30 September 2009

Defining moments: Pearce's redemption

It can be difficult to explain exactly why sport captivates us so much, but for me one key reason is that it provides us with great tales which can stick long in the memory. Unlike the kind of stories that we see in films or books, sporting narratives rarely stick to the basic formula of having a beginning, a middle or an end, with key dramatic 'beats' punctuating the action at regular intervals. And it is that unpredictability which keeps us constantly on the edge of our seats even in the 89th minute of a dull, poor football game, because witnessing those magical moments when sport hits those high notes are what makes it all worthwhile.

In some cases these moments of magic are lightning strikes, little cameos which showcase sport's never-ending capacity to delight, surprise and astonish (a stunning breakaway goal against the run of play, for instance). In others, they may be the culmination of a long, winding narrative which, with hindsight, has an air of glorious inevitability about it (Kevin Pietersen's destructive innings which finally clinched the 2005 Ashes, say).

I call these 'defining moments'. In my mind, they form a mental photo album which underlines what great sport is all about and represents the pinnacle of my experiences watching, attending or participating in sporting events. Some of these will be recognisable to most fans, others deeply personal.

Since a big part of the essence of sport is that it is a shared experience, I thought I'd share some of my defining moments from the mental archive. So let's start with an example of that most compelling of basic plots: a tale of redemption.


Euro 96, Wembley, June 1996


The report card on the veteran England full back Stuart Pearce prior to Euro 96 would have read something like this: “A great defender and a loyal servant to both club and country, but best remembered for one terrible mistake which has forever tainted his career. Questionable performance under pressure.”

Turin, 1990. England versus Germany. Two hours of football had failed to separate two evenly matched sides. A place in the World Cup final rested on a sudden-death penalty shootout; ten kicks of the ball from twelve yards out. Pearce – a regular and highly proficient penalty taker – failed to convert his spot-kick. Germany won and went on to beat Argentina 1-0 in the final.

Wembley, 1996. The European Championship quarter-final. England and Spain have battled to a tense, goalless stalemate. So now it’s the agony of penalties again.

First up for England is striker Alan Shearer, who emphatically blasts his shot into the top corner. Next, Fernando Hierro steps forward for Spain and strikes an equally powerful effort beyond the reach of David Seaman, but the ball cannons off the crossbar and away to safety. A huge roar from the crowd. Miss! David Platt then scores for England; Amor responds for Spain. 2-1.

Next in line for England: Stuart Pearce.

As a spectator, there is a familiar sensation of fear which forms in the pit of your stomach as a player makes the long, lonely walk from the centre circle to the penalty spot. In Pearce’s case, it is much more than that. A murmur of anticipation goes around Wembley. Are we about to witness a man released after six years of hell, or see him condemned to a life sentence for a repeat offence? Not even a man who goes by the nickname ‘Psycho’ deserves to suffer like this twice in a lifetime. With one sweep of his left boot, Stuart Pearce would be either redeemed or branded a choker, a man whose career is defined not by years of outstanding success but by two moments of failure.

A nation collectively holds its breath, but Pearce exhibits not the slightest trace of fear or hesitancy, stroking a left-foot shot wide of the goalkeeper’s despairing dive and into the back of the net.

Wembley roars in celebration and approval. And absolution; to a man, everyone in the stadium knows just how much this means to him.

Pearce himself is in another world – fists clenched, eyes bulging, a lung-bursting scream releasing six years of pent-up frustration and exorcising his demons.

It is one of the all-time great sporting photos, one of those rare occasions you get to glimpse the human being behind the professional fa├žade. Emotion laid raw for all to see; the nightmare of 1990 finally consigned to history in one cathartic moment.

Even now, 13 years later, the memory of it is enough to bring a tear to my eye.

There’s a line in the English football anthem 'Three Lions' that says, “Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming”. For Stuart Pearce, it was six years of agony and frustration, but he never stopped dreaming of redemption. And how he had earned it.

It is not often we are reminded in such stark terms about the fine line between career-defining success and failure which even the most successful of sportsmen and women must walk; rarer still that we see the circle completed, with abject failure being followed by redemptive success. The image of an emotionally-released Pearce screaming at the heavens - and the fact it was played out live in front of an audience of millions - is exactly what great sport is all about, and why I and millions of others love it so much.

25 September 2009

Zanardi shines while F1 tarnishes


As I've previously written, Monday's two-year suspended ban for Renault over 'Crashgate' was not the FIA's finest moment, being a victory for pragmatic, political expediency over any even vaguely cosmetic attempt to make the punishment fit the crime. (If Nelson Piquet Jr's deliberate crash had caused the death of another driver, a marshal or a spectator, it is entirely possible that he, Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds could now be facing manslaughter chances.)

Formula 1's commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone has hardly aided the credibility of the sport by suggesting that Briatore's lifetime ban from all F1 activities is "harsh":

 "I would have banned Flavio for one year. That would have been enough."

But, as Simon Barnes suggests in the Times today, the powers that be in F1 have bet that the punters will keep coming back for more rather than walk away from the sport in disgust. (Sadly, they are probably right.)

 "It seems that we are always ready to take a high moral line about sport, but we are not prepared to do anything about it. The action of sport, the ever-unfolding narrative of sport, is not something we are willing to let go. We are addicted. Sport has us where it wants us."

I know that personally I'm complicit in all this, as I will still be watching this weekend's Grand Prix in (irony of ironies) Singapore, the home of Crashgate, although I'm not going to be trumpeting my liking for F1 as a sport too loudly for a while, that's for sure. It's been a tough year for motorsport fans, what with Crashgate, the death of Henry Surtees at Brands Hatch and Felipe Massa's horrific accident.

