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Archive for July, 2009

whippet 1The campaign for whippet racing, bog snorkelling and cheese rolling to be added to the Olympic roster starts here.

And while we’re at it, we’ll be putting in a good word for Morris dancing, the Eton Wall Game and extreme haggis hurling.

Our offensive will focus on post codes way beyond the Greater London area. For the far flung reaches of the British Isles, we will use communications techniques practiced in those parts. We will deploy carrier pigeons to win those narrow minds.

Our objective is to shake the country out of it’s apathy towards London 2012.

And why?, I hear you ask.

Well, Monday, 27th July, 2009 signalled three years to the Games of the XXX Olympiad in London, England. The milestone and, the media rumpus surrounding it, would be met with widespread enthusiasm from the public at large you would have thought.

Well, not exactly, judging by the wave of indifference deluging the phone lines of the BBC Radio Five breakfast show the same day.

The propagators of doom, callers from Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, vented anti-London sentiment and questioned why their taxes would be put to bringing the Games to these shores.

They were appalled that their hard-earned cash would be used to line the pockets of southern softies – and accommodate Johnny Foreigner in his quest for sporting excellence. Welcome to Britain’s north-south divide.

“I live in the north of England and I’m a taxpayer so I’m indirectly contributing to the 2012 Olympics, but how will they benefit me?” one caller asked. “They should give us all free tickets,” he added.

And then there was the old chestnut. “Taxpayers’ money spent on the 2012 Olympics would be better spent on the NHS (National Health Service).” No it wouldn’t. But getting gang members off the streets of Moss Side and onto their local sports grounds might just ease the logjam at accident and emergency departments.

In Greater Manchester, our campaign will adopt the slogan – “Take a shot at sport instead” – and will be music to the ears of the numerous victims of gun crime in those environs.

Another caller from the shires, an alleged sports fan (rugby league to be precise), took a cheap swipe at synchronized swimmers, while questioning the investment his country was lavishing on the “London Games”. Additional callers from his neighbourhood agreed. 

It was classic Monty Python at times … “Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

For Romans, read Londoners.

Online chat forums are also clogged with northerners bickering like a bunch of fish wives.

Mr Grim Up t’North’s premise, based as it is on economic benefit, is flawed, particularly at this construction stage.

Current Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) statistics, freely available on the official web site, confirm that pockets will be lined well beyond the M25 motorway, Greater London’s perimeter fence.

london-2012And, we are still three years out. Businesses across the country have been invited to tender for a raft of infrastructure-related contracts.

There is £6 billion of supply chain contracts to be awarded by organisers of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and its top tier suppliers. The events will generate 75,000 business opportunities.

Contracts worth over £1 billion have so far been let, most to small and medium-sized companies. Fifty per cent of those companies are based outside London.

The commercial rewards on offer were outlined at the national launch of the London 2012 Business Network held at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium – one of the venues for the Olympic football tournament.

Over 800 north-west firms have registered interest in the procurement opportunities and at least 20 companies based in the region have already won contracts to supply goods and services to the ODA and other 2012 contractors.

Opportunities exist in construction, professional services, tourism, hospitality, sport, food and creative sectors.

The list of confirmed building contractors to date includes companies headquartered in Derby, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Belfast.

One such contractor in the midlands has struck a £3m deal to barrier the Olympic Village. Watson Steel, of Bolton, will supply steel for the main Olympic stadium.

Furthermore, in the run up, sports facilities across the country will receive funding to upgrade and provide training camps for over 200 competing nations. As for venues, Weymouth will host sailing while stadia across the UK will stage the Games’ football tournament. Rowing and flat water canoeing will be held in Windsor.

“All the jobs will go to Londoners,” one called stated. Not quite. In terms of employment, 36 per cent of the present workforce is drawn from outside London.

As for legacy, the benefits will live on long after the dissenters have been silenced.

Wasn’t fending off opposition from Madrid, Moscow, New York and Paris enough to satisfy the xenophobes from the Republic of Yorkshire? Apparently not. 

Our campaign message to them is: Put your regional prejudices to one side. Be proud to be part of the greatest sporting event known to mankind. And be proud to call the “London” Games your own. 

To borrow from JFK … ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

A good place to start would be to accept that for two weeks from 27th July 2012, London will become the sporting capital of the world.

And accept also, that Grimsby, Pugsley, Whitby, Rotheram and Hutton Le Hole didn’t quite measure up in the opinion of the International Olympic Committee.

