Saturday, 1 October 2016

Is Greyer than Grey ok?

Only a few weeks on from the Olympics and it turns out that British sport is starting to resemble an over aged cheese. What was seen as the premium product is starting to go just a little bit whiffy. The smell is faint though - a slight discomforting odour which occasionally pervades through. That's because fundamentally no one has actually done anything wrong. Indeed further to that, the channels with which those (non) offences have come to light are often as suspect as the supposed misdeed.

Those channels both have significant motive for causing the
Is Sport Starting to Smell?
Image ©  Cassey Bisson
trouble or the discussion that has followed. On the one side, a national (almost tabloid) newspaper has the significant incentive of selling more papers (and therefore advertising space) by creating the most sensational story possible. And on the other, the Fancy Bears as they refer to themselves, are seemingly intent on showing the world that the concentration on Russian State involvement in doping is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, these motives don't  make the allegations incorrect.

The first, that of the ex-England football manager Sam Allardyce, is probably the clearest. Even he admits to a major miscalculation in meeting the agents / journalists to advise on how to 'bend' transfer rules and in regard to the comments that he made against the royal family and Roy Hodgson. There are many though who say that he would have been innocent if not for the media 'plotting' to bring him down. Anyone who has read my posts before will know I am generally hugely against stings by the media but I have to say that this has highlighted 'good and bad stings'. This was not a matter of sexual indiscretion or lifestyle choice for which I believe there is very rarely any legitimate public interest. It was a matter of clearly breaking the rules. As the England manager - the very pinacle of representing British sport, it was imperative that Allerdyce played the ethical line. He didn’t and was rightly sacked. His moaning about entrapment is purely self-pity. It is arguable that the might not have gone looking for it. He certainly didn’t run from it. The flip side of course is (aside from the comments) he didn't actually break any rules...he seems to have advised on how to, and the inference is that he may have accepted payment had it gone further but nothing actually happened. 

That Peak Form Look
Image ©  Surrey Council
The second incident leaves a really bad taste in the mouth even though there is in theory no evidence of wrongdoing. For me,  Sir Bradley Wiggins is the poster boy for the changed face of (British) cycling. Arm in arm with Brailsford, he represents the clear line that British Cycling and later SKY have taken in terms of their no drugs, no needles policy. And yet, the much exalted policy of marginal gains is starting to leave a grey area around how close up to the line those marginal gains were pushed. The response from Brailsford to the Wiggins TUEs along the lines of 'we have not done anything that we didn’t have the right to do' hardly provides comfort that rules were followed rather than bent. I don't know anyone whose asthma is bad enough to need an injection of such a strong drug (although I don’t doubt they exist). I doubt that person would record themselves in their autobiography as being in peak condition at that point. I doubt they would categorically say in the same book that there is a no needles policy within the team if they required such a medication (shades of Armstrong there perhaps) and I doubt that they would only have a need for such an aggressive intervention before key races. Having said that I don’t know any elite athletes either. When contrasted to Callum Skinner's excellent reaction to the TUEs exposure, the reactions of Wiggins and Brailsford feel like stuttering, floundering defences of potential guilt which of course adds to that slight uneasiness…

It seems clear that no rules have been broken. But Sky and British Cycling have presented a proactive image of being whiter than white. And that's clearly not quite the case - more Greyer than Grey perhaps. We want British sport, any sport, to be watchable, we want it to be a competition played on a level playing field. Unfortunately Wiggins concept of generating that "level playing field" is probably not what the public thought (hoped) that they were watching.

What both these examples show is that what the vast majority of the public wants to think is happening - transparency in sport, clarity that what they see is real, confirmation that there is a level playing field both in and out of the arena - is not there. Britain it seems is actually no better than any of the other competing nations which casts doubt on the missiles thrown at Fifa as well as the condemnation of Russia. Many, I think would take ability the to hold the moral high ground at the expense of some of the 'success' that we have enjoyed.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Excellence, Friendship & Respect

There was nothing like the anticipation that accompanied the London 2012 Olympics. On the contrary, the lead up, heavily tainted with allegations of doping together with the more recent expose of systematic doping at country level left many wondering how 'real' the events were that they were watching. The absolute focus on winning at any cost both to improve the individuals personal net worth and to aid the political bragging rights between the top countries had perhaps stretched the Olympic ideal to its absolute limit.