However, my morning has been brightened by reading the latest blog by the BBC's Eleanor Oldroyd about Alex Zanardi, which highlights that not every story that comes out of motorsport is a depressing one.

The Italian offers a unique perspective on both life and the perils of competing at the highest level of such a dangerous sport. Having started 41 races in F1 and won the CART championship (its nearest equivalent in the US) twice, his single-seater career was abruptly ended at the Lausitzring in 2001.

German 500, Lausitz, Germany, September 2001

The atmosphere at any race meeting is always highly charged; at this race in Lausitz doubly so, coming just four days since after the horrifying events of 9/11.

Alex Zanardi was leading the race in its closing stages when he dived into the pits for one quick, final ‘splash and dash’ refuelling stop. But as the Italian exited the pit lane, he lost control of the car (it's thought he spun on spilt oil), and slewed luridly across the track before coming to a halt sideways in the middle of the raceway.

The first driver on the scene, Kenny Brack, narrowly avoided a collision. Alex Tagliani, however, did not, as he catapulted out of the previous turn at close to 200 mph. At 200 mph, you are travelling nearly the length of a football pitch every second. At 200mph, the last thing you expect to see is a stationary car straddling the road directly in your path. At 200mph, even armed with a racing driver's reflexes, you have barely enough time to register this unlikely sight, let alone take evasive action.

Tagliani's car rammed into Zanardi’s just in front of the cockpit - the area occupied by a driver’s legs - tearing it in two, its front sheared off at the point of impact.

It was only thanks to the speedy arrival and skilled work of the medical crew that Zanardi did not die on the track - he lost over four litres of blood as they struggled to stabilise him - but his legs were damaged beyond repair, the ends of both limbs having been torn off in the impact. (Dr Steve Olvey, CART’s medical director, would later eloquently describe it as: “Almost identical to what happens to soldiers who step on landmines.”) Eventually Zanardi was airlifted to hospital, where he was put into a medically induced coma for an operation in which both legs were amputated above the knee. Later came a series of fifteen operations to remove shards of his car's carbon fibre from his body.

Alex Zanardi was lucky to escape the Lausitzring with his life.

Eight weeks later, he was out of hospital and driving a specially adapted car. And 20 months after his crash, he returned to Lausitz in a tailor-made car, where he ran 13 ‘ceremonial' laps at an average speed (193mph) which would have seen him qualify fifth for that weekend's CART race.

Since then, he has competed in the European and World Touring Car Championships, winning four races. Two years ago, he placed fourth in the handcycle event at the New York Marathon after only a few weeks' training, and now hopes to compete in cycling events for Italy at the London 2012 Paralympics.

All this goes to explain why, when Zanardi chooses to comment on Crashgate - delivering his words with the same unflinching accuracy with which he used to attack the apex of a corner in a racing car - I listen.

 "I am very sad for the sport. No-one goes away from the story with a clean soul."

Concise, simple, and to the point. No matter how it is spun, the reputation of F1 has been severely tarnished by Crashgate. And while it will no doubt be polished up again by the action on the track and the passage of time, there is something fundamentally right about Zanardi's words which no amount of money and glamour will ever truly conceal.

Alex Zanardi is a remarkable man who has taken every challenge that life has thrown at him and refused to accept defeat. He is exactly the kind of role model we want so many of our sporting idols to be, but so rarely are. And it is why he holds a place in my memory and my heart when other drivers who have enjoyed far more success in F1 - Zanardi only ever scored a single point in F1 - are long forgotten.

"It has been a splendid adventure because I guess human beings without some kind of challenge - they don't live well. Whenever I have a drive or have a dream, I try to achieve it with what I have."

The tale of Alex Zanardi, open-wheel racer, has long since passed (although he continues to compete - and win - in touring cars). However, the story of Alex Zanardi, the man, is far from over. And while I will be wearing red, white and blue at both the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012, I will also be hoping to cheer on an Italian and his handbike.


22 September 2009

Semenya's gold highlights shades of grey

It has been a sorry saga. Over the past few weeks it has become clear that the search for clarity has resulted only in muddied waters, and that Caster Semenya has been little more than a pawn in a political machine fuelled by deceit and ambition.

You will know the story of the 18-year-old Semenya by now. How she emerged from nowhere to run world-leading times and dominate the women's 800 metres at last month's World Athletics Championships in Berlin. How the IAAF ham-fistedly asked her to submit to the humiliation of gender verification testing on the afternoon of her final. How Athletics South Africa (ASA) subsequently accused the world's media of racism for their intense speculation about the case.

Late last week, the extent to which ASA president Leonard Chuene and other officials had systematically lied to both the IAAF and the media began to unfold. Having denied the existence of procedures carried out on Semenya prior to Berlin, it now transpires that tests were carried out in Pretoria on August 7th - 12 days before her gold medal-winning run - at the order of the ASA. Worse still, they were conducted without the athlete's knowledge (she was told she was attending a routine drugs check).

The procedure apparently revealed that Semenya has internal testes, of which she herself would have had no knowledge. The assumption is that these produce abnormally high levels of testosterone, contributing towards a masculine physical appearance which offers a significant competitive advantage.

Chuene has since claimed that his motivation for covering up the test and its results was to "protect a child", and not a desire to pursue a gold medal to highlight ASA's achievements on a global stage. (Semenya's was one of only two South African golds in Berlin.) He has also alleged that IAAF officials suggested to him that she should feign injury in the final and pull out to avoid controversy.

