Friday, 24 August 2012

Rotten in everywhere

“Well he got me out of the car, onto a bike into the mountains and now as a 56 year old, fantastically fit and healthy - so well done Lance for that”.

“You did that -- take the credit for it. He just provided a fairy tale to inspire you.”

*Two commentors from a Lance Armstrong related blog at the Guardian.

It’s not often that sport leaves me sleepless. After a big game or event where adrenalin was high, or during the night when a team or athlete were competing that I backed then I might be a touch red-eyed.

Ok, so it happens a lot. But not like this. Not because of an issue. But I can’t sleep right now. This is eating me up.

I’m not gonna be familiar like so many other folks are who’ve never met him and call him Lance. At this moment, just a few hours after the curtain finally dropped I don’t know what he should be known as. The uncertainty now will remain for a long while. What do you call the biggest drug cheat in modern sport? Asterixes, the socially accepted emoticon of US sporting dopers, are not enough for this. A lot of people are gonna feel angry, cheated, deserted, lied to; and the culprit will take many different forms. This is my first attempt to deal with it. It will take many more until… something.

 It’s so hard to know where to start. In this initial piece I guess it makes sense to look at the case itself before looking at the implications or history. In the simplest terms, you are innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecution, in this case, the USADA. They had to compile a body of evidence that could somehow refute the (purported{more about this later}) number of drug tests that Armstrong had passed during his career. As an overview, this is not the time to look into the nuts and bolts of each side’s case. But.
But. If the burden of proof, and therefore the greater task, is on the prosecution (not Armstrong) to prove guilt, and he has chosen not to fight, some conclusions can be drawn.  Surely his was the easier part in this. Show up, show your record of negative results- the basis of your argument for years and years- and roll back on out. But no. For some reason, he and his team of advisers felt that this would not be enough. So, they caved. Folded without showing up. Chose not to rebut. Gave up. Beyond the case itself, this has serious implications for Armstrong’s message and mission, but more on that later.
The telling factor for me is the number of witnesses willing to come forward and testify against him. Yes, I know that the likes of Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis are convicted dopers. But there were at least eight other former team members who had (apparently, because now we may never know) given sworn statements that Armstrong had doped. The Armstrong camp are asserting that this is the testimony of bitter, bottom-feeding convicted drug cheats, and at this point who knows to what extent this is true.
 What is significant though is the total absence of voices in support of Armstrong. Surely, if a certain percentage of former team-mates are unjustly accusing him of doping, then there should be at least a few who are refuting such claims. I guess there are some out there, and it becomes part of the whole media-portrayal debate about whether their voices are being equally heard. Right now though, the voices of support are very silent.
What does all of this mean for the sport? What does it mean for the man? What does it mean for his foundations?
There’s a lot more to say on this, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Magic Number

Apologies to those of you rushing here for some sort of De La retrospective; the magic number today is used in reference to the multi-passport mischievousness of certain Sponsorathonympics athletes. If hip-hop is your thing though, you can do no better than A Grumpy Old Man With A Beard, written by the extremely knowledgeable Duncan Masters. His blog is regularly updated with news, ace downloads, and ticket giveaways: oodles and oodles of goodness.
Further apologies are in order, as the Comments will be somewhat truncated over the next few weeks. I am signing up for one final year at my job here in Korea in mid-September, and am currently trying to rush through the tedious horror that is a 120 hour TEFL course in order to get a pay bump. As such, as soon as these Comments are filed I will be piling into the sixth unit of twenty; today’s topic of fun-filled fatuousness is the Past Tense. Happy happy, joy joy.
This means that I won’t be looking at Frank Schleck’s failed drugs test, though if you want my opinion on doping in cycling it can be found here, nor the dickheads who scattered nails on the road a couple of stages back. And I definitely won’t be mentioning that the kind of disgusting shite that if you found it on your shoe you wouldn’t try to wipe it off or have them cleaned but would instead just incinerate them in some sort of bio-hazard disposal unit that is known as John Terry was found innocent. Nope, instead let’s look at some dodgy athletic practices.