The Olympics have always been slightly removed from other sports contests. The central ideals flow from three core values : Excellence, friendship and respect. Indeed the official IOC website defines the Olympic Creed as follows:  
"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." 
The pursuit of medals, seemingly at all costs seems to address only the first core value - and often at the expense of the other two.

Do Medals Equal Success?
Image ©  KCXD
As enjoyable as the Olympics were, success seems to be increasingly seen as the numbers of medals won - purely measured in terms of the first of the values. Don't get me wrong. I love that in certain sports we are now the Australia of the '90s. Looking back at that time, I remember admiring the Australian pure desire to win, the country's cut throat approach to individuals and sports that didn't make the mark and then the resulting sporting achievement. I enjoy now our absolute dominance in sports like cycling (whilst desperately hoping it's not down to anything other than hard work) and I am fascinated by the focus on concepts such as marginal gains pioneered in British cycling by Brailsford and now picked up in hockey and other sports. That idea of  improving every element by 0.1% is something we can all take into our wider lives. And yet, there is something slightly distasteful about success purely being measured in terms of the performance of this highly paid, often country funded group of elite athletes.  I cheer on British medals as much as the next person but I do wonder whether we have lost sight of the true meaning of success.

Isn't all sport like that? Purely focussed with a win mentality which drives commercial gain? In some ways yes. The Premier League is probably the best / worst example. It is all about the money. Globally marketed clubs mixing on the Stock Exchange alongside Blue Chip companies, Astronomical TV deals funded by advertisers desperate to tap in to in to one of the biggest markets in the world. And individual players understandably making multi millions of pounds to showcase their talent.  And the nail in the coffin: the deliberate lack of any filtering down of that money to the pyramid that supports it and especially to the grass roots (legacy in Olympic terms).

The difference between the Olympics and  the Premier League though is that the latter makes no real pretence of this. It’s a money making machine. It was formed by the top clubs purely for that aim. The side effect of producing potentially one of the best leagues in the world is purely that - merely an enabler to create wealth. It even goes further than that - when it was set up it deliberately changed the model of cascading funding through the game with the view that actually the lower leagues could fend for themselves. The Olympics though should be different - it has not come from the same commercially driven values.

There were examples of the true Olympic spirit during Rio - Nikki Hamblin sacrificing her race to pick up Abbey D'Agostino after they had tangled and fallen, plucky performances from the 'Refugee' nationality and some amazing performances for some of Britain's younger athletes - as yet seemingly untainted by the commercial side of sport. I'm not backing a return to the days of amateur only entrants:  It’s a strange dichotomy. The Olympics are now successful because they  are a showcase of the best in (most) sport. That drives the viewing figures, it drives the investment at country level to increase the medal counts and it makes for some incredible top class competition. On the other hand, it also moves it far from its ideals. Excellence is now everything  The medal winners are rich athletes, many of them celebrities, some of whom even choose whether the Olympics is even worth fitting into their competition schedule.

My point here is not about changing the Olympics - it is increasingly a great spectacle, although the 

continuing weak stance on doping from the governing body could ruin that. Perhaps though it's worth looking at our definition of success.  When I think of the Olympics 'the taking part that counts' motto is foremost in my mind. We seem to have forgotten that element in the pursuit of winning and winning increasingly at all costs.