Such statements are extraordinary and lack any semblance of credibility. Not even South Africans are convinced by him, least of all his own Sports Ministry, who have been quick to denounce his "lies" and his decision to allow Semenya to run in Berlin.

"Quite clearly, Chuene was putting his quest for medals above everything else. He must resign, he must go."
Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance

Regardless of Chuene's sensational allegations, the IAAF are not entirely blameless in this affair. For one thing, the decision to make public their request to test Semenya on the day of the final of her event smacked as much of political heavy-handedness as it did massive insensitivity. And, perhaps more importantly in the long term, it has raised the issue of the significant grey area that exists between between an athlete being classified as indisputably male or female. For while Semenya is an unusual case of an athlete who, by virtue of possessing both male and female genitalia, appears to be a person with obvious intersex characteristics, she is by no means unique. Intersex conditions of varying degrees - often subtle - appear in as many as one in a thousand people, and could confer significant physiological advantages.

But how do you draw the line between an athlete who is eligible to compete as a female, and one who is not? It is not simply a case of determining whether an individual has two X chromosomes (nominally indicating female) or one each of X and Y (male). The IAAF has its own regulations and guidelines, but it is neither a precise science nor a straightforward decision. There is no easy formula for navigating the shades of grey in between the two genders, and any dividing line drawn by the IAAF (or indeed any other sporting body) is an arbitrary one.

Sadly, once you strip away the science and the politics, it is Caster Semenya herself who is very much the victim in this case. Although the IAAF has promised that she will retain her gold medal from Berlin, it seems likely that she will meet the IAAF's eligibility requirements for competing in women's events. Falling within the shades of grey, her athletics career may well be over almost before it has begun, and she will suffer the indignity of being looked upon by many as neither man nor woman but 'freak'.

That is the real tragedy here. Never mind her career, Caster Semenya's life may well have been ruined in the pursuit of shiny gold. Was the glory really worth it for Leonard Chuene and the ASA?

21 September 2009

FIA's Crashgate verdict is a triumph of politics over justice

Unbelievable.

That is the only word I can think of to describe the FIA's decision today to give Renault a two-year suspended ban from all F1 activities for asking former driver Nelson Piquet Jr to deliberately crash his car at last year's Singapore Grand Prix, in an attempt to influence the result of a race which was ultimately won by Piquet's teammate Fernando Alonso.

It is the equivalent of giving Renault a yellow card for an act in which team principal Flavio Briatore and engineering chief Pat Symonds conspired to manipulate a race in a manner which, although both low-speed and low-risk in the context of most F1 accidents, nonetheless introduced a deliberate degree of risk which endangered Piquet, other drivers, race marshals and spectators.

Two years ago, McLaren were fined a $100m (£62m) and excluded from the constructors' championship for their role in 'Spygate', which to all intents and purposes was a case of common or garden industrial espionage in which they illegally obtained designs from Ferrari. That decision was widely criticised as excessive, with a suspicion that the scale of the punishment was fuelled in part by a long-standing vendetta against former McLaren principal Ron Dennis.

Admittedly, the circumstances in 'Crashgate' are different to Spygate in so far that McLaren protested their innocence throughout and attempted to brazen the affair out, whereas Renault decided not to contest the charge, and voluntarily parted company with Briatore and Symonds last Wednesday.

And yet - and this is what I struggle most to get my head around - Spygate endangered no lives; Crashgate did. This in a year in which motorsport has seen the death of Henry Surtees and serious injury to Ferrari's Felipe Massa, both in freak accidents, and general outrage over cheating in other major sports.

A footballer would expect to receive a greater punishment for a deliberate and dangerous tackle on an opponent than he would for a 'normal' foul. Apparently the same common sense standards do not apply to F1.

I know the FIA were caught between a rock and a hard place. In difficult economic times where Honda have already pulled out of F1, BMW are on their way out and others are considering their position, to impose a draconian penalty today would have been the kind of decision that those in government would euphemistically term 'courageous' (i.e. suicidal). And I know Renault deserve recognition for admitting guilt and taking proactive action.

I understand all these arguments.

But this isn't politics. And it isn't a court of law.

F1, despite also being a (highly lucrative) business, is supposed to be a sport. But it is now transparent for everyone to see - as if it wasn't already obvious - that the FIA values the political expediency of keeping the major motor manufacturers onside more than it does issuing a punishment commensurate with the crime committed.

Is a suspended ban enough to dissuade other teams from committing a similarly dangerous act of cheating when the potential rewards can be counted in tens of millions of pounds? I would like to think so, but I doubt it.

For me, F1 has now divested itself of any remaining shred of integrity, with politics winning out over any sense of justice or proportionate response. Today, I'm ashamed to be a fan of the sport.

14 September 2009

Keeping the C-word private

It's not a word sports fans like to use in polite company, but we have seen the C-word an awful lot in the media in recent weeks.

I mean 'cheating', obviously. (Did you think I was talking about a different word? Shame on you.)

Bloodgate

We have had 'Bloodgate' in rugby union, a very public controversy about Harlequins' mainipulation of the blood rule, where a player with a 'blood injury' can leave the field, substituted, for treatment and subsequently return. This can certainly confer a small advantage: for instance, a fresh pair of legs is brought on, affording the substituted player a few minutes' rest before returning. (Compare this to the rule in cricket which allows a substitute fielder to temporarily replace another player, a loophole which teams regularly exploit to the hilt to routinely rotate players on and off the field, bringing on specialist fielders while allowing bowlers to take a breather.)

