Tag Archives: sport

Book review – The Boys in the Boat

Just finished reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Barry’s selection for our latest West Surrey Boys and the Book Club.

Boys in the boat

Essentially a sports book, its tag-line is An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin. But it does so much more than tell the story of the Washington University’s all-conquering nine-man rowing team and their quest to win the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic games.

The author skilfully weaves the narrative around Joe Rantz, a young lad abandoned by his family and struggling to find his way in the world. But it also reveals much about the Great Depression in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s, and the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists in Germany at much the same time.

And it’s a morality tale of the American Dream, and how the impoverished sons of loggers, farmers and shipyard workers pulled together to defeat their local rivals from California University, more privileged rivals from Ivy league colleges on the East Coast, then the elite teams of Oxford & Cambridge, and – ultimately – the representatives of Hitler’s Third Reich, in the German boat at the infamous Berlin Olympics, just 3 years before the outbreak of World War II.

A vast amount of research, from talking to Joe before his death in 2007 at the age of 93, from journals of the rowers and their esteemed coaches, newspaper reports and much more, has resulted in a long book of close to 400 pages.

But I hung on every word, enjoying the historical, political and emotional under-currents, as much as the perfect synchronicity of the team’s minds and oars in every race.

Already being called Chariots of Fire on Water, I can’t wait to see the book retold on the movie screen. The Weinstein Company have recently announced the cast….Daniel Radcliffe and Bradley Cooper will star, Ken Branagh will direct. Prepare to be pulled along on a tide of emotion.

Tennis equality

Caution – minefield ahead!

I know this is an explosive subject, but I’m afraid I’ll self-combust if I don’t add my fourpenny worth. Which is a whole lot less than any professional tennis player – male or female – gets for lacing up their highly sponsored shoes these days.

The hoary old argument about equal pay in tennis has been reignited by the crass comments from Raymond Moore, a 69 year-old South African and former player himself. As Chief Executive of Indian Wells, the most recent venue on the professional tour, he said: “the women’s game rides on the coat-tails of the men. Female players should get down on their knees every day in thanks to Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal.”

He’s no longer the Chief Executive. But he has apologised.

The words he chose to express his opinion were really stupid. The point he was trying to make isn’t.

Serena Williams, the modern game’s most successful female player, and Martina Navratilova, an all-time great, piled in to cut off Mr Moore’s head and stick it on the umpire’s chair, in the midday heat. Martina said his comments were “extremely prejudiced”, and threatened that female players would boycott Indian Wells in future if Mr Moore didn’t resign.

But Novak Djokovic, the Serbian world number one mens player, came out fighting…as he always does.

Winner at Indian Wells again this year, he said: “male tennis players should earn more money than their female counterparts because more people watch them play.”

He also commented: “women fought for what they deserve and they got it”, but he claimed prize money should be “fairly distributed based on who attracts more attention, spectators and who sells more tickets”.

There has been equal prize money in all four Grand Slam events – the Australian Open, US Open, French Open and Wimbledon – since 2007, and combined Masters events such as Indian Wells and Miami pay the same to men and women.

But is that really appropriate…or just another example of political correctness winning out over common sense?

Let’s look at some facts:

  • the UK TV viewing numbers for the Wimbledon finals in 2015 were: mens’ 9.2 million; womens’ 4.3 million
  • in the 2014 Wimbledon finals, another epic battle between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic went the distance – 5 sets – and lasted 4 minutes short of 4 hours; in the ladies’ final, Petra Kvitova defeated Eugenie Bouchard 6-3 6-0 in 55 minutes
  • prices for resold tickets for the women’s match were less than 20% of the men’s
  • Djokovich & Kvitova each won £1.76m – £7,457 for each minute played by Novak, and a whopping £32,000 for every 60 seconds Petra was on court that day in SW19

Sure, I’m being selective with my statistics, but the key point remains: women play a maximum of 3 sets in Grand Slams, men play 5. If women also played 5, an equal job would clearly justify equal pay. Just like it does – rightly so – in the workplace, or any other arena of modern life.