The Magic Number

There is a tendency, particularly amongst the host nations of the Sponsorathonympics, to assess their medal prospects years out from the event, work out where they are currently strong, and highlight the weaker areas. Then, as time goes by, positions in these weaker sports are conveniently filled by the sudden arrival of new immigrants to the country who have a coincidentally high pedigree in exactly the disciplines required. Now this is by no means illegal. As long as you do not contravene the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules on eligibility, then all is well. Morally however, questions are often raised.
The most egregious and eyebrow raising example this time around has come from the British wrestling team. A few years back the team’s coaches decided that a higher quality of sparring partner was needed in order to upgrade their wrestlers’ techniques. A search found a number of possibilities, both male and female, from Eastern European countries who were then brought (bought) to the UK on work visas. What happened next? Well, wouldn’t you know it, as is wont to happen in the romantic confines of the wrestling circle, half-nelsons became full-nelsons, and then before you could cry “That must be an illegal grapple”, marriages were breaking out all over the mats. And now several of the spots on the Sponsorathonympic team have been taken by very recently naturalised Eastern Europeans. More can be read about this situation throughout the UK team in general here, about wrestling specifically  here, and a typically witty and acerbic account by Marina Hyde entitled True Love Among The Leotards can be found here.
Now this has all lead to a rise of the pejorative term in the UK, Plastic Brits, which basically refers to those who have been in the area for a very short time, but are suddenly representing GB. I can understand the frustration behind this: if you are a British born athlete who has trained your whole life in your sport only to be denied a once in a lifetime chance to represent your country at your home Games because somebody else has been on the fast-track to citizenship, you will be angry. But don’t be angry at the so-called Plastic Brits. Turn your anger towards your own sporting authorities who encouraged and abetted the practice, or the IOC who make the actual rules. I dislike the practice, but if I may slip into some pretty lazy stereotyping here, I look forward to the day when perhaps distance runners of Somali heritage run wearing the silver fern.
So when I stumbled across this piece by British triple jumper Yamile Aldama called Plastic Brit Jibe Is So Offensive In Our Country Today, I skimmed through it with a sympathetic eye. British husband and kids, eleven years in the country, knows the anthem etc; great. But then a tweet from a journalist I respect, football writer Fernando Duarte, caught my eye: “Message to Yamile Aldama. When team GB is actually 3rd you represent people are allowed to talk…”
Third? What what what??? So I quickly followed standard professional journalistic practice and jumped straight from Twitter to Wikipedia. The very first sentence of her biography states that she is currently competing for Great Britain having already represented Cuba and Sudan. Eh? You what? In 1996 and 2000 she represented Cuba at the Games. She then moved to Britain and married a Scottish fellow. Shortly after this, and as she waited for her application for citizenship to be processed, said husband was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for heroin trafficking. With no chance of obtaining a UK passport before the 2004 Games, she basically shopped herself around, and received offers from Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic, before choosing war-torn but resource rich Sudan.
Now, in my opinion, the instant she competed for a second different country at the Sponsorathonympics, as she did in 2004, that should have been the end of it. By all means, transfer your citizenship once after representing your country of birth, especially if you have legitimate refugee status. But there should be no way that you are then able to change to a third nation. In Aldama’s case, I can understand trying to find an alternative when her UK visa was denied, as she was in her athletic prime. I’m guessing Cuba wasn’t too keen to have her back after she abandoned them, so she found somewhere else. But for her to now be competing for a third different nation at international level is ridiculous. Three is the magic number, we all know it. If the Guardian or the British Olympic Committee wanted to fight the Plastic Brit jibes then good on them, but I don’t think they could have chosen a worse example to pen the article. I stress again that she is not to blame for this as she  is merely exploiting incredible loopholes in the system. But once you know a little more about her background the whole thing smacks of dangerous high-horsery.