The Bloodgate scandal has resulted in Harlequins director of rugby Dean Richards resigning in disgrace with a three-year coaching ban, as well as the departure of chairman Charles Jillings and physio Steph Brennan. (The club has also been fined £260,000, a hefty sum in rugby terms.) 

This has largely been treated as an isolated incident in an otherwise honourable sport, even though others have come forward to suggest that faking blood injuries and other cunning circumnavigations of the rule-book are far from uncommon practices. Indeed, rugby union is a sport often held up - particularly by the football community - as a model of good behaviour, where players properly respect the referee's authority and spend their spare time polishing their halos. It is also a sport where gouging, stamping, biting and any number of other unpleasantries more usually associated with a Friday night pub brawl are commonplace in scrums and rucks, where they frequently escape the attention of referees and TV cameras. Some brush off such acts as part and parcel of a physical game; I think of them as systematic cheating. But apparently we don't talk about that sort of thing in public, do we?

Crashgate

By contrast, Formula 1 is a sport which has historically thrived on the column inches spawned by ongoing controversies, accusations and counter-accusations. Technical arguments over whether so-and-so's front wing or rear diffuser or energy recovery system is legal are commonplace - pick any season in F1's history and you will find at least a couple such disputes. Conspiracy theories abound. We have had the controversy over team orders influencing the outcome of races, which came to a head after Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello was ordered to pull over in the closing metres of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix to gift teammate Michael Schumacher the win. 

But very rarely in F1's not exactly whiter-than-white history have we seen a case as bizarre as the current 'Crashgate' controversy.

The potted summary is thus. At last year's Singapore Grand Prix, Renault's Fernando Alonso, starting towards the back of the grid in a very competitive car, won the race courtesy of a safety car period initiated by teammate Nelson Piquet Jr crashing into a wall shortly after Alonso had made an early fuel stop.

Piquet was sacked by Renault last month, ostensibly for being rubbish (which, to be fair, he generally was); the news caused barely a ripple in the media, being largely expected.

What was much less expected was the announcement two weeks ago of an FIA investigation into the events of the Singapore GP, based on claims that Piquet was ordered to crash deliberately by team principal Flavio Briatore and engineering director Pat Symonds as part of a plan to help Alonso win.

Who knows? Renault, naturally, are claiming Piquet is motivated by bitterness and a desire for revenge. But given F1's chequered history of rule-bending it is far from implausible, particularly given the street circuit nature of the Singapore track, where it would be possible to deliberately crash at relatively low speed with minimal risk to the driver and guarantee the appearance of the safety car by scattering debris across the track.

Regardless, it is a delicious story which the mainstream media have bitten into, and which promises to run and run. F1 aficionados, however, know that such Machiavellian machinations are far from unusual in the sport; 'cheating' is just part of F1's DNA. It always has been; it probably always will be.


Festina-gate the turning point for cycling

Particularly over the last decade or so, cycling has - literally - had cheating in its bloodstream. In a sport as demanding of strength and stamina as road cycling is, it is hardly surprising that cheating has been prevalent among cyclists for decades. In the early days of the Tour de France, we had competitors disqualified for hanging on to trains; in the 60s it was amphetamines; since the late-90s it has been about highly efficient blood-boosting drugs such as EPO and Cera, or even blood swapping.

For the current generation of cyclists and cycling fans, it was the Festina-gate scandal at the 1998 Tour de France which exposed the doping culture in the sport for everyone to see, and which nearly brought one of the world's great sporting events to its knees. And the roll-call of scandal has been incessant ever since, from Operacion Puerto to the disgrace of Floyd Landis, Alexandre Vinokourov, Riccardo Ricco and Stefan Schumacher (I could go on and on) repeatedly twisting the knife ever deeper into the sport's reputation.

The recent announcement of positive EPO tests from samples provided by Spaniards Mikel Astarloza and Inigo Landaluze of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team in June barely merits a mention in the context of a sport which continues to inflict collateral damage on itself, but which has at least been open and increasingly vigilant about pursuing the cheats and trying to make itself clean.

Cycling should be applauded rather than damned for its attitude. It is at least confronting reality, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Football has its head in the sand

Like cycling, cheating has long been endemic in football, whether it is the righteous indignation over Eduardo da Silva's dive, Diego Maradona's celebrated 'Hand of God' goal against England in 1986, or the common practice of systematically committing deliberate acts of cheating - such as tugging an opponent's shirt - which are technically fouls but generally deemed minor enough to escape punishment.

The authorities' success in enforcing rule changes and purging the game of cheating have been distinctly mixed. By and large, major rule changes such as outlawing back passes and tackles from behind have worked well, as has the practice of issuing a straight red card for professional fouls (not that this has stopped defenders committing them, but at least the punishment now fits the crime). However, 'cheating', which runs the whole gamut from shirt-tugging and waving imaginary cards at a referee to diving and other forms of 'simulation', remains largely ignored. And the less said the better about the complacent attitude to drug-testing, where football remains steadfastly a decade or more behind sports such as cycling or athletics.

Video technology is available to help punish the cheats - and aid match officials in making correct decisions - either during or after the fact, as it does in both codes of rugby and several other sports. But both FIFA and UEFA remain vehemently opposed to it. Go figure.

In an ideal world there would be no cheating at all. But most of us are realistic enough to know that where there are rules, then sportspeople will always push the boundaries to the very limit, and will continue to systematically commit deliberate but minor infringements to gain an advantage.