Matthew Syed – the excellent Sunday Times journalist – lays bare the madness of equal tennis pay in his bravely worded article yesterday:

There is a “vast gulf in interest that exists between the men’s and women’s game. The latest WTA (womens’) media deal is worth £365 million over ten years; the ATP (mens’) is estimating £904 million revenues over the same period.”

“Every right-minded person would agree that a woman should earn the same as a man for doing the same job, say in an office. But top male players are effectively doing a different job. They are persuading more of the public to pay through the turnstiles and on TV. Why should they have to cede this income to female counterparts?”

“And what would this mean beyond tennis? Should top-flight female footballers, who secure gates of a few hundred, earn the same as men, who play in front of tens of thousands and have secured multibillion-pound TV deals? And let us look at the reverse perspective too. Would it not be absurd for Gisele Bündchen to give up her income to male models who earn less, just because they have the same formal job title?”

See, I told you it was dangerous ground.

(image courtesy of dreamstime.com).

Ultimately, market forces and common sense should surely prevail. But – in my humble opinion – in the sensitive area of equal pay for professional tennis players in major tournaments, they haven’t. Political correctness has won another game.

Ticket pricing

Australian Open 2016 Men’s final $395 for category 3 seating, Women’s final $195 for category 3 seating

French Open 2016 Men’s final from 130 euros, Women’s final from 85 euros

Wimbledon 2016 Men’s final from £160, Women’s final from £133

 

 

Tennis – and drugs

I love tennis.

Watching a close match between two top professionals at one of the Grand Slams is like seeing a gunslinging shoot-out in Dodge City. Or gladiators standing toe-to-toe in the Colosseum, until the death.

It’s raw, almost primeval, entertainment.

Often a draining experience for spectators, for the players it must be as physically – and mentally – exhausting as running a marathon. Or being Boris Johnson’s barber.

In a Grand Slam tournament, spread over two weeks, you should get a free day before your next match. But for Davis Cup ties, and regular tournaments, you could well be out on court the day after a gruelling gun fight.

So the ability of your creaking body to recover becomes critical.

Meldonium is used to treat ischaemia, a lack of blood flow to parts of the body. Particularly in cases of angina or heart failure. It carries more oxygen to blood tissue. It increases exercise capacity for athletes, and improves their recovery time.

Unless you’ve been shacked up at a Nick Bollettieri training camp all week, you’ll know that Maria Sharapova came clean, as it were, on Monday that she had tested positive for Meldonium at the Australian Open in January.

As a result, she has been provisionally suspended from the sport and is likely to receive a potentially career-ending ban.

But in a bravura media performance – worthy of an early nomination for next year’s Oscars? – she pleaded her innocence:

  • It was prescribed to me by my family doctor, and I’ve been taking it for 10 years. Really, Maria? Was that for your lifelong heart problem? Oh no, perhaps it was the family diabetes history. My, you’ve done well in the circumstances…
  • I knew it as mildronate, not meldonium. Oh, come on. You have a highly paid team of medics, nutritionists, physios and sports scientists on your Kremlin-sized payroll. They must have known that WADA had pre-warned in September 2015 it would be added to the banned substance list from 1st January 2016

Excuse my cynicism. It is possible that this has all been a terrible, innocent oversight. But Maria Sharapova has been the world’s highest paid female athlete – not just tennis player – for 10 years. She has a PR team that would devour Donald Trump’s…and he’s on the verge of becoming leader of the free world. She controls every aspect of her sweet Sugarpova life. Monday’s performance smacked of damage limitation, from the sombre black outfit, to the subdued lighting, and the mea culpa before the tennis authority’s own outing of her transgression.

Tennis is under pressure. At the Australian Open this year, a report from the BBC and Buzzfeed alleged that widespread match-fixing has been taking place. And that the authorities have been covering it up.

In the wake of the Sharapova Meldonium scandal, Rafa Nadal has had to deny ever taking performance-enhancing drugs. And people have drawn attention to the genteel nature of the sport 20 years ago – all wooden rackets and gentle rallies – compared with the modern game’s full-on, snarling, physical brutality.