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busSO ENGLAND stood 75 years of history on its head and won a cricket match against Australia at Lord’s this week.

Cue rampant triumphalism, MBEs, 1966 and all that. And forget swine flu, this latest victory is likely to trigger a pandemic of open top bus syndrome (OTBS).

The drone of the Routemaster’s engine can be heard in the distance. For in a country with a voracious appetite for over-celebration of sporting success, the open top bus is the vehicle of choice. 

Acclaim to an English sportsman is like metholated spirit to a vagrant: one whiff and you’re on the top deck.

Traditionally the open top bus parade has been the preserve of soccer teams cavorting in FA Cup and domestic league championship triumph. 

At national level, England soccer has been riding its bus for 43 years. It was boarded in 1966 after the country’s sole World Cup victory.

The first modern-day case of OTBS afflcting another sport was reported in 2003 when England burgled the Rugby World Cup.

There was a nationwide outbreak in 2005 when England’s cricketers claimed the Ashes over injury-ravaged opponents.

On each of those occasions, royal gongs were sprayed around like projectile vomit on the streets of Hull on a Friday night.

Chief among the rugby recipients was coach Clive Woodward, whose reward for taking pomposity and self-importance to new heights was the dubbing of a sword on the shoulders from Prince Charles.

For the cricketers, there were OBEs for captain Michael Vaughan, and MBEs for the other 11 who played in the series against Australia.

It’s worth delving into the individual contributions.

soap box 3Ian Bell’s MBE was for scoring 171 runs in 10 innings at an average of 17.10; Paul Collingwood picked up his for playing one Test, scoring 17 runs and bowling seven overs; and there was an MBE for Ashley Giles for his 155 runs at 19.37 and 10 wickets at 57.80.

On that basis, Andrew Flintoff, who brought about Australia’s downfall at Lord’s, should be getting a call from the palace any day soon. Arise Sir Fredalo.

Those aforementioned bouts of OTBS, the feting of sportsmen and the wanton distribution of honours being the symptoms, were initiated by the government of Tony B Liar. It was none-too-subtle vote catching. Inevitably, No.10 was on the bus route.

It’s worth recalling that B Liar’s chief spinmeister at the time was Alastair Campbell who later went on to become Director of Communications for the Lions on their embarrassing rugby tour of New Zealand in 2004-05. Sir Clive Woodward was the coach. His team lost the Test series 3-0.

Finally, I’d like to propose that those open top buses could be put to better use. How about armour-plating them and putting them on the Kandahar to Helmand Province run? 

At least then, troops in Afghanistan would have the equipment they need to get the job done. It may do wonders for the body bag count. A total of 187 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since operations began in 2001 – 19 this month.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the mothers of the fallen would reckon their sons more worthy of medals than any number of vainglorious sportsmen.

Particularly as they served their country without one eye on the scoreboard and the other on the bank balance.

Age shall not weary Watson …

FOR humility and heroics, Thomas Sturges Watson’s efforts at the Open Championship on the links of Turnberry, Scotland took some beating.

Watson failed to sink an eight foot putt on the 18th hole of regulation before unravelling in a play-off against Stewart Cink in pursuit of his sixth claret jug.   

You may assume that Watson, on the doorstep of 60, might be content with the romance that attended his feats over the previous four days and 71 holes. Return to Kansas City, drink in nostalgia and count his millions. Not Tom. He was distraught.

“There is still quite a vacuum in the stomach,” he said of that missed putt. “I’m not crying, but I’ve been affected by it to a certain degree. But this, too, shall pass.

“What puts it in perspective is a series of contacts from people I met when I went to Iraq a couple of years ago. Many of them have contacted me and said: ‘Congratulations, and, oh, by the way, when you’re in a neck-high bunker and you have a 4-footer, just remember, it’s just a game.’ ”

One message in particular moved our Tom. “There was one message from a young man by the name of Leroy Petry, who is up for the Congressional Medal of Honour, who saved a bunch of lives by taking a pretty direct hit from that grenade that he was trying to throw,” Watson revealed. “It went off right in his hand. That’s perspective.”

The perils of child prodigy …

FOR AN exercise in pushy parenting, try the post-event press conference at the Foro Italico, Rome, for British diver Tom Daley.

Fifteen-year-old Daley had just clinched gold in the 10-metre platform and was explaining himself to the world’s media. 