Like it or not, cheating is part and parcel of competitive sport. It can never be completely eliminated, but it can be controlled and punished. What is particularly hard to swallow, though, is when sport's dirty laundry is aired in public to do little more than damp down an outcry or to set an example, with no intention of actually addressing the underlying issue.

It is here that cycling is doing a good job in battling the cheats, backing up words with actions (and results). Football - and I cannot stress this enough - is not. Even though the evidence is there for all to see - frequently from multiple angles in super slow motion - it appears the powers that be would rather keep the C-word private, except where it is convenient and politically expedient.

11 September 2009

SPotY-watch

I posted a blog last week examining the odds on offer on the website of a well-known bookmaker for the winner of BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) .

I still can’t decide who to put my money on, but here are the odds that are currently available:

Jenson Button, 7/4 joint favourite (previously 9/4 favourite)
Jessica Ennis, 7/4 joint favourite (previously 5/2)
Andrew Flintoff 6/1
Andrew Strauss 8/1
Andy Murray 14/1 (previously 4/1)
Stuart Broad 16/1
Phillips Idowu 25/1
Tom Daley 33/1
Amir Khan, 50/1
David Haye, 50/1
Lewis Hamilton, 50/1
Mark Cavendish, 50/1

So, what’s changed?

Moving up:

Jenson Button’s odds have shortened over the past week, despite not having raced since his first lap retirement in Belgium. Sunday's Italian GP at Monza will give us a clearer indication of his prospects for the F1 drivers’ title; he currently leads by 16 points with five races remaining. If he wins the championship, he should be a lock to finish in the top two for SPotY; if his current decline in form proves terminal, he has no chance of winning the award.

Heptathlete Jessica Ennis joins Button as the 7/4 joint favourite. By winning world championship gold, she has already done all she can to influence the voters. It will be interesting to see how strongly the BBC PR machine promotes her cause, with the feel-good story of her recovery from serious injury; it could play a vital role in the outcome of the public vote.

At this moment, my money’s on Ennis to win, regardless of what Button does.

Moving down:

Andy Murray is the big loser over the past week, slipping from 4/1 to 14/1 after his straight sets exit to Marin Cilic in the fourth round of the US Open, the last of 2009’s four Grand Slam tournaments. Moreover, he appears to be carrying a wrist injury which may hinder the end to his season, which means he is unlikely to maintain his number two ranking through to the end of the year. 14/1 looks like remarkably stingy odds to me; Murray’s chance of winning SPotY is now realistically gone.

No change:

That would be everyone else, basically.

Like Ennis, Phillips Idowu (25/1) and Tom Daley’s (33/1) work for the year - at least as far as the public vote is concerned - is done and dusted; neither will get anywhere near the top three anyway.

Amir Khan is yet to defend the WBA light-welterweight title he won from Andreas Kotelnik in July; it is unlikely he will fight again before SPotY takes place. David Haye’s first fight of 2009 will take place on November 7th, when he takes on Nikolai Valuev for the WBA heavyweight title. Both remain 50/1; neither is worth even an each-way bet.

Lewis Hamilton (also 50/1) sits seventh in the F1 standings, with a single win in a season in which the defending champion has been badly let down by his team. He will do well to finish any higher than seventh in the SPotY vote; don’t waste your money.

As far as English cricket’s three representatives are concerned, both Andrew Flintoff (6/1) and Stuart Broad (16/1) are injured and currently absent from the one-day series against Australia. Captain Andrew Strauss (8/1) is still in good form personally, having scored 122 at an average of 41 so far, but his team trail 3-0 in the best-of-seven series and are looking increasingly abject with every match. Flintoff has an outside chance of walking (make that hobbling) away with the SPotY award, buoyed by a wave of sentimentality; Strauss and Broad will almost certainly have the consolation of being part of the Team of the Year.

That leaves only Mark Cavendish (50/1), who celebrated his 50th career win – and his 22nd this year alone – on Monday at the Tour of Missouri, and promptly followed that up with number 51 the following day. Ultimately it will make no difference, as most of the sporting public have little awareness of the Tour de France, let alone a minor late-season stage race in the US. I’ve said elsewhere that I believe that Cavendish deserves to win SPotY on merit, but that’s not how it works in reality. Cav has as much chance of winning SPotY as anyone not named Usain Bolt has of winning the Overseas SPotY award.

Regardless, with Murray’s defeat at the US Open, it looks like the field of genuine contenders has now been reduced from four to three (Button, Ennis, Flintoff). Short of a dramatic scandal, I can’t see things changing significantly until the fate of the F1 title becomes clearer, but I’ll check back in a month or so. You never know, I may have decided who to put my money on by then.

9 September 2009

The Sky's the limit?

You have to give Team Sky credit for having lofty aims. Led by David Brailsford, the mastermind behind British cycling's unprecendeted success at the Beijing Olympics, the team aims to achieve the following three-point plan:

- Create the first British winner of the Tour de France within five years
- Inspire people of all ages and abilities to get on their bikes, through the team's positive profile, attitude and success
- Add further support to competitive cycling in Great Britain

The team, one of two high profile new entrants onto the road race scene for 2010 - Lance Armstrong's Team Radio Shack being the other - has today announced its first six riders, all of whom are British.

The line-up includes Geraint Thomas, an Olympic gold medallist in the team pursuit; Chris Froome, Thomas's Barloworld teammate and a fellow veteran of the Tour de France; Russell Downing, winner of last month's Tour of Ireland; Ian Stannard, third in the 2008 Tour of Britain, who competed in his first Grand Tour at the Giro d'Italia in May; Steve Cummings of Barloworld, and Peter Kennaugh of the GB Academy team.