I’m afraid I doubt Maria’s innocence. She should – and will – receive a ban. 4 years for confirmed abuse, 2 years if the independent review believes her back-story.

The game will miss her.

The real question is how much wider is performance-enhancing drug abuse.

And how can we now really know if Novak Djokovic’s 5-set victory over Andy Murray at the 2016 US Open Final in September – saving 4 match points in the 4th set before winning in a gruelling, gladiatorial match lasting almost 5 hours – is clean, or substance-enhanced?

 

Tottenham Hotspur – a long and painful love affair

I’ve supported Tottenham Hotspur Football Club for nigh on 60 years.

That’s a long time to remain faithful.

We lived in south east London in the 1960s, so if I’m honest my youthful commitment to the north London club probably had more to do with their recent success, than with geography.

Crystal Palace would have been the obvious choice, but they hadn’t won the famous Double – the gruelling old First Division championship and the still magical FA Cup – as Spurs had in 1960-61.

Besides, Palace were rubbish, only ascending to English football’s top table in 1969-70, and then only for a few seasons, before yo-yoing back down to the lower divisions.

No, I had pledged my young footballing soul to the Cockerel of White Hart Lane, and there was no turning back.

Unfortunately, the last 50 years for Spurs fans have been as frustrating as waiting for a politician to speak the unvarnished truth: they did once, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the next time….

Sure, we’ve had some sporadic success since those heady 1960s Glory Days:

  • League Cup wins in 1970-71 and 1972-73. But it was only the League Cup….
  • winning the inaugural UEFA Cup in 1972 at least gave me some temporary bragging rights in the school playground
  • back-to-back FA Cup wins in 1980-81 and 1981-82. Argentinian Ricky Villa won the first of those with a dazzling solo effort, before opting out of the 1982 final because of the ongoing Falklands War

A couple more isolated Cup wins followed, but it’s largely been a fallow harvest throughout my adult life. And completely barren as far as The Big One is concerned…..

Liverpool dominated the First Division league in the 1970s and 1980s, Manchester United the Premier League in the 1990s and 2000s, with recent success also for Chelsea, Manchester City, and – the hardest of all to bear – was north London rivals Arsenal winning the Premier League three times in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

And through all those long, lean years, Spurs’ highest league position was 2nd in 1962-63. A few 3rds flattered to deceive, but for long spells we were condemned to mid-table mediocrity, the Final Score teleprinter churning out details of yet another humbling defeat at 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon.

But could that all be about to change….?

In a wondrously unpredictable season, and with only 12 games left, Leicester City stand – unbelievably – on the summit and Spurs are 2nd, a mere 2 points further back, after a dramatic away win against Manchester City on Sunday. And we have a much better goal difference than all the other contenders.

Could it really happen? Could my beloved Tottenham finally win the Premier League?

I hope so.

It would be a good morality tale. Commitment, love and loyalty are not always easy bedfellows, but if you remain faithful you will reap rewards over the long-term. The journey may sometimes be hard, but you will learn much about yourself and about the object of your passion during the adventure.

But if Spurs blow it this time, that’s it. It’s over.

I’ll support Leicester next season. I went there once. And blue has always been my favourite colour.

 

Black Box Thinking

I remember Matthew Syed as a table tennis player. The best in England for many years, as it happens, as well as competing for Great Britain in two Olympic Games.

But since hanging up his dimpled bat, he has become a journalist, sports commentator, pundit and broadcaster. And an excellent communicator he is too, winning prizes for his work at The Times and also for his first book, Bounce.

I heard him on Radio 4 today, talking about his latest book Black Box Thinking. It certainly got me thinking too. The subject matter is how to achieve incremental improvements by learning from failure.

Matthew highlighted this by contrasting the aviation industry with the UK health service. Over recent decades, the aviation industry has improved its safety record significantly by being transparent about its failures. An extreme – and topical – example is the Black Box which, if found, should give a detailed insight into the cause of a crash. This will be used, if at all possible, to prevent a similar recurrence.