Enough, grammar awaits, as do two huge Pyrenean mountain stages over the next two nights. Back with a look at that and weekend previews on Friday. Indeed indeed.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Despicable Financial Unaccountable Nepotism (although DFUN sounds nicer)

Rocking the media blackout this morning as I wait for last night’s Alpine stage to download, so there won’t be a lot of new news today. Instead I’m going to get back into some football bashing again due to the (inevitable) exposure of massive corruption at FIFA that has just been definitively proven. Honestly, the financial shenanagins that FIFA gets into makes it completely unsurprising that the game is becoming almost irredeemably corrupted at club level. This particular case also threatens to re-taint the Sponsorathonympics, though how you could possibly do more to discredit an event that requires surface-to-air missiles to be installed on a residential building is beyond my understanding. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll inevitably wind up watching as much action from London as I can, but following every event I promise to have one of those scalding hot showers where you scrub and scrub and sob and sob but remain dirty on the inside.
Before we get into all that, some Comments from readers, firstly Joe Hard Times Molloy on the recent spike in Russian Comments readers:

“I should have warned you about my Eastern European fans. Just the mention of the name Hardtimes can get you out of all sorts of mischief in Latvia.

In regards to UFC 148, I loved Silva's defensive jiu-jitsu in the first round. Sonnen couldn't do any damage from the top and as soon as he made a mistake in the second, the Spider struck and it was over.

UFC wise this week keep an eye out for Kiwi lad James Te Huna as he fights the man with the best nickname in sports, Joey 'The Mexicutioner' Beltran. That's on UFC on Fuel 4.

Bless you for continuing to watch all the other sports that don't involve punching.”

And here’s Dougal Hamilton in response to Wednesday’s piece:

“Well as a small Man U supporter I couldn't agree with you more. It is despicable the situation that the club finds itself. I can't imagine that the management meetings at the club are much fun. I hate to think what will happen when some of the players and The Boss leave. It took some Scholes magic this year to get the team back into the competition. The future is not looking very bright . . . just hoping that the other clubs/owners go bust first.”

Super stuff guys.


