Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Quiet Reflection on Steven Gerrard

I waited a while before writing this piece. Time is often required if we are to accurately judge the recently departed. Both our individual and our collective memories need space in which to fairly take the measure of the man, to assess his significance and gauge our loss. This is especially true when the past is so recent, and the recent past is so raw. And disappointing.

Thank Shankly we don’t have to put up with any more of those eulogies. The close season has provided enough transfer drama to distract even the most misty-eyed of Gerrard fans. Yet as the Premier League gets underway it still seems strange that Stevie G won’t be running out at Anfield this season.

That Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career would eventually come to an end was inevitable, that the end should have lasted so long was not. By announcing his decision to swap Liverpool for Los Angeles at the start of the year, Gerrard inadvertently embarked upon an interminable farewell tour. The team stuttered. Gerrard, when not out injured, jogged through games in almost somnambulant fashion. For a brief time it looked as though the club might engineer a moment of serendipity, but defeat to Aston Villa cost them an appearance in the FA Cup final, which coincided with Gerrard’s birthday. The man who for over fifteen years had helped to paper over the cracks of his club’s mediocrity surely deserved a better send-off. By the time Liverpool were thrashed 6-1 at Stoke City on the final day of last season there was nothing left to write.

Better judges than I have attempted to capture the essence of Stevie G: what Gerrard meant to Liverpool FC and English football more widely. In my opinion only two pieces – by Barney Ronay and Henry Winter – have come close. Winter in particular is accurate in his assessment of Gerrard the footballer:
“In his prime, particularly in the mid-Noughties, Gerrard was a footballer who seized games because of his huge heart, stamina and will to win. An instinctive footballer often fuelled by emotion and adrenalin, Gerrard responded to adversity thrillingly, unquestioningly, often triumphantly. He did not pause for thought. He acted. Hence those split-seconds that shape seasons, those vital goals amongst the 180 in 695 games”
There was no doubting that, when on the top of his game, Gerrard was one of the best midfielders in the world with a skill-set few could match. Don’t just take my word for it - Zinedine Zidane thought Gerrard at his peak was the best midfielder in the world and was “desperate” for Real Madrid to sign him in 2004. But ever since his debut in 1998 Gerrard was more than the sum of his footballing parts. He was talisman, leader, stalwart and inspiration.

Gerrard’s time at Anfield was defined by sport’s essential binary: success and failure. First is his catalogue of unforgettable moments, each easily encapsulated in a word or two: Olympiakos; Istanbul; Cup final. At times Gerrard all but single-handedly dragged Liverpool to silverware. Second is what would go down as Gerrard’s lasting regret - his unsuccessful quest to win the Premier League. It could all have been so different if Gerrard had accepted either of the offers made by Chelsea in 2004 and 2005. Had he moved to London he would certainly have collected more winners’ medals. Alternatively he could have moved to one of the European powerhouses, gracing the Bernabau or the San Siro, and pocketing an even larger wage in the process. But Gerrard didn’t leave; he was always too connected to Liverpool, to the fans, the club and the city.

Gerrard was raised on the Bluebell Estate in Huyton, a poor, working class area which perennially features in lists of the most deprived communities in the UK. In his autobiography Gerrard says little about the world in which he grew up, but does acknowledge that “money was tight”. He was barely a year old when the Toxteth riots took place, 5 years old when Derek Hatton joined the rate-capping rebellion, still only seven when Margaret Thatcher won her third term in Downing Street. And Gerrard was not quite nine years old when his cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, died at Hillsborough. Liverpool felt the harsh effects of Thatcherism as keenly as any city in the country. It was the scene of a seemingly unstoppable economic decline; unemployment in the city rose from 10.6% in 1971 to 21.6% in 1991. In that same year Liverpool Riverside had an unemployment rate of 27.5%, with male unemployment at 37.7% – this was the highest unemployment rate of any parliamentary constituency in the UK. Boys from the Black Stuff was more documentary than drama. The government were advised to abandon the city to “managed decline”.

By the time Gerrard played his first game for Liverpool the city had begun to show flickering signs of renewal, yet work remained scarce, poverty rife. Does any of this help us to understand Gerrard the midfield dynamo and inspirational skipper? Can we detect traces of his roots in his on-field mentality and never-say-die attitude? Maybe, although in life cause and effect seldom operates so cleanly.

What is beyond doubt, however, is the effect Gerrard’s life story had on Liverpool fans. How could it not? Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher became the fabled Scouse beating-heart of the team, the local lads who provided a much needed identity for a club who could no longer be defined by its success. Moreover they gave fans an emotional link to a club that was adapting to the era of corporate football ushered in with the Premier League. When Liverpool last won the League in 1989/90 adult supporters could get a spot on the Kop for as little as £4. When Gerrard made his debut a similar ticket set you back £18. Today the price of admission ranges from £37 - £59 depending on the opposition. Working class people in Liverpool, indeed working class people all over the country, were, and still are, being systematically priced out of football.

Gerrard in particular, with his all-action style and Roy of the Rovers heroics, became the embodiment of Koppites wish-fulfilment. Not only were he and Carragher players you could cheer on come match-day, they were proof that not everyone in the city was condemned to a life of joblessness and the harsh realities of alienation, monotony and poverty. Even if we couldn’t escape perhaps our sons or grandsons might. (Thanks to the sexism of both society and sport, such opportunities are not, of course, afforded to our daughters and granddaughters.) There seemed to be an organic link between Gerrard and the fans, one that was stretched to near breaking point by the Chelsea transfer saga. How could he even contemplate leaving Anfield? It wasn’t that we thought of him as ours, a footballer-commodity to be retained or traded on the whim of market forces. On some level we identified him as us.

It is understandable that people should seek to use ‘loyalty’ as their frame of reference when talking about Gerrard. Loyalty to the club; loyalty to the fans. I have no objection but I do wonder if there is not another way of approaching the question. Perhaps it is not loyalty that defines Steven Gerrard, but rather aspiration.