It's a promising start. Sky will announce a further 20 or so names in the coming weeks; some may be British, although many will not.

Sky's commitment to items two and three of its three-point plan is obvious and unquestionable. The series of six city Skyrides to promote cycling among the general public - you may have seen London Mayor Boris Johnson and TV presenter/actress/model Kelly Brook promoting the London Skyride (which takes place on September 20th) yesterday - is perhaps the most visible component thus far.

However, there is still much work to be done to deliver on its ultimate aim of creating a British Tour de France winner. Which, talented though today's announced signings are, will only be achieved by the presence of a genuine marquee name.

That must surely mean that the name at the top of Brailsford and Sky's wish-list is Bradley Wiggins.

Not Mark Cavendish. The Manxman would certainly guarantee stage wins (he notched up his 23rd of the year - and 51st overall - at the Tour of Missouri yesterday) and a massive public profile for the team. But Cavendish already rides for one of the strongest squads, Columbia-HTC, in the pro peloton, is the central focus of his team, and has stated that he will not be moving for 2010. Sky may one day become Cavendish's home but I wouldn't count on it while the team's primary aim is the Tour's yellow jersey, which is incompatible with Cav's single-minded focus on winning stages and the sprinters' green jersey.

It won't be David Millar either. The 32-year-old remains a contender in individual time trials - he was second, trailing only Fabian Cancellara, in the time trial at the Vuelta A Espana last week - or for breakaway stage wins, but his days of looking to be an overall contender are long gone. He would, however, be a valuable addition to Team Sky, as he amply demonstrated at this year's Tour, where he buried himself in the service of his Garmin-Slipstream team leaders Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde. I would be very surprised if Brailsford wasn't at least asking after his availability. But Millar won't be the team's linchpin.

Which brings us back to 'Wiggo', a multiple gold medallist on the track but an unknown quantity on the road until his breakthrough at the Tour de France in July where he placed a strong fourth, equalling the best ever finish by a British rider. Before then, the prospect of even a top ten finish looked like a pipe dream, particularly when you consider that Carlos Sastre (the 2008 winner), Cadel Evans (2008 runner-up) and Denis Menchov (2009 Giro d'Italia winner) all failed to make the top ten in Paris this year.

Without Wiggins - the only Briton in more than 20 years with the combination of talent and experience to race at the sharp end throughout a three-week Grand Tour - the chances of achieving the top step of the Paris podium within the next five years are either slim (if you're wildly optimistic) or none (if you're anything else).

If Team Sky is serious about delivering a British yellow jersey winner, then extricating Wiggins from his Garmin contract must be the top - make that sole - priority. Today's announcements are a promising start, but that's all they are.

8 September 2009

Cav brings up his half-century

If there's one thing Mark Cavendish possesses in spades, it's an immaculate sense of timing. I've written about this amazing bike rider twice in the past four days, firstly about his sadly all but non-existent chances of winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in December, and then heaping praise on his autobiography, 'Boy Racer'.

The Tour of Missouri kicked off yesterday, and continues to be a happy hunting ground for Cavendish. Last year he signed off his 2008 season with three stage wins and first place in the overall points classification. Yesterday he was first across the line at the end of stage one around the streets of St Louis, seeing off the challenge of J J Haedo and Thor Hushovd, and bagging a $12,500 Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the process.

It was his 22nd victory of a remarkable 2009, marking the 50th win overall of a professional career which is less than three years old.

Like the old saying about death and taxes, there are two things you can guarantee with Cav. Firstly, if he is involved in a sprint finish, put your house on him to win. (His success rate in sprints he has contested this year is close to 90%). And secondly, you can always rely on him to give good quote.

"We try to take control of the finish, we try to take control of the race. It was like a carrot on a string at the finish line."

As ever, he was quick to recognise the contribution of his team in setting up the win, making a point he repeatedly emphasises about how the hardest thing he has to deal with is not the high-stakes, high-intensity last ten seconds of a stage which is his bread and butter, but having to face his colleagues on those occasions when he doesn't deliver victory.

"I don't feel any pressure at all, it's what I enjoy doing. For sure, when I lose then it's hard. If the guys ride like they rode all day and I don't win, that's hard to deal with."

Yesterday, his post-race comments included special recognition for George Hincapie - who Cavendish calls the "grand-daddy of the team" - the grizzled, 36 year-old veteran who is leaving Columbia-HTC for the BMC team at the end of the year. Despite being Lance Armstrong's right-hand man for all seven of his Tour de France wins, Hincapie describes 2009 as one of his "most memorable" years ever.

Talking about 'Big George', Cavendish said:

"To be perfectly honest, I get really emotional about it. He's like a big brother to me. We've worked so well the last few years and he's such a big, big part of the team."

And that's Mark Cavendish for you in a nutshell. Instead of focussing on the milestone of his half-century of wins, he lavished praise on the unselfish heroes who helped him get there.

Like I said, an amazing bike rider. In more ways than one.`

7 September 2009

Review: 'Boy Racer', Mark Cavendish

I have read a large number of sporting autobiographies in my time; some very good - Tony Adams' 'Addicted' and Lance Armstrong's 'It's Not About The Bike' spring readily to mind - many distinctly mediocre. This might just be the best one I have ever read.

Love him or loathe him - and it is difficult to be anywhere in between - Mark Cavendish is to sprinting on two wheels what Usain Bolt is to sprinting on two legs. If road cycling had anywhere near the same profile in the UK as athletics does, more people would be idolising this young man in the same way as the incredible Jamaican athlete.