Sportsmanship creates Inspiration
Image ©  Edson Hong
When I think of great sporting memories of 2016, I think of Hamblin picking up D'Agostino , I think of the housemates Vicky Holland who fought Non Stanford  for third place and then immediately apologised to her friend for beating her, I think of the Brownlee brothers in the Triathlon Series World Championships - Ali sacrificing his own race to carry his brother over the line. The crash of the Dutch cyclist in the road race showed that actually winning wasn’t what mattered as the contestants desperately tried to find information about her rather than over celebrating their win. I even recollect Lewis Hamilton passing Magnussen's horrific crash and going straight on the radio to ask if 'the guy got out ok'. The focus to win is vital and makes our best athletes great to watch. However, as used to be the central tenet of the Olympics, it's their sportsmanship makes them inspirational.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Brighton - A walk in the park or a day at the races?

MK Dons play Brighton today and where normally there would be that buzz on waking up combined with growing butterflies in the stomach today it just feels flat. The reason: MK Dons performance at the Cheltenham Festival - a festival I will remember ironically for the highly professional approach taken by an amateur to achieve beyond expectation. 

The Dons, in case you missed the front pages of several tabloid papers this week went to the
Cheltenham festival for a piss up. This got out of hand and ended up with a glass of urine being poured over other spectators. Oddly, this action offends me less than the overall context in which it happened. The fact that the clubs management and players felt it acceptable to be out four days before a crucial match for an all day drinking session is to me a far bigger issue.

In the George Best era, even as recently as the '90s, drinking was seen as not just acceptable but as part of the macho culture that surrounded sport. Football then lagged behind other sports until the introduction of managers like Arsene Wenger who absolutely understood that what a professional athlete puts into their body can make a significant performance improvement  on the pitch. These days, top sportsman - footballers included, carefully monitor nutrition as much as they monitor effectiveness during training and games. As part of that, alcohol is pretty much a no go area. There is nothing nutrition wise in alcohol that adds to athletic performance. Indeed there are many elements that significantly detract from overall performance, including focus and  muscle growth and regeneration after excercise.

I am not saying that the team shouldn't drink during the season (although I bet many professional sports teams do set that as their standard) but they certainly should not be out on an all day blender, certainly not in the middle of the season and certainly not when there is a game at the weekend. I find it difficult to imagine Andy Murray or Mo Farah going out for an all day session in the middle of Wimbledon or the Olympics and more importantly the reason they don't isn't because they are told not to it's because their desire to succeed is far higher than their desire to go an all out bender.

And that is a critical point here. We are watching a team that have finally made it into the Championship after many seasons of riding high in League One. This for me is about desire to succeed. Around 40 positions above the Dons in the league, Leicester look like they are about to make history. I am sure that those players are absolutely focussed  on the next game, both in training and in the overall preparation for it. They will not be going out for day long drinking sessions. That comes down to desire and focus. How much do the Dons really want to meet their objective this season and how much is just about turning up? Prior to this week, I was desperately  hanging on to the former. I saw a team whose salary bill is lower than any other club in the Championship and was battling to stay up. Admittedly with some performances I wondered but that's what I wanted to believe.

It's clear though that that nagging doubt is being realised. They don't care if their performance today is slightly reduced from a day out drinking. They don't care if their preparation for this game is not 100%. There will be loads of people watching today who would love the chance to be in their shoes. There are loads of people in the academy right now who have been watching what they eat (and where applicable, drink) since they were in their early teens. Future players growing up with a different mentality of what it takes to be a real professional. Maybe it's time for some of those people, players who will embrace the 100% mentality to replace some of those who clearly think their 90% will do. 

Finally, I have been behind Robinson for longer than many. Even though increasingly  I am not convinced that he has the ability to change tactically on the fly, his loyalty is valuable and his focus toward the long term sustainability of the club rather than his personal gain has been admirable. However, Robinson is the leader right now. The leader must have taken the decision that proper preparation doesn't matter. He must be behind this 90% mentality as much as the players. For me that's just not good enough. It belongs more in far lower leagues than the Championship.

I don't mind going down fighting. Going down with the players on a full day bender at Cheltenham before a key game though shows that that isn't the case. I want a result today - a draw would be great. It's going to very tough to achieve that. I know that, the supporters know that. The players though, they seem to think it's a walk in the park.