The candidates for the Labour Party leadership, who, with the honourable exception of Jeremy Corbyn, are a mix of re-animated Blairites and outright Tories, have talked a lot about ‘aspiration’ over the past few weeks. Their conception seems to be based on the belief that people are essentially only ever out for themselves, that they are selfish and greedy, and their only goals in life are nicer houses, bigger TVs, and newer cars. People won’t vote for you unless you can appeal to their sense of aspiration. It’s all nonsense – as Corbyn’s excellent campaign has demonstrated. But how does it apply to Steven Gerrard?

Without question Gerrard could have gone to Stamford Bridge or Real or Inter. He would have made more money, won more medals, his status as a world class footballer would have been assured. I don’t doubt for a moment that he desperately wanted all of those things. However, he stayed at Liverpool, not through a lack of personal aspiration but because he wanted to achieve these things with the team he had joined as a boy. Gerrard’s aspiration stretched beyond mere individualism to include the club, the players, the fans.

Perhaps in trying to identify the essence of Gerrard we have been looking in the wrong direction. We should instead have been asking what he could tell us about the world we live in and the football that we love. Gerrard’s career at Liverpool captured the contradictions of a working class game that has long since been bought and branded. He is the archetypal one-club player who is now at his second club. A millionaire who understands that aspiration is a collective endeavour. The irony is that for so much of his career as a player his aspiration was thwarted by the mediocrity of those around him.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Palestine at FIFA: What Happened?

The motion to expel Israel from world football was never put to the delegates at the 65th annual Congress of FIFA. The proposal, drafted by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), was dropped a few hours before the vote was due to take place. This occurred, of course, just days after FIFA, world football’s governing body, was thrown into chaos following the arrests of a number of its officials in the United States on corruption charges. Eventually, amidst last minute changes to the agenda and talk of ‘compromise’ solutions, the debate on the situation in Palestine ended in what Vice described as a “baffling display of confusion”.

For those of us trying to understand what happened to the PFA motion, the waters were muddied by the toxic combination of institutional turmoil and the lack of transparency which characterises FIFA’s democratic practices. The subsequent, often contradictory, reports reflected this. Some attempted to unpick exactly what had gone on behind the scenes, others simply shoe-horned a limited number of ‘facts’ into a pre-determined narrative. At their very worst some articles seemed to suggest (in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink fashion) that the FBI’s arrest of leading FIFA members had been timed in order to scupper the PFA’s efforts. Given that the assorted partial truths fail to make a consistent whole, it seems worthwhile examining the events of late May.

In some quarters there has been suggestion that the PFA motion was junked as the result of some nefarious activity on behalf of FIFA and/or the Israeli Football Association (IFA). For example, this article in the Morning Star talks about "brinksmanship" of the two organisations as the vote approached, insinuating that either FIFA or the Israeli FA (or both) were in some way responsible for the decision to drop the motion calling for Israel to be expelled from world football’s governing body. As I understand it, this is not quite the case. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) had, of course, spent a long time trying to generate support for their motion, but it became increasingly clear that they were not going to get anywhere near the 75% of the conference vote required for it to pass. The Palestinians were met with a familiar refrain about politics and sport not mixing - a member of the South African FA delegation allegedly said that sporting boycotts had no place in political matters!

Faced with a choice of watching the motion inevitably fall or pulling it and keeping their powder dry, the PFA opted for the latter.

None of which is to say that either the IFA or FIFA sat idly by in the run to and during the Congress. The Israeli delegates will have pressed the flesh at every available opportunity, pushing their arguments to as many other delegates as possible. We also know that the Israelis embarked on a diplomatic mission to head off the vote, hinting that some Palestinian footballers were involved in terrorist activity. And FIFA’s opposition to the proposed expulsion is well documented; indeed Blatter explained this position at length after his meeting with Mahmoud Abass in April earlier this year. Such political manoeuvres were to be expected.

Where the Palestinians were stitched up, however, was in the talks that took place between FIFA, the PFA and IFA during the Congress revolving around a potential FIFA monitoring group, tasked with examining football in Palestine. As part of a compromise ‘solution’ the PFA had originally wanted the issues of racism and Israeli teams in the illegal settlements referred to the United Nations. When this was rejected out of hand by Blatter, a committee comprised, at least in part, of international representatives from ‘neutral’ football associations was suggested. This was in turn countered with a proposal that the committee should be comprised of individuals drawn from the IFA, PFA and FIFA. Such a group is clearly a means of equivocation, far preferable to both FIFA and the IFA than a successful vote to expel Israel, it was duly implemented and is to be headed by ex-ANC government minister, Tokyo Sexwale.

Interestingly nobody in Palestine seemed to think that the outcome of the FIFA congress was a result of Blatter-inspired subterfuge or an FBI-Mossad conspiracy. Instead their ire was reserved for the head of the Palestinian Football Association, Djbril Rajoub, who they saw as having sold out under pressure. As this report in the Middle East Monitor reported:
“Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist and head of the Avaaz campaigns in Palestine, disagreed strongly with the Palestinian official and called on Rajoub to resign. In a press release issued along with a petition that garnered 8,000 votes in a very short time, Rajoub's action was described as the waste of a golden opportunity. "By withdrawing the motion to expel [Israel] without any accomplishments, the Palestinian cause lost a new opportunity for partial justice because of the weakness of its leadership and its short-sightedness," Quran explained. ‘In agreeing to a compromise over a clear violation of FIFA statutes, Rajoub actually proved that Palestinians were playing politics rather than insisting on the implementation of the laws of the game.’"
The Palestine Monitor website makes a similar point in its report:
“The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was among the most vocal critics of the PFA’s decision to drop a bid to have the Israel’s Football Association suspended from FIFA. The PFLP charged yesterday that the PFA’s decision was an, “outrageous deviation from our values, principles and efforts to expose the Israeli occupation's crimes and to oust Israel from international organizations,” the leftist group issued in a statement Saturday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one retired Palestinian politician speculated to the Palestine Monitor that, “it’s not fair [of the PFA] to raise the expectations of the public. People were hoping and left with the impression the the PFA was taking on the fight. It’s unfortunate that not only we did not win, but we did not even fight.” He went on to speculate that Rajoub’s, “credibility was hurt in the outcome of this failed bid.””
In any event, in both Palestine and elsewhere there was something more than mere disappointment at the result at the Congress; there was a definite dejection amongst pro-Palestinian activists, as though what should have been a certainty had been wrought from our grasp. Why should this be the case? Firstly it was almost certainly the result of an overly-optimistic appraisal of the situation prior to the Congress. Certainly there were some national FAs (such as the Dutch and Swedes) who were rumoured to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but these were mistaken for guarantees of support. Similarly the number of signatories to online petitions in support of the expulsion motion was always unlikely to act as a barometer of the feeling within the body of Congress delegates. In the run-up to the event some truly believed that Israel would be expelled from FIFA. In truth it was never on the cards.