As an entrĂ©e to FIFA’s despicableness, here’s a little anecdote from here in Korea following on from some recent movement in the football transfer market.
Park Ji-Sung is a legend in these parts, and deservedly so. He scored a crucial, fantastic goal in the 2002 World Cup where he first rose to prominence, for a long time was the only Korean playing at the highest level in Europe, and was captain and chief on-field contributor to the national side for many years. And then, along came Fergie.
Sir Alex Ferguson is manager at Cayman U, where Park has played since 2005. He is notorious for a being a no guff-taking hairdryer thrower, intimidating players, referees, FA officials and journalists alike with his purple-nosed gaze of pure hatred. He has achieved massive success for his club through ruthless means, which include completely ignoring the long-term financial meltdown that Cayman U face in favour of (his) short-term glory, and not allowing his players to compete in international fixtures for their countries. But how can he do this you ask? Surely he has to abide by FIFA’s rules stating that players must be made available when required by their national side?
Well, there has been an ongoing bout of unfortunate coincidence at Cayman U for many years, whereby just days before the window for international fixtures opens up, key players in the squad suddenly pick up niggling injuries that rule them out of international contention. Then, miraculously, and often just the day before Cayman U’s next match, the player comes right, and runs around for 90 minutes in a manner that surprises nobody. As noone wants to endure the purple-nosed gaze of pure hatred, nor suffer the hot blast of wine-stenched foul-mouthed invective that issues from his maw, few complaints are made.
This reached an all time peak in the case of Park. Here in Korea, football is hugely massively popular, and due to Park’s association with the team, Cayman U is the club of choice. Endless repeats of Cayman U victories cluster-funk the sports channels in a kind of visual waterboarding for supporters of any other clubs. I thought this might all change last year though, when Park suddenly and very unexpectedly announced his retirement from international football at the very young age of 30. What does this have to do with Fergie? Well, in an amazing coincidence, this announcement from Park came right in the midst of the period when he was negotiating a new contract at Cayman U. He was already becoming something of a fringe player, and given Fergie’s aversion to allowing his players to turn out for their national sides, especially when it involves lengthy air-travel across multiple time zones, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture the ultimatum handed to Park: lucrative contract for club in exchange for giving up your country. Which is what he chose.
I have to admit that I was very surprised when there was no backlash against either club or player here when this all came about. Park is far and away the best player Korea has, and losing him is a huge blow to the national team’s aspirations. Why aren’t folks here more het-up? Am I the only one to make the connection, or am I the only one who sees such paranoid conspiracies? Anyway, now that Park has moved to QPR it will be interesting to see whether he makes a comeback at international level. I hope so, solely so I can remove my tinfoil headware, which is far too hot in summer and also an ill-advised choice during thunderstorm season.
Another thing that will be worth watching for here is whether the sycophantic over-exposure of Cayman U continues. In the past, no matter how important the other fixtures in the round might have been, Korean tv would screen the Cayman U game. And while I derive no joy in seeing them play, except for when they lose, (6-1 at home to City was truly magic), a cessation of this could be a mixed blessing. Already I have had to suffer greatly due to two Korean international stars playing at Scottish side Celtic. There is nothing worse than settling in for a Premier League game that is suddenly replaced by one from the Scottish league. Why? Imagine two teams of particularly foul-mouthed dirty-tackling eight years olds playing on a giant field for 90 minutes and you’ve got an accurate projection of any match in the Scottish Premier League. Terrible, truly terrible football. Watching QPR week in week out will be better than that, but not by much.

And speaking of Scottish ‘football’, the only thing really keeping it alive over the years has been the derby matches between the two Old Firm clubs of Glasgow; the aforementioned Celtic and their hated rivals Rangers. These two sides have totally dominated the Scottish Prem: since its inception in 1998 they are the only clubs to have won the title, and only once has another side finished in the top two. But that is about to change in the worst way possible, and in a manner that should sound further warnings to FIFA, the English FA, and clubs like Cayman U. Rangers have just suffered a massive total financial catastrophe, and are in the process of being booted out of the top league, leaving the ranks of Scottish club football barer than ever. And how did it happen? Rampant financial mismanagement due to virtually non-existent regulations governing the sale and purchase of clubs. As usual with these scandals it is heinously complex, but there is a wonderful piece about how it all came about and the implications for the future of Scottish football here. The article is written by a journalist by the name of David Conn, who specialises in untangling the webs of deceit and fraud that are an increasing part of the behind-the-scenes running of football clubs. It speaks to my total nerdery that he is one of my favourite sports writers.
It is also his work here that sheds light on the disgrace currently erupting at the rotten heart of football, FIFA. For so many years the sport’s governing body has run the world’s most popular game with so little regard to the actual health of football that it is little wonder that things have gotten so out of hand at club level worldwide. The combination of vast vast vast sums of money, unaccountable officials, and nepotistic relationships does not a healthy organisation make. The Wikipedia page for FIFA has nine separate sections: the Allegations of Corruption and Legislative Interference entry is the longest. The fact that the bribery scandal that is hitting headlines everywhere today has links to prominent International Olympic Committee (IOC) members comes as no surprise to anyone anywhere. Despicable Financial Unaccountable Nepotism, or DFUN, is both more catchy than IOC, and a more accurate portrayal of the way the Sponsorathonympics are run.

