunity to mark the success of athletes who competed at the Paralympics. Any socialists tuning in tonight should keep their fingers crossed that either Sarah Storey or Ellie Simmonds will cap 2012 with yet another victory.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Adorno and the 'where were you when you were shite' theorem

Following my piece Sports Fans, Death Threats and Theodor Adorno, the good folks at Philosophy Football got in touch to see if I'd plug their new T-shirt in the run up to Christmas. Obviously I told them that, as a revolutionary socialist who stands in the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, I baulk at the idea of using this blog as a piece of cheap advertising. "You might produce interesting casual wear for the discerning political sports fan, but capitalism is still capitalism, which is especially painful at this time of year, when the entire globe is encouraged to celebrate a festival of the commodity." They replied, "We'll throw in a free T-shirt." I said, "Done." And there you have it. What does it cost to buy my principes? About £22.99 plus p+p. Here's the blurb:
The self-styled sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football have a new pick for the T-shirted squad, joining their back four Theodor Adorno. Doyen of the Frankfirt School of defending, a natural choice for left back as he was sometimes left standing when other classes of players moved forward at greater speed than he was expecting. Somewhat one-dimensional in the tackle, nevertheless his eye for the ball was positively enlightening. But most of all Adorno was identified with the necessity to endure suffering on the road to glory, otherwise known as the 'where were you when you were shite' theorem. The Adorno Philosophy Football T-shirt is available from here.