Israel’s status as a member of FIFA was never going to be settled, decisively or otherwise, by the strength of the Palestinian’s argument or the weight of evidence in support of their case. This is not to say that FIFA is the grips of a Zionist cabal. Rather it speaks to a truth of global sports administration. The likes of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee are by any definition ‘political actors’ but their first instinct when confronted with political questions is to run a mile in the opposite direction. They occupy an ideological space in which they believe politics only serves to taint the purity of sport – actually they would go so far as to argue that sport can play the sort of positive role that politicians can barely imagine. This is why Blatter can envisage a ‘friendly’ international between Palestine and Israel as transcending the political divide.

Yes, it’s arch-hypocrisy. Yes, it’s an example of double-think. But it exists, and as such a boycott movement is the last thing on the collective mind of football’s governing bodies. The lever that can change this barrier to action is the pressure which can be exerted by an international mass movement. And this takes time.

Here the case of Apartheid is particularly illustrative (although there are crucial differences between the attempts to exclude Israel from world football and the anti-Apartheid movement: the Soviet Union made the call for boycott a central plank of its sporting foreign policy; African states which had come through liberation struggles were instinctively in opposition to the racism in South Africa).

South Africa’s racist policies famously led to its exclusion from world sport, most notably being expelled by the IOC in 1970 and FIFA in 1976. In historical discussion it is, as Malcolm McClean has pointed out, “common to identify 1959 as the year that the boycott movement came together into coordinated international activism”. Yet the first calls for an international boycott of South African sports happened in the early 1950s and the first time they were ejected from an international sports body came in 1955 when the whites-only South African Table Tennis Union were barred from the International Table Tennis Federation. There was, therefore, at least a two decade gap between the first calls for a sports boycott of Apartheid and the eventual expulsion of South Africa from FIFA.

Those twenty years saw any number of protests, demonstrations and actions against Apartheid take place across the world. Something on a similar scale is required if the objective of a sporting boycott of Israel is to be realised. We are, in all honesty, only at the beginning of that movement. If the events of the past fifty years – not to mention those of the last FIFA Congress - tell us anything it is that ‘boycott’ is as much a process as an act.

Monday, July 6, 2015

In Praise of Martyn Rooney

A big well done and thank you to Martyn Rooney. The 400m runner proved to be an oasis of sense in a British Athletics Championships threatening to be side-tracked by a crass, xenophobic discussion of national identity, opportunity, and the supposedly ‘plastic’ Brits.

Harangued by a BBC trackside-pain-in-the-ass, probably Phil Jones, Rooney was quizzed post-race not only on his performance in the 400m heats, but also on his attitude to those athletes, born overseas, who have recently been cleared to compete for Great Britain. In defiance of his lung-busting run, the lactic acid build-up in his legs, and the views of the Daily Mail, Rooney offered this articulate response:
“It’s kind of an offensive term ‘plastic Brits’. Y’know we’re very lucky to have guys who can run, compete for us, and they make the events better. All of those guys contribute to British sport, British culture, so we’re very lucky to have them here.”
To be fair, Rooney was not the only voice speaking out for British athletes hailing from abroad. Although Gabby Logan was quick to tell us that “reaction had been mixed”, there was a unanimity among the analysts joining the coverage from Birmingham. “I actually think, the way sport is at the moment – cricket, rugby, football – it doesn’t matter… They have legitimate dual-nationality. It’s fine. We have to move on,” said Denise Lewis, gold medallist in the heptathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Paula Radcliffe (a migrant herself who now resides in the south of France) agreed, if somewhat reluctantly: “We’re not talking about some other countries who have gone out and brought runners in – these people have a legitimate right to represent Great Britain.” On Friday Steve Cram, writing in a piece for the BBC Sport website, put the whole furore into perspective, explaining why he has “no problem” with the so-called ‘plastic Brits’:
“Some might argue that they didn't train in the British system but, in fact, there's no system here. There's a funding programme, but below that there isn't anything. People can learn to be an athlete in any part of the world. There's no investment in athletics clubs in Britain, which means only those who run here are eligible to run for Britain.
"I guess the big issue is that newcomers arriving puts others in the team under a lot of pressure. But that can happen if an athlete pops up from anywhere - it doesn't matter where they were born. If you think you were shoo-in to get into the team and somebody else pops up you weren't expecting, then you have to deal with that."
The plastic Brit ‘controversy’ – such as it is – was sparked by the announcement that “five foreign-born athletes” had switched allegiance to Team GB over the past month. This drew a sarcastic and negative response from Richard Kilty, a World and European indoor 60m champion, and apparently caused similar outrage amongst his fellow competitors: “All sprinters,” tweeted Kilty, “I’ve spoken to this morning in the team feel exactly the same as me but daren’t speak out.” The roots of the debate however can be traced back to 2012 and the run-up to the London Olympics. It was then that the Daily Mail ran a story informing the world that there would be 61 ‘plastic’ Brits competing at the Games for Team GB.