I think that’s enough bile for today. I love sport, I really do, which is why having a bunch of greedy d!chheads wielding so much influence riles me up so much. I promise to try and get back onto a more positive track next week. Unless I post on Monday. I really hate Mondays.
Not really much of note to look forward to this weekend, aside from more epic mountainous epicness in the Tour. The never-ending ravenous beast that is Super Rugby is still going, and while I don’t have an itinerary to hand, the Black Caps probably play the Windies again. Get in touch with any questions, comments, suggestions or criticisms, and check back next week for more.
Have an ace weekend.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Cayman U

Morning/avo/evening all. The main focus today will be on the recent financial developments at Cayman U, but before we get into that lets go round the grounds and take a look at last weekend’s action.

First off to the Tour, where pre-race favourites Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins have moved clear of the field. Wiggins’ Sky teammate Chris Froome is a surprising third place, just 14 seconds behind Evans, but given that his job is to sacrifice his own body for the team cause, it is unlikely that he will rise any higher. Vincenzo Nibali and Denis Menchov are both riding well and are two and three minutes off the yellow jersey respectively, but unless one of the top two has a crash they are probably going to have to settle for fighting it out for the final place on the podium.
Crashes are of course an ever-present threat, and the first week saw some horrific incidents that forced the retirement of contenders Ryder Hesjedal and Samuel Sanchez, and caused significant losses in time to other potential winners such as Frank Schleck, Jurgen Van Den Broek, Alejandro Valverde and Robert Hesink. The crash that ended Hesjedal’s race was so bad that all of the eight riders in his team that were still competing went to ground in the same incident, at excess of 60kms per hour. Hideous.
Two epic mountain stages are on the cards for today and tomorrow, and Evans will at some point need to try to attack and regain the minute he lost to Wiggins in the first time trial, so interesting times lie ahead.

UFC 148 was pretty entertaining stuff, and the main event had me jumping up and down on the couch like a bearding Cruise as Anderson Silva retained his title. His challenger, Chael Sonnen, attempted to employ the exact same tactics that came so close to bringing him victory in their first bout, a technique known as ‘ground and pound’. Silva is no fool though, and with almost two years since their first encounter he was more than ready for Sonnen. The champ withstood Sonnen’s initial pressure in the first round, then kept the fight ‘standing up’ in the second, and it wasn’t long before Silva’s fluid evasiveness and lightening quick striking had the belt secured around his waist once more, with the ref stopping the fight just two minutes into the second round. Another amazing display by Silva.
The co-main event, which Joe Molloy so accurately described as being between ‘two lumbering light heavyweight veterans’, was interesting for kind of depressing reasons. The NFL in the US is slowly beginning to acknowledge the terrible long-term effects that repeated concussions can have on players’ wellbeing, and this is something that MMA in general will definitely need to address. The slurred pre-fight interview of Forrest Griffin and the cross-eyed blankness of his opponent Tito Ortiz as he went into the third round were very unsettling to see. However, this is too big an issue to address today, so I’ll be taking an in-depth look at concussions in sport in an upcoming Comments.

There was also yet another entertaining Formula 1 race over the weekend in the form of the British Grand Prix. Red Bull driver Mark Webber took out the race, but not before an exciting late battle with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. And as has become the norm since the technical changes introduced at the start of the 2011 season (you can read more about those alterations here), there was plenty of overtaking throughout the race. Which was nice. The new tires in particular seem to be having an effect, but Martin Brundle mentioned something as he commentated on the race that was interesting. He thinks that not only is it the changes to the cars themselves, but after eighteen months to adjust to the new rules, the drivers’ mentality has also shifted. Where they would have previously gone out on race-day expecting the GP to just be a 300km procession, they now really believe that overtaking is a possibility, and not just on certain parts of certain circuits. Drivers are now attempting and completing passes in places that would have been unthinkable even as little as three years ago, and as a result the spectacle has become much more entertaining for all concerned. This season has seen a plethora of different race winners and the signs for the future all appear to be very promising.

But on to the main story for the day, the financial miasma that professional football is sinking into.