'Boy Racer' weaves the tale of Cavendish's four stage wins at the 2008 Tour de France with his life story up to and including his win at the 2009 Milan-San Remo classic. Although the book covers only the first two-and-a-bit years of a pro career which still (hopefully) has many successful years to come - and therefore does not include his six stage wins at the 2009 Tour - there is so much packed into the 340-odd pages that it does not feel at all padded.

The book reads in much the same way the man himself conducts himself in interviews: he shoots from the hip with his heart on his sleeve, occasionally inserting foot in mouth. But anyone who has ever seen Cav speak would expect no less: in a PC, PR-conscious world, here is a sportsman who is as brutally honest as he is fast. At times it is painfully obvious who he does and does not respect in the cycling world, and yet he is surprisingly self-critical, self-effacing and not afraid to admit when he has been proven wrong about someone. The book is full of little insights into the mindset of a master practitioner and behind-the-scenes revelations of what it is like to be a professional road cyclist, which make this a cut above the average sporting autobiography. Add this to the fleshing out of a personality far more complex, meticulous and magnanimous (to his team) than the one-dimensional cocky narcissist sometimes portrayed in the media, and what you have here is a compelling tale that had me tearing through the pages much like the man himself does when he has the sniff of the finish line in his nostrils.

'Boy Racer' was unputdownable. I'll be first in line to buy the next chapter of the story of this incredible young man.

5 stars (out of 5)

4 September 2009

Taking responsibility

Having posted only yesterday about the obscene chants directed by a proportion of Manchester United fans at Arsene Wenger last Saturday, I'm pleased to see that further action is already being taken.

In response to an official complaint from Arsenal about the defamatory nature of some of the content of a CD of Man U chants, Amazon have now removed it from their store, following the earlier example of Play.com.

Like Play, Amazon were not under any legal obligation to remove the item from sale, and their statement carefully stresses that, "We would not remove a product from our site because some, or many, people find it to be distasteful or otherwise objectionable. We believe it is censorship to make a product unavailable for those reasons."

Quite right too. There is a fine line to be walked between good sense and censorship that sets my spider-sense tingling slightly but, even after setting my own club allegiance aside, this still feels like a decision which should be applauded. The particular chant which has been the subject of much heated debate in recent days levels an accusation at an individual that is utterly without foundation and therefore renders the CD libellous.

Equally encouraging to see is the news that Man U themselves are pledging affirmative action on their part, with chief executive David Gill to raise the matter of how to stop these offensive chants at the next official fans' forum meeting.

Philip Townsend, director of communications at Old Trafford, said: "We have gone on the record – several times – about this disgusting chant. We don't condone it and have appealed to fans several times in the past – through supporters' groups, the matchday programme and MUTV, but to no avail. There are many chants that opposing fans find objectionable, and this is certainly one to which all decent supporters should object."

In addition to applauding the club's move to take the initiative rather than turn a deaf ear, I personally like the approach they are taking. Rather than it being seen as a club's 'failure to control their fans', as football parlance likes to (incorrectly) term such things, this puts the onus firmly on the supporters to come up with ways of removing - or at least, effectively punishing - one of English football's less endearing features. For sure, the club has a role to play in terms of leading the way; ultimately, though, the fans should take responsibility for their own behaviour, and not wait for some authority figure to impose a hard-handed solution. Obscene chants are the fans' failure to control themselves, not the club's.

It's a positive first step. Let's hope that it not only leads to a positive change among Man U supporters, but that it also encourages other clubs to take similar steps. Arsenal has a history of anti-Semitic chants directed at Tottenham fans (now, thankfully, largely eradicated), and more recently of homophobic slurs against former Gunner Ashley Cole. Liverpool taunt Man U about the Munich air crash; the Old Trafford faithful reciprocate with cruel reminders of Hillsborough. And Sol Campbell has been subjected to particularly vile chants by supporters of the Tottenham team he once captained.

It's not big, it's not clever, and those who attempt to hide behind the wafer-thin defence of 'traditional football banter' are not so much politically incorrect as Neanderthal in their beliefs. I'm sure that all right-thinking football fans hope that the game can also evolve accordingly.

Everyone can win, except for the ones who can't

I was perusing the website of a well-known betting company last night, and noticed the latest odds they are offering on the winner of the 2009 BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) award, which will be presented on December 13th. Their top 12 are currently:


Jenson Button, 9/4 favourite

Jessica Ennis, 5/2

Andy Murray, 4/1

Andrew Flintoff, 6/1

Andrew Strauss, 8/1

Stuart Broad, 16/1

Phillips Idowu, 25/1

Tom Daley, 33/1

Amir Khan, David Haye, Lewis Hamilton and Mark Cavendish, all 50/1


There can be no argument about some of the favourites.


Phillips Idowu and Jessica Ennis both returned from Berlin as world champions in their individual events; the latter’s performance being particularly impressive and heart-warming after missing last year’s Beijing Olympics with serious injury.


Should Jenson Button recover from his mid-season wobbles to win the Formula 1 drivers’ title, he will certainly be involved in the final reckoning, although whether he deserves to be the favourite for the award is an entirely different discussion. (Lewis Hamilton’s inclusion, even at 50/1, is both lazy and ludicrous.)


I agree with Andy Murray’s position as third favourite, in a year in which he has made significant progress and risen to number two in the world, a phenomenal achievement in an era in which men’s tennis can boast greater strength in depth than it has had for many years. If he wins the US Open next week, expect him to immediately become the short-odds favourite.


But, seriously, three cricketers in the top six?