Many of the tropes deployed in discussion of the ‘plastic’ Brits will be familiar to anyone paying attention to the long-running demonization and scapegoating of migrants arriving in the UK. They perceived as foreign interlopers, costing the ‘true’, ‘hard-working’ Brits their jobs and squad places. No matter the ‘validity’ of their decision to relocate to this country, their motives are treated with distrust and disdain. They are seen to have arrived as mercenaries, in search of welfare state handouts or Lottery funding. Whether he realises it or not, Kilty has assumed the role of the defiant truthsayer (traditionally reserved for such intellects as Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn or Nigel Farrage), the voice of a silent majority too browbeaten by the forces of political correctness to stand up to the perceived injustice.

In six weeks’ time the World Athletics Championship will begin in Beijing. If the performances seen during the early Diamond League meetings are anything to go by, then it promises to be a magnificent week of track and field competition. It would be truly terrible if this sporting spectacle was hijacked by the right-wing press looking to spout off over their latest manufactured scare story. That Martyn Rooney spoke out is to be applauded.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Run, Mo, Run – It’s the Daily Mail!

So Paddy Power have done this. No surprise really. As befits an online bookmaker, they have form. Previous Paddy Power ads have played fast and loose with taste and decency thanks to their rampant sexism and the sort of nationalist sentiment that wouldn’t look out of place at a rally of the far-right.

But this time they’ve outdone themselves by turning the plight of thousands of migrants into a ‘jokey’ advertising campaign. Pure bantz! These people have nowhere to live, ha ha ha! Look at how desperate they are – but don’t forget to place your bets first! They can come over if they’re good at sports, fnar fnar!

In Paddy Power’s defence this last point does at least mean their attitude towards immigration is slightly more liberal than that of the government, whose policies seem to consist solely of ‘bomb their homeland’, ‘let them drown’, ‘build a wall’ and ‘lock them up’. Paddy Power even had a particular athlete in mind when they commissioned their ’hilarious’ ad.

Mo Farah was just eight years old when he arrived in the UK, a refugee from the Somalian civil war. Since his move to London in 1991 he has become one of the most successful and (despite those atrocious Quorn commercials) most loved British athletes of all time. His victories in both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the London 2012 Olympic Games have guaranteed his place in sports history.

Yet it has been a rough few weeks for the long-distance runner. Last month the BBC aired an edition of Panorama that alleged Alberto Salazar, Farah’s coach, had provided performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to some of his athletes. Salazar, a coach at the famed Nike Oregon Project, is said to have encouraged runners, such as Farah’s training partner Galen Rupp, to experiment in micro-doping (taking PEDs in such small amounts so as not to be detected in routine testing) and, in a move seemingly taken from a John le Carre novel, sent athletes pills and sprays in the hollowed out pages of books. For the record, Salazar denies these claims.

Although the Panorama documentary mentioned both Salazar’s relationship with Mo Farah and his role as “unpaid consultant” for UK Athletics (how could they not?), it was careful to avoid insinuating that Farah himself was implicated in any way during their investigation. However, it was inevitable that Mo would be subject to close scrutiny because of his association with the Cuban coach.

Two additional factors do little to dampen the rumours and back page intrigue. First was the revelation Farah had missed two consecutive drug tests prior to the London Olympics. Secondly, looking back over Farah’s career, one notes that his jump from nearly-man to champion occurred at a relatively late stage – and coincided with the switch to Salazar’s tutelage. As Dave Renton pointed out two years ago:
“Without much doubt, the moment that changed Mo from a successful Team GB athlete into a world-beater was his decision in 2011 to relocate to Portland, Oregon in the United States, to work with new coach, Alberto Salazar. Here Farah trained with the American athlete Galen Rupp, and Salazar refocused their training regimes to reduce their sprinting times over the very shortest distances.”
Neither of these factors definitively point to Farah having ever experimented with PEDs, of course. Missing drug tests may not be common, but neither is it completely unheard of. As Kelly Sotheron was quick to point out, ‘clean’ athletes do miss tests from time to time, for all sorts of perfectly innocent reasons, while Chris Froome revealed that he had also missed two such tests during his career. And, while a mid-career upturn in fortunes can be evidence of doping (see Lance Armstrong), it is far from conclusive proof. Any number of factors can trigger a jump to world-class status: a change in coach, a change in training, the retirement of rivals, an unlikely victory, a maturing of physical and/or mental competitiveness. One needs look no further than triple-jumper turned broadcaster Jonathan Edwards for an example of an athlete who blossomed at a relatively late stage in their career.

As more and more questions were asked of Salazar, so Farah increasingly found himself in the spotlight. Even those, such as Jo Pavey, who do not doubt his innocence suggested it would be wise for the double-Olympic champion to distance himself from his coach. As the public and media gaze intensified so Farah was forced to respond, telling the world he was angry his name was “being dragged through the mud” and claiming that the accusations were “killing him”. He offered this riposte via Facebook:
“I have never taken performance enhancing drugs in my life and I never will. Over the course of my career I have taken hundreds of drugs tests and every single one has been negative. I’ve fully explained the only two tests in my career that I have ever missed, which the authorities understood, and there was never any suggestion that these were anything more than simple mistakes.
The last two weeks have been the toughest of my life – with rumours and speculation about me that are completely false – and the impact this has had on my family and friends has left me angry, frustrated and upset. In particular, the media pressure on my young family and my wife, who is 5 months pregnant, is extremely painful, especially as I’m away training for some important races.”
Steve Cram leapt to Farah’s defence. The legendary middle-distance runner who, like Edwards, is now a key member of BBC Sport’s athletics team, claimed Mo was the victim of a witch-hunt saying, “It seems as if some people are deliberately going after him and that is a shame.” Current Team GB athlete Hannah England had made the same point two days previously. Given the status and popularity he enjoys, who would possibly want to conduct a witch-hunt against Farah? The answer, undoubtedly, is the Daily Mail, although Cram was far too savvy to say that out loud, referring only to “sections of the media”.