Cayman United

It would be unworthy of me not to be upfront from the get-go here: I dislike Manchester United intensely. I hate their manager, many of their players, and the bandwagon-riding nature of far too many of their supporters. If they never win a trophy again the world will be a happier place for me. That said, you have to have respect for their success, and the fact that most of the time they have played pretty entertaining football in achieving their victories. That is, up until a couple of seasons ago when everything began to change.
So what happened? Well, in 2005 the club was bought by an American named Malcolm Glazer, a man who made most of his fortune from property investments, and had little knowledge or interest about football. He bought the club using a method known as a leveraged buyout, which has since proved disastrous for Man U. I have a reasonable knowledge of economics and such, but this is a fiendishly complex piece of chicanery which I will attempt to explain in the simplest way possible.
Basically it is a very dodgy means of buying a club that is facilitated by the myopic suits at the Football Association, and the greed of bankers. Imagine this: there is a club that is valued at $1000, a measure of its players, stadium, sponsorship etc. Every week, the club brings in $10 profit from ticket sales, shirt sales etc. You want to buy the club, but you only have $500. So first you go to the bank and say please lend me $500 to buy a football club. They say ok, but how will you pay us back? You promise to give them $5 every week from the club’s profits. Ok, they say again, that’s fine, but of course you’ll need to pay interest so that we can line our pockets too.
   Next, you go to the F.A. and tell them you want to buy a club, paying half with your own money and half from the bank. You have to pass what is called The Fit And Proper Persons Test, which looks at your personal and financial history. It should be noted here that Thaksin Shinawatra, with a long history of human rights abuses whilst leader of Thailand, who was proposing to buy Man City with money he had embezzled in his time as President, passed this test with flying colours. Put simply, the FA don’t care who you are, or whether you are going to saddle a club with debt burdens that could ultimately bankrupt it: see Leeds, Portsmouth, Crawley and many others.
   So now you have your club. You owe the bank a large sum, but that’s no problem for you because you are using the club’s money to service this debt. Yes, that’s right: you are using the club’s money to buy the club. But then problems start to arise. Your players are getting old and you need to buy new ones. Some of your players are going to other clubs that offer better wages. However, your hands are tied. Your club brings in $10 profit every week, but half of that instantly goes to the bank, so you have very limited means to keep your players, or to buy new ones (again see Portsmouth and Leeds.) So, of course, your club’s supporters become unhappy. Your team is starting to lose regularly. What is more, your stadium is old and uncomfortable, and it has too few seats. At a bigger, newer stadium, you could charge more for tickets and sell more of them. But again, your hands are tied. With only $5 a week to spend, there is no way at all to finance a new stadium (see Liverpool).
   Your club is now in a downward spiral. You owe money to the bank; your team is shite; your stadium is outdated; your supporters are livid. You need to sell up and fast, and you offload your club to the first person who comes along. And the cycle begins again.

   Now not all of this applies to Man U, but much of it does. The Glazer family needed around £660 million to make the purchase, and split the costs between themselves and the club. They borrowed money from a variety of banks and hedge funds, and next thing you know Man U owes £62 million every year in interest payments alone. The Manchester United Supporters Trust issued this statement: "'The amount of money needed to be repaid overall is huge... 'The interest payment is one thing but what about the actual £660 million? It is difficult to see how these sums can be reached without significant increases in ticket prices, which, as we always suspected, means the fans will effectively be paying for someone to borrow money to own their club.'” What a disaster. And on top of all this, it should be noted that the Glazers also have the gall to take huge sums out of the club’s finances each year to pay themselves dividends.
And despite many insistences from the owners, the CEO and the manager Sir Alex Ferguson that this would have no repercussions on the club’s transfer policies, it clearly has. The huge sum they received from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo has not been reinvested in replacements. Other clubs around Europe, and more pertinently for Man U supporters another club on the other side of town, are now consistently out-bidding them for top players. This has had two extremely harmful effects.
Firstly, last season they won nothing, and were humiliatingly bundled out of European competition at the first significant hurdles. And secondly, in a desperate bid to raise money to reduce debt, the Glazers are now about to float the club on the New York Stock Exchange through a company registered in the Cayman Islands. In a bid to make the investment seem more palatable, the latest financial figures they have released as part of the prospectus do not include last season’s figures, which would show the negative effects of diminished television incomes due to European competition failures. And piled on top of all of this, the shares are split into two categories, with the Glazer family getting all the ‘A’ shares, and new investors only being eligible for ‘B’ shares which do not provide any voting rights. Sham, shambles, shameful.