In the health service, due mainly to surgeons’ egos and the high cost of litigation for malpractice, there is a culture of covering up any mistakes, rather than learning from them. As a result, hundreds of thousands of patients die each year from preventable medical errors.

His arguments are much more complex than I’ve summarised here, but the principle is compelling. He illustrates this further by drilling down into Dave Brailsford’s transformation of the Team Sky pro cycling team. He believed it was possible to make a 1% improvement in a number of small areas, enabling a quantum leap in performance from the cumulative gains. He encouraged the team to think about possible weaknesses in all their assumptions.

Just one small example was that by analysing the mechanics’ area in the team truck, he discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So he had the floor painted pristine white, in order to spot any impurities more easily.

Whether developing a new product, honing a core skill or just trying to get a critical decision right, Black Box Thinkers are not afraid to face up to mistakes. In fact, they see failure as the very best way to learn. Rather than denying their mistakes, blaming others or attempting to spin their way out of trouble, these institutions and individuals interrogate errors as part of their future strategy for success.

How many of us, hand on heart, can say that we have such a healthy relationship with failure?

Learning from failure has the status of a cliché, but this book reveals the astonishing story behind the most powerful method of learning known to mankind, and reveals the arsenal of techniques wielded by some of the world’s most innovative organizations. Their lessons can be applied across every field – from sport to education, from business to health.

Interesting spin, eh? Amazing what he learned from a bit of ping pong.

 

The sands of time

I wrote recently about a brutally fascinating book, Being Mortal.

It struck several chords, rather loudly. Not just how best to spend your end of life, when you know that you’re probably going to die quite soon. Hopefully, at that stage the medical profession will give you some palatable, more humane options, instead of fulfilling their surgical obligations to maintain life as long as possible, through any means available.

In sporting parlance, I’m close to hearing the bell for the start of the final lap of the 1,500 metre race that is my life.  At 58, I’ve hopefully got a long final lap still to run, but I think it’s fair to say that my PB is some distance behind in the rear view mirror.

I never used to read obituaries in the newspapers, but I find myself increasingly drawn to them. Most are about people who have had incredible, interesting and rewarding lives. Poets. Soldiers. Politicians. Writers. Sporting icons. Movie stars.

Listening to Desert Island Discs is also a source of simultaneous joy and envy. Hearing an interesting guest uncover their life story and achievements, to the soundtrack of meaningful music, is a delight. But it’s also a violent kick in the shins, the pain screaming that my own days are numbered. And demanding to know what I’ve achieved, compared to titans of industry, sporting giants, artistic legends.

To continue with the sporting analogies:

“You might be on the back nine of life, but it’s good to finish strong.” 

Morton Shaevitz, Refire! Don’t Retire: Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life

So much to do, and so little time…..

 

Murray v Kyrgios – endurance v brilliance

Nick Kyrgios announced himself on the world stage over the last 12 months, reaching the quarter finals of Wimbledon in 2014 and the Australian Open in 2015.

Watching the young Aussie play Andy Murray in the first round of the US Open earlier this week was a real treat for tennis fans.

Kyrgios is a precocious talent, making the former US Open & Wimbledon champion look ordinary at times. Combined with his youth – he’s just 20 – and a reckless attitude, the Aussie is a breath of fresh air for spectators and tournament organisers. He puts bums on seats, as they say, like Nastase or McEnroe did, back in the day.

But that same approach that won him some incredible rallies, and the third set, also meant he would inevitably lose the match. If he works out that it is possible to entertain and grind out points, games, sets and matches, I believe he has the ability and potential to become a top 5 player at some stage.

But if he doesn’t learn quickly – and also curb some of his off-court antics – that potential may never be reached.

After the Murray defeat, Kyrgios  took a chewing gum wad straight out of his mouth and handed it to a female assistant, when asked to do a court-side interview with a journalist. And recently he abused Stan Wawrinka on court, saying that another professional player had “banged his girlfriend”.

You know he’s creating a stir when Shane Warne, a renowned Aussie larrikin himself, was moved to write an open letter this week to the troubled young tennis player .