Since the Panorama story aired, Farah has featured in approximately 130 stories in the Daily Mail. No great shakes there considering he has been tagged in more than 110 articles on the Guardian website over the same time period. But the tone of the pieces featured in the Mail is, shall we say, accusatory. In the wake of the allegations against Salazar, Richard Pendlebury reflected on Farah’s Olympic success and “with an edge of scepticism” asked “How did Mo do it?” Immediately the Mail listed “seven key questions for Mo Farah to answer”, and went to great lengths to stress that Farah and his agent Ricky Simms had failed to answer questions put to them by the paper. The implication being that there “was something nefarious in Farah's two missed tests.” Farah, the Mail continued, had “handled [the] incident surrounding his coach as badly as possible” before adding, “[t]he double Olympic champion is an emotional individual, prone to the occasional tantrum”.

Why the Daily Mail should take such a line is not difficult to fathom. Farah represents everything the paper despises: an ethnically diverse Britain in which migrants can become heroes. As they seek to (re)ignite a three-year-old controversy over so-called ‘plastic Brits’ – the sporting version of the immigrant bogeyman, coming over here, stealing our jobs – the Mail also senses the opportunity to put the boot in on Farah.

Let’s be clear. No one - not me, not the Mail, not UK Athletics – knows if the allegations made against Salazar have any truth to them. Still less can any of us conclude that Farah, an athlete who has never failed a drugs test, is guilty of doping.

But one thing is for sure. The Daily Mail is desperate for Mo Farah, the Muslim, Somalian asylum-seeker with the wrong colour skin, to be guilty as hell. Those of us who see the runner as symbolising the kind of open, welcoming, multi-cultural society in which we want to live, hope he is clean. Not least of all because watching the Mail eat their hate-fuelled insinuation will be more enjoyable than any gold medal.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Notes on the European Games in Baku

1. "Imagine there's no countries"
The inaugural European Games have been held in Baku, Azerbaijan.  The opening ceremony, held on June 12th, saw Lady Gaga cover John Lennon's Imagine - with no sense of irony at all - in the 68,700 seater Olympic Stadium. Over the course of 17 days some 5898 athletes, representing 50 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) from across the continent, competed in 20 sports. By the end, the UK stood third in the medal table, behind Russia and the hosts. Scant attention was paid to the Games in the British press or on television.

2. "We were not convinced about the quality of some of the individual events"
Despite a sizeable Team GB contingent, including Nicola Adams, Ed McKeever and Gemma Gibbons, there were certainly strictly sporting reasons why the European Games merited so little attention in the UK. The program consisted of a range of minority sports such as Beach Soccer, Sambo and Shooting. Without the allure of the Olympics' history, prestige or brand recognition, the European Games singularly failed to capture the imagination. The two sports that traditionally prove to be the largest draw during the Olympics proper - swimming and athletics - were listed respectively as junior and third-tier events in Baku. 

The Games were shown live on BT Sport in the UK, seemingly the result of other broadcasters reluctance to commit capital to an unknown quantity. Neil Sloane, director of sport at ITV said purchasing the rights to the European Games "didn't make any financial sense". Meanwhile Barbara Slater, head of sport at the BBC, said "We were not convinced about the quality of some of the individual events and we have a finite resource. We invest in the European athletics championships, the European basketball championships, the European swimming we were going to take away from some of our existing relationships to invest in that."

3. “Tell the world about our problems and you will be punished”
The coverage that the European Games did receive, however, invariably had little to do with the sporting contests on offer, focusing instead on the country's political situation. A number of human rights organisations repeatedly drew attention to the repressive nature of President Ilham Aliyev’s government. For instance, Human Rights Watch records that:
“The Azerbaijani government escalated repression against its critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record. The authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 33 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers on politically motivated charges, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding.”
Staging the 2015 European Games merely served to exacerbate the draconian policies of Aliyev, as the Azerbaijani government sought to silence critical and dissenting voices. Those domestic journalists who asked awkward questions, such as Idrak Abbasov, have been “beaten, bruised and, eventually, exiled”. Prior to the Games, representatives from such organisations as Amnesty International, the Guardian, Radio France International and German broadcaster ARD were all barred from entering Azerbaijan. For Amnesty International’s Denis Krivosheev, the government were issuing a statement of intent: “The message is: ‘Tell the world about our problems and you will be punished’”.

4. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.”
When announcing the Games back in 2012 the European Olympic Committee (EOC) promised they would be “a tool with which to enhance the attractiveness of sport”. A cursory glance at the political furore surrounding the Baku Games would call that into question. Indeed, given its limited appeal to fans and broadcasters, and the already packed sporting calendar, it seems a little odd that the representatives of Europe’s various NOCs should institute a European Games at all. Certainly there was opposition from other quarters, including Denis Oswald, president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), who highlighted the pressures on competitors: "Our first concern is for the athletes. In Europe there are so many competitions. We should not push the athletes to do any more,"

Reading between the lines one can possibly detect the faintest reluctance on the part of NOCs in committing to a project the EOC declared had been in the “Olympic air” for some time. While a majority voted in favour of the proposal it was accompanied by a guarantee that “that the event will not cost them a penny, but bring them financial gains.” This reached its logical, if unusual, conclusion before the opening of the Baku Games when it was announced that the Azerbaijani organisers would cover all travel and accommodation costs incurred by those athletes in attendance.

The idea of a European Games had been floated initially in 2009 by the Irish International Olympic Committee (IOC) member and EOC president, Patrick Hickey. Subsequently Deloitte were commissioned to produce a ‘feasibility study’ into any potential Games – although the supposedly public document is infuriatingly impossible to track down. No doubt it spoke in glowing terms about the benefits to European sport a regional event would bring, the increased cooperation between the representatives of various nation states, and the positive effect more sport would have on an increasingly unhealthy and obese Europe.

An educated guess would suggest that beneath this window dressing the report concluded a European Games would be an enormously profitable venture for the EOC and its constituent NOCs. Revenue from advertising and TV deals is a lucrative business, as anyone involved in Olympianism is only too well aware. As Baku approached so exclusive broadcast deals were signed with media groups across the continent, as well as China Central Television and the Arab States Broadcasting Union.

Capitalism and the Olympic Movement, both of which were born in Europe before spreading across the globe, have returned in tandem to create a new product in an old market.