This whole situation differs greatly from that at other Premier League financial heavyweights Manchester City and Chelsea. Both of those clubs have also been bought by foreign owners, but not in the form of loans. Instead these cash-mad billionaires have chosen to spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars of their own money on a sports team in a country far from their own. This raises many other serious questions about the long-term financial stability of the sport, particularly as to what would happen if these owners suddenly got bored and decided to sell up, but more on that in another Comments. The point today is to highlight just how quickly and easily one of the largest and most successful clubs in world sport can so quickly be brought to its knees by unsound financial practices, aided and abetted by toothless, cowardly regulators. Parallels with many other aspects of financial free-marketry and economic collapse are very easy to make, and it is sad and depressing how insidious the effects of unchecked commercialism are on every aspect of society. As I said at the outset, as a supporter of Arsenal I dislike Manchester United, but as a supporter of sport and football in general, I absolutely detest Cayman U.

Phew, what a mouthful, more than enough for today. Back Friday with weekend previews, but before I finish the stats for last Friday’s blog were intriguing, with a massive number of readers cropping up suddenly in Latvia and Russia; anyone who can provide a reasonable explanation for this, please get in touch.

Friday, 6 July 2012

A nice quiet night of bloodsport

 A combination of factors has left me feeling not up to too much writing this morning. The really hideous period of the Korean summer has just kicked in: torrential rain joining together with stifling humidity in a Bieber-sings-Abba’s-greatest-hits collaboration of awfulness. As a result my fifteen minute walk to work has left the bottom half of my body soaked with rain and the top half drenched with sweat; a lovely way to start the day. Definitely not so fresh, or so clean clean.
 Also, the wonderful terrible affliction that is Tour de France is taking its toll. I finally succumbed and downloaded last night’s stage rather than watching it live, which I have done every other night this week. The race tends to finish around 12.30am, which is not so bad, but the adrenalin produced by a mass bunch sprint or a late uphill surge makes sleep all but impossible for at least another hour. Red eyes might be music, but they are also Tour addiction.
 That said, it has been an ace week of racing. The twenty-two year old Slovak Peter Sagan, mentioned in last week’s preview, has so far exceeded even the wildest expectations people had of him, winning two stages in the first week of his first ever Tour. Both times it involved an amazing burst of speed up a short but very steep uphill finish, and on each occasion he defeated other much more highly regarded Grand Tour veterans. This young fellow has a truly incredible future ahead of him.
 But the high point for this Kiwi was the sprint finish that resulted in the Lotto-Belisol team’s German rider Andrei Greipel taking out the sprint finish. For those who don’t quite understand that professional cycling is a team sport, check out the picture below.

The man with his arms upraised is NZ rider Greg Henderson, who was the crucial component of Lotto’s lead-out train for Greipel. Basically three other guys line up ahead of their sprinter and absolutely bury themselves over the last few kilometres, riding at speeds in excess of 60kms per hour. One by one they peel off, until with maybe just one or two hundred metres remaining the sprinter is released to make a final explosive burst of power to the line. It takes a massive amount of skill, determination, and sacrifice to do this correctly, and like Julian Dean before him Henderson is one of the masters of this facet of racing. The delight on his face at seeing his teammate cross the line first shows just how much of a team sport cycling really is, and the photo is my favourite sports shot of the year so far.