 In the open letter on his Facebook page the Cricket great said Kyrgios had 'a lot to learn'

If Kyrgios learns to add the endurance and focus of Murray and Djokovich to his undoubted talent, he’ll zoom up the rankings. But if he continues to show a lack of respect to the sport, spectators, female assistants and his fellow players, he’s in danger of exhausting everyone’s patience and diluting his own potential.

And that would be a waste.

Golf

Is there something in your life that you dip into, and out of, over the years? Like embroidery, or jigsaw-puzzle puzzling? Or an attempt to learn a foreign language?

I’ve had bursts of golfing enthusiasm at different times in my 58 years. And over the last couple of months, it’s been a veritable feast of hooked drives, double bogies and missed short putts after years of swinging famine.

I’ve been lucky enough to play locally in Surrey, with my brother (club captain in 2014) and nephews at the beautiful Hankley Common GC , and at our local West Surrey course with neighbour Steve. In the USA with old friend Michael Warren at Richter Park in Connecticut. And, most spectacularly, at Bermuda’s coast-hugging Mid Ocean Club with friend and MOC member Phil Barnes. And, just last week, with all the Anderson boys at the somewhat unloved Kent & Surrey Club at Edenbridge in rural Kent.

We’ve watched  frankly unhealthy amounts of the game on TV, especially the closing stages of the golfing Majors, staying up late to see the epic closing rounds of the Masters and US Open, and the unscheduled Monday finish to this year’s Open at soggy St. Andrews.

And just last week, I wandered up the road to the practice day of the Senior Open at glorious and historic Sunningdale, getting up close and personal with the game’s legends, and enjoying a free lesson from the R&A coaching gurus.

A veritable golfing overdose, after years of cold turkey away from the game.

And what have I learnt?

That golf is a metaphor for life.

One day you can play a single stroke, or hole or – if the game’s gods are smiling on you – a back nine almost as well as a professional. Or way better than your handicap, anyway. But mostly, you’re likely to blow a decent round with a bad drive, a triple bogey and a mindset that means you’ll lurch from crisis to crisis after that single error.

In life, you’ll think you’re on a roll after passing an exam, or getting lucky with that nurse you always fancied in A&E. Or finding a pound coin left in the gym locker.

But then…..BANG. The door of optimism will be slammed in your face, as surely as Tiger Woods will – allegedly – whip out his fairway wood at the first sight of a blonde cocktail waitress.

You’ll fail your physics paper by 1 mark; the nurse will dump you in favour of a single handicapper; the gym sub will be increased by £10 a month.

You’re a flick of a sand wedge and a single putt away from a birdie, but moments later you’ve under-clubbed, taking 3 to get out of a steep bunker and the birdie has slipped from your grasp as quickly as Europe have snatched victory from the jaws of a Ryder Cup defeat.

Call me pessimistic, but life in the long run is more likely to be a 3 putt rather than a chip-in from off the green.

Although there’s always been the ring of truth in Gary Player’s well-worn quotation:  “the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

Time to hit the driving range, then. Until a new jigsaw puzzle distracts me. Or the next Italian lesson.

Bermuda – a pivotal place

What’s been the most defining time – or place – in your life?

Marriage? The birth of your first child? When Michael Thomas scored that last minute goal against Liverpool to win the title for Arsenal in 1989? Or when the school bully smashed your head against the climbing frame in the last week of summer term?

For me, it was the 7 years or so I spent in Bermuda in the 1980s.

Not that there haven’t been other equally significant moments – passing my professional exams; marrying my lovely wife Gillian; taking 8-14 to tie the nail-biting cricket match for my school against our local rivals. But the relatively short time I spent on the tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean has had a disproportionately important part to play in my 58 year life story.

Why? Probably because of age and circumstances. As a newly qualified 24 year-old bean-counter, jumping on a plane to a strange place where I didn’t know anybody, was – with hindsight, at least – quite a brave thing to do.

We’ve just returned from a holiday to the island – our first time back in Bermuda since 2000 – and it has only reinforced what a special, beautiful place it is and how it will always be deposited right at the front of my ageing memory bank.