5. “Fanatical Colonialist”
Regional Games, that is to say those mini-Olympic style events which encompass a continent or other geographical area, are nothing new. Until Baku, Europe was the only continent not to stage such a competition, although, for various political reasons, similar ideas had been mooted on a number of occasions throughout the 1960s.

This is a curious historical anomaly, almost certainly the result of the early Olympic Movement’s Eurocentrism. The Olympic Games were ‘renovated’ by the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. By the 1920s Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee – a veritable who’s who of European nobility – explored the idea of regional Games held under the auspices of the IOC. Over the course of the next 15 years Central American, Pan-American, Near East and Balkan Games were held. An African Games, scheduled for 1925, failed to get off the ground.

Contained within Coubertin’s Olympic ideology is a most definite imitation of the logic of imperialism, indeed Coubertin had at one point described himself as a “fanatical colonialist”. Having embarked upon his ‘civilizing mission’ with racist zeal, Coubertin proselytized on a global stage, espousing the moral value of his sporting systems.

Unlike other continents, Europe had no need for a Games; they were already in possession of the Olympics themselves.

6. “we all are soldiers of Azerbaijan and ready to serve at full strength for the future of our country”
I have written before about Robert K Barney and the ‘p’ triad: the promise of pride, publicity and profit that underpins a government’s desire to host a mega-event. While it is almost always the case that staging a mega-event results in a net loss for the host nation, it seems that Azerbaijan had approached the European Games knowing that there would be a negative financial return. They seemed content to use the Games as advert and loss-leader, in the hope that the outlay would be offset by a presumed increase in prestige on the national stage, as is clear from the words of Tale Haydarov, chair of the European Azerbaijan Society:
"“The fact that the first European Games were granted to Azerbaijan proves that the country is worthy to host them. During the past decade, the economic level and infrastructure of my country has developed considerably. We are now reaping the fruits of these developments."
The event also promised a spike in national pride, and Ilham Aliyev was quick to turn this feeling into political capital. At the end of the Games he waxed lyrical about the nation’s potential before thanking his wife Mehriban Aliveva, who had headed the organising committee:She did her utmost to hold the European Games at the highest level. While determining the composition of the Organizing Committee, I was sure that they would do the best. Because it covered experience and professionalism, mainly love to the state and people. In general, these are main terms of the success of our country,”

In turn, Mehriban Aliyeva took aim at the government’s political opponents – both domestic and international, one presumes – before engaging in the sort of military metaphor that would have had George Orwell reaching for his pen: “You have proved to the whole world once again that no black power can target or fear us… Mr. President, we all are soldiers of Azerbaijan and ready to serve at full strength for the future of our country.”

For Aliyev and Azerbaijan the Games came at a price. Officially Baku 2015 is said to have cost €1 billion, but the final figure may be as high as €6.5 billion once stadium construction and infrastructure improvements are factored in. And while the eyes of the world may be drawn by hosting an event of such a scale, they may not all look on approvingly.

7. "It would be irresponsible to pull together €57.5 million for the European Games in 2019,"
The European Games are set to become a quadrennial event, and are due to be staged next in 2019. Yet even before a starter’s gun had fired in Baku the future of the Games was sent into chaos. It had been announced in May that the Netherlands would host the second European Games but less than a month later they had withdrawn their interest.

Unsurprisingly money is behind the change of heart. The 2019 European Games came with a projected €125 million price-tag and the Dutch government were unwilling to meet the request of the organisers to fund nearly half of that sum through public money. "It would be irresponsible to pull together €57.5 million (£41.9 million/$61.5 million) for the European Games in 2019," a joint statement from the Government, the Provinces and Municipalities said. Despite the fact that the Netherlands were the only country to bid for the Games, the EOC is adamant that as many as seven nations are now prepared to host the event.

8. “Many of the requirements of the IOC do not harmonize with the Norwegian way of thinking and living”
If spiralling costs, uncertain economic terrain and the reluctance to divert resources in an age of austerity are concerns affecting what we might rather loosely term ‘mini-mega events’ such as the European Games, they are but a microcosm of the difficulties facing actual mega-events.

This can be most clearly seen with the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Of the six original countries touted as contenders Lviv in Ukraine, Krakow in Poland and Stockholm in Sweden all pulled out, while a lack of popular support prevented bids from Germany and Switzerland. Once the IOC’s preferred choice, Olso, also dropped out because the Norwegian government were unwilling to bankroll the Games, only bids from China and Kazakhstan remained. Neither country can be said to have a spotless human rights record.

9. “If participation in sport is to be stopped every time the politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will never be any international contests.”
The government of Azerbaijan deserves criticism. But it is not alone. There are numerous examples of nation states with dubious human rights records hosting mega-events. The government of Brazil was rightly condemned before and during the last football World Cup; Israel was awarded the European Under-23 football championships despite their continued persecution and brutalisation of the Palestinians; the Sochi Winter Games took place against the horrific repression of Russia’s LGBTQ community. And Tony Blair was Prime Minister at the time the 2012 Olympics were awarded to London when he should have been in the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes. Perhaps Avery Brundage had a point when he said:
“The world, alas, is full of injustice, aggression, violence and warfare, against which all civilized persons rebel, but this is no reason to destroy the nucleus of international cooperation and good will we have in the Olympic Movement … If participation in sport is to be stopped every time the politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will never be any international contests.”
Yet Brundage’s words are an exercise in the abdication of responsibility, a justification for turning a blind-eye to that “injustice, aggression, violence and warfare”. Surely we cannot agree with Brundage, nor the Baku Games’ chief operating officer Simon Clegg when he says, “political questions need to be directed to the politicians”. No matter the lengths to which people go in order to deny the link between politics and sport, the two are irrevocably intertwined. Sport is shot through with considerations of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, power and money, our participation is structured by political decisions, mega-events can only exist because of the planning, preparation and financial input of those who govern host countries. The likes of the IOC and FIFA are political actors.