When it came time for questions from the floor, his father Rob seized a microphone at the back of the room. “I represent Tom Daley, I’m Tom’s Dad,” he announced. “Tom, can you give me a cuddle?” he pleaded, before adding: ‘”Come on, please, come on.”

A deeply mortified Tom obliged.

No doubt, Rob is a proud Dad and no doubt he has done much to assist his son’s career progression. And no doubt he was gripped by the emotion of the moment.

But considering father and son had already shared an embrace en route to the press conference, this was shameless gate-crashing of glory.

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“Pretty ordinary” is an Australian colloquialism which carries a lot more venom than its understatement suggests. 

In fact the phrase is dripping with innuendo. Often shortened to “ordinary” it is variously associated with people, places and behaviour. It is regularly deployed as mortar fire in a verbal assault.

If a sportsman has had a poor game, his is an “ordinary effort”. If a street is in a decrepit state it is an “ordinary address”. If someone has acted underhandedly, bent the truth, spoken out of turn, or dropped a mate in the deep end on the battlefields of Gallipoli, he is branded an “ordinary bloke”. 

In the world of Ricky Ponting, the Australian cricket captain, an opposing team employing sharp practice which breaches the spirit of the game is “pretty ordinary”.

At this point, I should inform our adopted cricketerati that there was an incidence of brazen time wasting in a match of some consequence between England and Australia in Cardiff, Wales last week.

It was the low point in an otherwise enthralling fifth and final day of the contest. The Australians had their bovver boots on the throats of their hosts for long periods of the match and were seemingly headed for victory.  

Their inability to land the final fatal blow was therefore disconcerting for those of us born south, well south, of Watford.

soap box 3And lest I am accused of supping unsweetened semillon, I will add that England were stoic in salvaging a draw. Yes, I know, five days of play and still no winner. For the uninitiated, the explanation is to be found here.

So, there we were in the dying minutes of the match. Under the rules, England, with their last two remaining batsmen – James Anderson and Monty Panesar – at the crease and leading by a handful of runs, had to remain in occupation until 18:41.

In so doing they would ensure that there was not sufficient time (10 minutes) for Australia to prepare to bat again and knock off the runs required for victory. Assuming they removed one of the batsmen of course.

Every minute was crucial in England’s bid to run down the clock. Australia, meanwhile, needed to send down as many balls as possible in the final hour in the hope of taking the one wicket they required.

Twice during a 69-ball stand of defiance, the England 12th man (drinks waiter) Bilal Shafayat ran onto the field to offer batting gloves to Anderson while physiotherapist Steve McCaig made two visits to the playing field for no apparent reason.

On one occasion, McCaig tapped a bemused Anderson on the shoulder and scampered back to the sanctuary of the pavilion. I’ve heard of instant remedies, but that’s ridiculous.

Ponting was not amused by the glove incident.

“I don’t think that was required,” Ponting said. “He had changed his gloves the over before and his glove is not going to be too sweaty in one over.

As for the behaviour of the rotund McCaig, he added: “I am not sure what the physio was doing out there – I didn’t see him (Anderson) call for any physio to come out. As far as I am concerned it was pretty ordinary, actually.”

However, as admitted above, Ponting did not cite the shenanigans as a reason for Australia’s failure to secure the win. But he did have an issue in the area of moral fibre. “It is not the reason we didn’t win,” he said. “They can play whatever way they want to play. We have come to play by the rules and the spirit of the game, and it is up to them to do what they want to do.”

By way of riposte, Ponting’s opposite number Andrew Strauss reasoned that, amid some confusion, the 12th man was sent on to the field of play to inform the batsmen – neither of whom are mathematicians to be sure – that there was time and not just overs to be completed. And we are probably all OK with that.

But, bizarrely, Strauss then claimed Anderson’s gloves needed to be changed because he had spilt drinks on them in a drinks break. “Drinks were spilt on his glove and Jimmy (Anderson) called up to the dressing room and we weren’t sure whether we needed the 12th man or the physio.” You couldn’t make it up.

In the final reckoning, I’m with Guardian cricket columnist, Mike Selvey on the matter. Selvey (born in Chiswick, Middlesex, England), played three times for his country.

He wrote: “That was not gamesmanship or bending the rules to your advantage; it was taking the piss, unbecoming of the England management and team or any side who perpetrated it. What next? Orchestrated pitch invasions at appropriate moments?

“Andrew Strauss’s assertion that they were new gloves that had become wet from spilled water on the previous visit is laughable.”

No ordinary bloke that Selvey.