The pink, sandy beaches are still unspoiled, empty and inviting. The golf courses are as challenging and photogenic as ever. The fish chowder at the Lobster Pot restaurant still tastes as good as in 1982….laced with rum and Outerbridge’s sherry peppers, of course. Hiring a scooter is still the best way to see the island. As long as you don’t fall asleep on one as I did, feeling tired and emotional after a long, hard day playing hockey.

Scratch the Bermudian surface now, however, and you’ll see some differences compared with 3 decades ago: the population is declining; the economy is mired in debt; there are perpetual immigration challenges; there is unemployment for the first time in decades; and gang warfare has resulted in occasional shootings.

But for the resident and tourist alike, this place is still pretty close to Paradise. If you like idyllic beaches, turquoise water, any water or land-based sport, a temperate climate, good food, Gosling’s Black Seal rum and a party, it’s hard to think of anywhere else that’s much better.

From a personal perspective though, the clincher is people. Of those who I first met over 30 years ago, some are now spread around the world, some are native Bermudians and some are long-term residents. But all are kindred spirits.

It’s as though time has stood still. We share a mutual passion for wonderful Bermuda, and I will always count my blessings for the time I spent there and for the friends I have made through being there.

I know that when I’m dribbling into my cornflakes at the nursing home, I’ll still be able to conjure up a rejuvenating image of drinking Amstels at the Robin Hood on a Friday night, strains of “Don’t You Want Me Baby” leaking into the humid night as we hatch plans for tomorrow’s sporting activities and party location.

 

 

 

 

Melbourne – a sporting finale

Day 19 – Monday, February 02

Our last day in Melbourne and it all seems to be about sport…..

The post mortem of the mens final of the Australian Open continues. Was Novak Djokovich faking injury? Why did Andy Murray collapse, again, so comprehensively….was it physical or mental weakness? And what was that demonstration all about, not covered on air but suspending play for quite a few minutes while the security guys ejected the culprits?

No matter. It’s no wonder the players call it The Friendly Slam, the Aussie Open is a fantastic tournament – for players and spectators alike – and having now completed my own personal Grand Slam, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to any tennis fan.

The Socceroos won the Asian Cup and all the newspapers are full of admiration for their boys.

And Cadel Evans, that Aussie cycling legend and only Aussie winner of the Tour de France, competed in his final pro race yesterday – The Great Ocean Road Race – and has now hung up his bicycle clips at the grand old age of 37.

A split party for Gill and me today. Gill has ventured out to the laundry and to explore the Botanic Gardens. I’m making another sporting pilgrimage to the magnificent Melbourne Cricket Ground, home to 100,000 spectators and scene of many more English defeats.

The Adelaide Oval tour was probably more enjoyable, the sheer scale of the MCG is overwhelming. But it’s hugely impressive, especially as it’s gearing up for the ICC World Cup in 10 days time. There are over 250 TV screens dotted around the stadium….the usual maker’s logo has to be covered up and replaced by the World Cup TV sponsor. Similar attention to detail is in evidence everywhere.

The tour gives a fascinating trip into the bowels of the stadium – the physio room, the players’s changing rooms, the press area, the dining facilities, the members’ Long Room and Committee Room, and much more.

And also in the MCG is the National Sports Museum.  For a relatively small country – in population rather than geographic terms – Australia punches way above its collective weight.

 The Museum houses impressive memorabilia about its wide-ranging sporting success through the years, and much film reel about the MCG hosting the Olympics of 1956 and the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

My favourite parts of the extensive Museum exhibits were Ian Thorpe’s trainers – roughly twice the size of my own pathetically delicate feet – and the hologram of Shane Warne, talking about his career from the very MCG changing room that we had just explored.

If you love sport, Australia in January and early February is a pretty special place to be…although I suspect that’s the same for the rest of the year.

We’re off out now for our final supper in Melbourne, as glorious evening sunshine bounces off the Yarra river through our hotel room.

Not sure about connectivity in the Tasmanian wilderness for the next couple of weeks, so daily blogging might not be possible. And spending time in a camper van will be a far cry from luxury hotels in Adelaide and Melbourne……see you on the other side.