It is baffling that governing bodies, operating at a time when mega-events are as much a brand as an event, still refuse to see the relationship between sport and politics. While politicians, governments, and nation states seek to bask in the reflected glory of a mega-event, it is equally true that the actions of a nation state can 
leave a stain on the mega-event itself.

10. “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
The Olympic Charter proclaims that the Olympics should be realised “without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” History would suggest that this credo can be extremely malleable. How do those who govern world sport square that circle?

There is a belief amongst these people that sport, or more specifically sport in their hands, is an unequivocal force for good in this world, a mechanism for peace and understanding. Sport can, indeed must, absent itself from the moral questions of society, suspended in pure isolation, lest it too becomes debased. Fundamentally, sport is considered to transcend the political realm. Some will say that the ideology of Olympianism is merely a sham, a fig leaf to cover the lies and profiteering and corruption. I would not disagree. But those in power do seem, on some level, to truly believe their own rhetoric.

In part this is the corollary of the colonial ideology that so informed Coubertin in the first decades of the twentieth century. It has become the duty of the IOC or FIFA to reach out to countries such as Azerbaijan or Qatar, to welcome them into the Olympic Movement and the Football Family. In doing so they believe, quite genuinely, that they are helping to educate and elevate, inspire and instruct, and perhaps most arrogantly of all, that they are the solution rather than part of the problem.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Here Comes the Summer of Sport

Mark Perryman reviews the best of this Summer’s Sports Books

English football’s Premiership (sic), the best league in the world? The same 4 clubs, well give or take one perhaps, could be jotted down on a scrap of paper every August with a cast-iron guarantee they will fill the Champions League places, year in, year out. Tedium, its the brand value the Premiership has become past masters at providing, yet barely a word of dissent ever breaks through the breathless excitement football’s boosterists provide across the print, TV and radio media.

Meantime despite the sportification of society levels of participation in scarcely any form of physical activity continue to rocket downwards. Football, the richest and most high profile of all sports has amongst the sharpest rates of decline in numbers taking part, unless of course we count watching it from the comfort of our own sofa.

Cutting through sport-hype takes a combination of a love for and understanding of sport with a critique of all that it threatens to become. Jules Boykoff is a renowned expert at precisely this kind of combination, his latest book Activism and the Olympics provides a chronicle of activist opposition to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and London 2012.  Andrew Zimbalist does something similar over a longer timeframe, and taking in both the Olympics and Football World Cups. His conclusions in his book Circus Maximus are devastating, the socio-economic benefits of hosting are next to negligible and more often than not actually negative.  Yet despite almost every pledge made by London 2012 remaining unfulfilled as Rio 2016 approaches the self-satisfied bandwagon that the Olympics has turned into will steamroll almost all critical voices into the margins. Perhaps what is needed to resist is the kind of ideological rigour that features amongst those profiled in the pioneering collection Sport and Revolutionaries edited by John Nauright and David Wiggins. Lenin and Che Guevara,   who would have imagined the centrality they both gave sport and physical culture in the cause of human liberation? Or likewise social movements spanning Irish Republicanism, the overthrow of colonial regimes, anti-racism and civil rights. Each in their own ways , as essays in this excellent book recount, saw the importance of sport towards their ends.  Two pleas though to an otherwise excellent publisher, Routledge. Why only the high-priced hardback edition limiting the sale to libraries? And why the standard, one-design-fits-all cover? Both factors will seriously reduce the potential popular impact of what is an important book.

Getting to grips with the enduring absence of a social, economic, political and cultural dimension of too much mainstream sportswriting is vital to any kind of appreciation of how sport is consumed. If is only via this kind of project that recreation and leisure will become framed by the contribution it makes towards human liberation rather than  simply consumed as a big screen extravaganza. Roger Domenghetti’s superlative From the Back Page to the Front Room provides an unrivaled account of the evolution of football’s monopoly of the sports media, with interviews and insights that are both informative and compelling. Jamie Cleland provides something similar, if more wide-ranging, in A Sociology of Football in a Global Context. This is a textbook study of the new football, ranging over almost every subject the serious student of the game might want to consider.  Same publishers as  Sport and Revolutionaries  so same two pleas apply!  Hugo Borst’s O, Louis is a supreme example of how sportswriting can capture the cultural and the social at its best without any negative impact on its ability to reach and engage with a mass audience. Van Gaal, despite his modest first season at Man Utd, remains set to be one of the great characters of English football for some time to come. His foreignness, his Dutchness, every bit as intriguing as Wenger and Mourinho’s otherness, if not yet framed by the same degree of success.

A Matter of Life and Death by Jim White is an alternative history of football told via 100 quotations' from ‘There is Great Noise in the City’ describing 1314 street football to World Cup 2014. Jim White is a great sportswriter, he has chosen his quotes carefully while providing his own informative yet idiosyncratic narrative. Brilliant!  But words alone, however well-written, can never entirely capture the appeal of football. Edited by Reuel Golden Age of Innocence is a combination of the very best world photography of football in the 1970s with a skilfully written set of introductory commentaries about the decade. Age of Innocence? This is domestic football both before the Premiership but also prior to the Bradford Fire, Heysel and Hillsborough too. Three very different events but each in their own way defining football in the 1980s. A book of global reach too, the world of football depicted as much less of a corporate enterprise than it is now.

But how to push at the boundaries of the limited meaning that modern corporatised football has become? Firstly breakdown its gendering. A process that has accelerated in the twenty-first century, from lets say the near non-existent to the painfully slow. Events recorded very well in the new book by Carrie Dunn and Joanna Welford, Football and the FA Women’s Super League (sadly though another academic publisher with a standard boring cover and high priced library edition hardback only, why?)  Second, confront and expose the corruption in the administration of the global game. Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s The Ugly Game investigates in breathtaking detail the sheer magnitude of the corruption at the highest levels of FIFA. Third, provide practical examples of what an alternative might look like. Rather confusingly also titled The Ugly Game Martin Calladine’s book is a very welcome pioneering effort to do just that. Fourth, dump the ridiculous rhetoric embraced by fans as well as the corporate brand managers, that the Premiership is ‘the best league in the world’. It’s the richest yes, but in almost every other regard it is inferior to several others, most notably the German Bundesliga. Read Ronald Reng’s very good Matchdays to find out how German football gets by without foreign owners, clubs 51% owned by their fans, mainly German players on the pitch, drinking and standing on the terraces. Didn’t that use to be ‘the English way’ when Liverpool, Notts Forest and Villa won European Cups and an England side could make to it to a World Cup semi-final. All pre-Premiership no thankyou very much.