England captain Andrew Strauss certainly merits consideration as the leading Ashes run-scorer with 474, over 200 more than the next best English player. In this calendar year, he has already scored 1,071 runs, including four centuries, at an average of 56.


Stuart Broad has emerged as an all-rounder of great potential, averaging an impressive 29 with the ball in 2009 and a respectable but not earth-shattering 28 with the bat. His credentials are also boosted by having saved his best performance for the critical final Ashes Test, with his devastating five-for spell in Australia’s first innings proving to be the key turning point. But it’s also easy to forget that, earlier in the summer, his place in the team was being seriously questioned. He’s worth a place in the shortlist, no more.


But both Strauss and Broad are considered longer shots than the talismanic Andrew Flintoff, who retired from Test cricket after, whisper it quietly, being little more than a bit-part player in the Ashes series. Yes, there was a wonderful spell of fast bowling at Lord’s which led to victory in the second Test, and a final little cameo on the final afternoon at the Oval when he crucially ran out Aussie captain Ricky Ponting with a direct hit. But in truth ‘Freddie’ was a shadow of the colossus of 2005, and this has been reflected in his 2009 Test averages: 27 with the bat (well down on his career average of 32) and 44 with the ball (versus 33). With both bat and ball, Flintoff has had a statistically poorer year than Broad.


Having said that, Flintoff is a genuine SpotY contender, because he will benefit from a huge groundswell of goodwill, the same kind of heart-over-head voting that saw Ryan Giggs crowned PFA Player of the Year earlier in the year. It doesn’t make it right, though.


Boxing boasts two candidates at 50/1. Amir Khan’s inclusion in the list is understandable, having won the WBA light-welterweight title in July. David Haye is more problematic. Yes, he is a multiple world cruiserweight champion, but there is also the small matter of him not having fought so far this year. His presence in the list is based on his upcoming fight with Nikolai Valuev for the WBA heavyweight belt in November. In both boxers’ cases, a top-three finish on the night would be punching above their weight.


That just leaves two. Tom Daley, who will still be 15 when the SPotY award is presented, is the 33/1 seventh favourite. Having first exploded into the public consciousness last year as our youngest Olympian, he has been even more impressive this year, winning the world 10 metre title and becoming the number one-ranked men’s 10 metre diver. Sadly, though, because diving merits barely a footnote in anything other than an Olympic year, Daley is unlikely to feature at the business end of the evening. He deserves better.


And last, but by no means least, we have Mark Cavendish: the ‘Manx Missile’, ‘Cannonball Cavendish’, or just plain Cav. 50/1, the same odds as Hamilton, winner of one grand prix in 2009. Twice the price of Idowu. More than twenty times less likely to win than Button, who has been aided considerably by possessing what has been, for most of the season, the best car on the F1 grid.


So what has this 24-year old cyclist from the Isle of Man done in 2009 that merits closer consideration? He has, in only his third full year as a professional, supplanted Chris Boardman as the most successful British road cyclist in terms of career victories. He has 21 wins to his name this year alone (equivalent, say, to a striker scoring 40 goals in a season), including three stages of the Giro d’Italia and a staggering six at the Tour de France, more than anyone has managed for 30 years. He is indisputably the fastest sprinter in the world; unquestionably the current master practitioner of his art.


He will also be lucky to go any further than making the BBC’s on-the-night shortlist of ten. This, despite the current holder of the SPotY award being a cyclist (the thoroughly deserving Chris Hoy), the success of Bradley Wiggins at July’s Tour de France (he finished fourth overall) and the impending entry of the heavily-funded Sky team, whose stated aim is to nurture and produce a British winner of the Tour. I’ll be surprised if Cavendish finishes higher than seventh or eighth in the voting.


That, in my opinion, is symptomatic of negligence on the part of the BBC, whose remit is to educate, entertain and inform. For me, this means giving some of the lower-profile sports, particularly those where we have genuinely world-class performers, some much-needed publicity as part of the SPotY programme,


Instead, I can guarantee you that the build-up to the big night - which has already started on the BBC Sport website - will focus on the three or four candidates whose stories will generate the most column inches (and make the most popular Radio Times covers): Ennis, the girl next door who fought back from career-threatening injury; Button, the forgotten man of F1, reborn in a Brawn team which nearly ceased to exist last winter; Flintoff, the battered but unbowed retiring hero who helped bring the Ashes back home; Murray, our best hope since Fred Perry for that long-lost Wimbledon singles title.


And on the night itself, we will spend lots of time focussing on the big six - football, cricket, athletics, Formula 1, boxing, tennis – which have produced 39 of SPotY’s 55 winners, with most of the others receiving little more than a token mention (particularly for sports like cycling where the BBC can conveniently claim it does not have any TV rights).


That, for me, is a big failure on the BBC’s part. SPotY nowadays is about feeding the lowest common denominator – give the people a feel-good, soundbite-friendly two hours focussing on the sports we all know about. Entertain first; educate and inform second (if at all).


For what it’s worth, my personal criterion for determining who gets my vote on SPotY night is a simple one: which UK sportsperson has, in my opinion, achieved the most in their chosen field in 2009? No more, no less. Not who has the highest profile, or who is the best ambassador, or who “is the best since …”, or who is the pluckiest runner-up, or who gets my sentimental vote, or who was on the cover of Radio Times in the run-up to SPotY.


On that basis, regardless of the merits of Ennis (who I think will win), or anything Button, Murray or Haye might achieve between now and December 13th, I will be casting my vote for Mark Cavendish. Simply because he is the best in the world at what he does, and arguably one of the very best ever.


He won’t win Sports Personality of the Year. But he really should do.

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