True, Australian sportsmen have no right to view on-field controversies from atop a moral high horse. The skeletons in the cupboard are three deep.

True, the incident did not shape the outcome of the match. And it might not sour relations as these two tribes go to war in the name of sport for the remainder of the series.

But, in a contest renowned for the good nature in which it was played the last time the baggy greens toured these shores, the tannin of duplicity lingers.

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Roger Federer has long been considered by the cognoscenti as the best tennis player of all time. After his sixth men’s singles title at Wimbledon yesterday – his 15th grand slam trophy – his record lends weight to the argument. Maybe even settles it for good.

Sure, the pub debates will rage over how many titles Rod Laver might have collected had he not turned professional but Federer can certainly lay claim to being the finest technician of the game. Finer than the urbane Laver et al.

In defeating Andy Roddick over five arduous sets, Federer eclipsed the previous grand slam mark of 14, owned by Pete Sampras. Also in that exalted company is Roy Emerson (12), Laver and Bjorn Borg (both 11), Bill Tilden (10) and Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Fred Perry (all 8).

This was the man remember who was beaten by Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7 (8-10), 7-9 at SW19 last year in the greatest men’s final ever.

He also lost to the bionic Spaniard in the Australian Open in January before restoring order with a straight-sets demolition of Sweden’s Robin Soderling in the French. Form is temporary, class is permanent.

Federer has now won six Wimbledons, five US Opens, three Australians and a French. He has featured in the semi-finals of the last 21 grand slams. In all he has won 60 career titles. They are mere stats.

What matters more is the athletic grace and humility Federer brings to his craft. If ever there was an elegant, eloquent assassin, he is it.

Sporting genius comes in many guises. It can be bloody-minded as in Michael Schumacher, loud, proud and brutally destructive, as in Cassius Clay, reckless and self-destructive as in George Best and Diego Maradona, uniquely agile as in Pele, inventive as in Tiger Woods, brave yet shadowy as in Lance Armstrong. In Federer it is pure, polite and balletic.

Cristiano Ronaldo may defy physics by curling a free-kick around a human wall and the outstretched palm of a goalkeeper. Brian Lara may spend two days defying bowling attacks to compile 400 runs and Don Bradman may counter questionable leg-side assaults to end his career with an unfeasible average of 99.94.

But when it comes to hand-to-eye/mind/body co-ordination, versatility, agility, channelled energy and power and the ability to mine rich reserves when all appears lost, Federer stands apart.

Consider his reservoir of prowess. There is the balance, the timing, the rhythm, the guile, the footwork, the feline movement, the effortless brutality. There is the exquisite technique on clay, hard court or grass.

As Jimmy Connors says … “in an era of specialists – you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist or a hard court specialist … or you’re Roger Federer”.

As David Foster Wallace wrote in Roger Federer as Religious Experience: How One Player’s Grace, Speed, Power, Precision, Kinesthetic Virtuosity and Seriously Wicked Topspin Are Transfiguring Men’s Tennis, it is the Federer technique that takes the breath away.

“Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice – the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height.

“His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to; the service motion is lithe and uneccentric, distinctive only in a certain eel-like all-body snap at the moment of impact. His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game.”

Federer doesn’t play tennis strokes he paints them. Both vertical and diagonal as the need arises. He combines lightning court coverage, ridiculous velocity and deft touch.

As Laver himself says: “I think the public should just watch his feet, just watch Roger and not the ball, and you’d see how great a player he is to pull off some of the shots. When he’s half-volleying winners off the baseline you just marvel at his ability to do that.”

Federer, like all great sportsmen, has time. He has a languidness that masks a cunning plot taking shape in his brain. One of his many strengths is cerebral. Knowing when to create a more acute angle or add pace to manipulate his opponent out of position to set up a kill.

He is able to see or manufacture openings and angles where others find blind alleys. And like the great snooker champions of yore, you can almost hear his grey matter thinking several shots ahead.

The South African golfer Gary Player once declared, “the more I practice, the luckier I get.” And so it is with Federer.

roger-federer-b[1]Federer has proven that subtlety, touch, and finesse are not dead in the power-baseline era. There were shining examples against Roddick.

Federer is staring at a two-set deficit with Roddick leading 6-2 in the second set tie-break. The American, armed with four set points, is serving to the forehand court of Federer.