Few football books manage to provide the breadth and dept of insight with the very obvious passion for the game that Mark Doidge combines in writing Football Italia. From the country of Gramsci, Mussolini, post-war Eurocommunism, Berlusconi and more it is no surprise that Italian football also is a game of extremes. What Mark Doidge manages, definitively, to explain is how a nation’s football can never be divorced from how a national culture has been shaped too, all with a neat line in understanding why sometimes despite that process Italian football retains a fateful appeal for fans the world over.

It is only in English football’s ever-shortening summertime off-season that much of any other sport gets any kind of look in. And even that is reduced in a year of a World Cup or a Euro. For a fortnight or so the media will go overboard for the tennis at Wimbledon. Such coverage aided when the rivalry that singles tennis generates reaches out beyond the strawberries and Pimms brigade. Peter Bodo’s account, Ashe vs Connors  records just such a moment from the faraway summer of 1975. This is sports writing as social history against the backdrop of towering personalities and supreme talent, all the makings of a really good sports book.

An Ashes Summer used to more or less guarantee a mass audience for cricket. But since the appallingly short-sighted decision of cricket’s governing body to dump free-to-air live TV coverage interest has plummeted and  is unlikely ever to recover, despite what looks like a fast-improving England team. In his newly published autobiography Curtly Ambrose  provides a compelling picture of the heights of popularity Test cricket once enjoyed. A thrilling West Indies team becoming a symbol of resistance, diaspora and nationhood. This was international sport at its very best, fiercely competitive, individuals combining for the common purpose of the team, imagined communities acquiring some semblance of the real. Will we see the like of it on a cricket pitch again? Possibly not. Rob Smyth like Jim White uses 100 quotations to track a sport’s history. This time, The Ashes in Gentlemen and Sledgers . Rob depicts the changes from the pre-TV era, the broadening popularity of cricket via television and radio coverage, England’s return to glory in recent years and then the catastrophic decline on the pitch accompanied by the loss of terrestrial TV coverage. Despite all this the 5-day 5-test Ashes series remained throughout one of the most epic contests in the world of sport and Rob’s book helps us to appreciate the reasons why.

It is only in recent years that Le Tour has featured very much at all as part of the Great British sporting summer. In the era that William Fotheringham described in his classic biography of Italian cycling great Fausto Coppi  Fallen Angel the 1940s and 1950s cycling up mountains was something best left to continental types. And the domestic popularity of cycling hadn’t changed so very much by the time of his latest biography, the greatest French cyclist Bernard Hinault  in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  But it is by reading William’s books the latter-day domestic popularity of this most extraordinary drama of human endurance can begin to be accounted for. Alpe D’Huez  by Peter Cossins accounts for the kind of physical achievement Grand Tour cycling represents via the challenge of just one epic mountain these cyclists are expected to climb on their two wheels. The greatest climb? Quite possibly, though the greatness perhaps lies in the realisation that for these cyclists once they have done one day’s climbing another follows, and another, with next to no respite. It is a sport that borders on the inhuman, the biggest single reason for the scourge of performance enhancing drugs that for a while threatened to engulf cycling. Yet with dedication these climbs, or something like them, can be done. This is the dream of the sporting everyman, or increasingly everywoman too. Ian McGregor’s To Hell on a Bike rather brilliantly tells just such a tale, an ordinary cyclist who trains himself to tackle Paris-Roubaix, widely regarded as the toughest of all the one-day classic cycle races.

Two Days in Yorkshire by Peter Cossins and Andrew Enton superbly captures with stunning photography and great prose the sheer magnitude of what Le Tour starting in Yorkshire in 2014 came to represent. An unforgettable experience and one that deserves to be remembered as far more important than London 2012 in terms of its possibilities for reshaping English sporting culture. Rick Robson’s beautiful book, De Tour De Yorkshire again combines photos and prose, this time to point towards the kind of legacy Le Tour might yet leave behind. Showcasing Yorkshire as England’s capital  destination for cyclists, to race or for pleasure and all points in-between.

The thrill of physical activity, recreational or competitive, for many is not only to maintain a decent level of fitness but to test what our bodies might be capable of. Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall gives the active reader something to aim towards, an approach to ultra-fitness that is almost philosophical in its gritty determination to inspire ever greater achievements of endurance. This is thriller-writing for fitness junkies. Adharanand Finn achieves something similar in his new book The Way of the Runner a gripping account of the place of marathon running in Japanese sporting culture. If all these sounds a bit macho read Lucy Fry’s Run, Ride, Sink or Swim, more than enough to reassure that both sexes are almost equally susceptible to the kind of physical obsession that can drive some in search of the very limits of our body’s potential.

Our sports book of the quarter? Opportunities to play sport, any sport at any level  are inevitably socially constructed. The failure to understand this both narrows the scope of most mainstream sportswriting and at the same time ensures most writers on politics to wilfully ignore sport.  Gabriel Kuhn is an author who would never make either of these cardinal errors. His Playing As If The World Mattered is an illustrated history of sport as activism. Refusing to treat one as the opposite of the other Gabriel weaves together stories and episodes, some familiar, many not, to portray sport as a vital space for and method of human liberation. The writing is effortlessly informative and inspiring while the full colour illustrations do a similar job visually. Together this is a truly great book to savour for a better future as well as to read now to help improve the present, on or off the pitch, track , inside and outside the ring or pool,wherever your sporting fancy takes you.

Note No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid the offshore tax-dodgers, please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction'  aka Philosophy Football