Roddick powers his first serve down the line at 132 mph. Federer gets a backhand on it and a looping return lands at Roddick’s feet. Roddick has time to pick his shot and his spot. He opts for a backhand slice which lands five feet from the baseline to Federer’s forehand. Nothing too remarkable so far. Then this …

Seizing on the lack of depth and weight of the Roddick shot, Federer whips a topspun forehand cross court and out wide to the Roddick forehand. The instinctive shot would have been down the line but Federer senses an opportunity and goes for the more difficult option. Because he can. And because he is fattening his calf for the impending slaughter.

Roddick, fully stretched and hurtling to the right-hand extremities of the tram lines, hits a forehand on the run deep to Federer’s backhand side. Federer now has control of the point. With his signature deftness, Federer, from three feet inside the baseline, half-volleys a backhand cross court to the service area of Roddick’s backhand court with such precision and angle it’s a clear winner. Roddick out of court, out of breath, out of kilter, and out of play, is an onlooker on the opposite side of the court. 6-3 Roddick.

“Just a flash of brilliance from the racket of Roger Federer,” says the BBC’s Andrew Castle. “The control on the backhand was beautiful to watch. It keeps him in the tie-break.”

Federer has two serves. The first is targeted at Roddick’s backhand, cramping him for room – and unplayable. Roddick’s attempted return barely makes it off his racket strings such is the accuracy and menace of the Federer delivery. 6-4 Roddick. The next serve is wide to Roddick’s forehand, sliced and angled away. A clean ace. 6-5 Roddick.

Roddick serves to the Federer backhand which is chipped short and draws the American to the net – where he’d least like to be drawn at this stage of the point. Roddick top spins a forehand down the line. Federer glides to meet the ball, assesses where his opponent is positioned and has time to weigh up the options. Noting the ungainly manner in which Roddick has reached the net and the urgency which has crept into his game after squandering three set points, Federer goes for height to the Roddick backhand.

Detecting that Roddick is making forays to the net in a change of tactic, this is Federer issuing a deterrent. His opponent is now faced with the hardest shot in the book, the overhead backhand volley. The height of his return forces Roddick to stretch above his head. Not a nice place for an unnatural volleyer to find himself. He goes for angle to the backhand side with his volley. The shot, not middled by any means, sails deep and wide. 6-6.

Four set points saved.

Roddick serves, Federer again uses the pace of it to chip a backhand return straight and inches from the baseline pushing Roddick back on his heels. Roddick sets himself for a deep approach to the Federer backhand and scampers to the net.

Sensing his prey is still in motion, off balance and not as advanced as he should be to cover all angles at the net, Federer shortens his backswing, rolls over the top of a backhand cross court to the shoelaces of the approaching Roddick. The angle and the weight of the shot beffudle Roddick who gets only the frame of the racket it on it. The ball top edges to the bleechers to Roddick’s right, three rows back. 7-6 and set point Federer.

Federer holds serve by inducing another Roddick error, takes the second set, allows himself a rare show of emotion, and leaves Roddick wracked with anguish and self-doubt.

As the match entered its death throes in the fifth set, there were further examples of Federer’s expertise against an opponent who had proven worthy of his place in the final.

It is 14-15, deuce on Roddick’s serve. Roddick pummels a serve to the Federer backhand. He uses the pace of the serve to create an angle and slices a backhand cross court just inside Roddick’s forehand service area. It has Roddick scampering forward again and, in the search for depth, he has too much on his forehand drive and the ball goes long. 14-15, advantage Federer, match point.

The BBC cameras pan to Pete Sampras.

Roddick dumps his first serve into the net, halfway up. Is Roddick spent? Has he punched himself out? Second serve is to the Federer backhand, again Federer chips a backhand return cross court to the forehand wing of Roddick. Deep forehand to the Federer backhand. This time it is a textbook top spin backhand. The ball carries added pace and kicks off the worn turf on the baseline at Roddick’s feet. On contact with the American’s racket it balloons into the early evening sky.

Game, Set, Match Federer. Grand slam number 15.

So, how many more? It took Sampras almost his entire career to lay down his grand slam benchmark. In fact he established his record with his penultimate major win. Federer is now 27, soon to be a dad. In his acceptance speech he committed to returning to the All England Club for a while yet – and to Roland Garros, Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadow one suspects.

Sampras reached four grand slam finals after he was 28, winning two, so time is not yet Federer’s enemy.

Finally, we can forgive Federer his fashion crimes. You’d wear those long white trousers and sailor boy jacket and that gold-trimmed tracksuit top if Nike was paying you handsomely to do so. And you could get away with it.

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