 In slightly less savoury news, and the final reason why not much will be produced by me today, Robin Van Persie made the predictable announcement that he is to leave Arsenal sooner rather than later. This is no surprise to Gooners like myself, but the way he went about it was both ungracious and underhanded. I will elaborate on this next week when the emotional sting has worn off a little, and it would be great to hear the thoughts of any other Gooners out there too. In a fairly awful post-Euros week for football supporters, Manchester United, forever henceforth to be known as Cayman U, announced their flotation on the US Stock Market with dodgy Cayman Island tax haven connections. Much as I despise the club, the greater implications for football as a whole are very bleak, but more on that, along with the Van Persie situation, next week.
 Happily for you readers, I received a tremendous piece of writing in the form of a wonderful preview of this weekend’s UFC 148 from Joe Hard Times Molloy, so I can thoroughly slack off today. Joe has been a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) practitioner for some years now, initially through the Chinese Wing Chun discipline, and now Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. At his suggestion, and to Mrs. Coach’s chagrin, he got me hooked on UFC about a year ago, and I haven’t missed an event since. It can be extremely vicious and bloody, with the claret flowing generally as a result of the combination of elbow to forehead, but is also very engrossing, with the wide range of fighting styles making most bouts highly unpredictable. With boxing determinedly shooting itself in the foot that it has stuffed in its mouth at seemingly every available opportunity, MMA has largely taken over as the number one attraction for pugilism enthusiasts. This weekend sees a huge rematch for the middleweight title, and here is Joe’s fantastic preview, featuring the words ‘braggart’, ‘bastard’ and ‘mortgage fraud.’ Awesome.

A nice quiet night of bloodsport

UFC 148: Silva vs. Sonnen

There is a Brazilian fighter called Anderson Silva.  He is the UFC middleweight champion of the world, a devastating Muay Thai striker and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt.  He holds 14 consecutive wins and with nine of those being title defences he is the most successful champion in the history of the sport.  To call him the 'Ali of the Octagon' does him a disservice, but it gives you an idea of his skills.  Generally regarded as being the greatest Mixed Martial Artist ever, he is as close as it gets to a real life Bruce Lee.  He fights like this.
On Saturday night in Las Vegas (Sunday afternoon for us southerners), in the biggest rematch ever in MMA, he fights an American called Chael Sonnen.  You will not like Chael Sonnen.  He is a decorated wrestler, a real estate agent, a braggart and a Republican.  He is the tough jock from a bad high school movie.
He is however a very smart guy and as a student of combat sports history he plays his role as the heel to the hilt.  He knows if he can get the champ angry, he will be in his head and already winning.  He is also one tough bastard.  The last time they fought he held the champ down for four and a half rounds and beat him mercilessly.  He landed more strikes in the first round than the combined total of all Silva's previous opponents.
Few sporting events real or imagined have ever made my guts churn with terror like that fight did.  It was Hewitt crushing Federer in the Wimbledon final of your nightmares, Shane Warne returning from retirement to retake the Ashes at Lords, or generally most All Black World Cup semi-finals.
For some 23  minutes the champ was at the mercy of this loud-mouthed American, seemingly unable to impose his will in any way.  Until deep in the 5th round, while laying on top of him trying to punch Silva in the face, Sonnen let his left arm stray too high.  Silva grabbed it, swung his legs around, popped his hips and choked Chael Sonnen out with a Triangle.  It was unbelievable.
After the fight Sonnen was found to have had elevated testosterone levels and barred from fighting for a year.  He ran unsuccessfully for Congress, and was then convicted of money laundering and mortgage fraud, all of which confirmed that the good guy won.  But can Anderson do it again?
Sonnen has been running his mouth off for months, insulting Anderson, his wife, his Jiu-jitsu instructors and the entire country of Brazil.  Silva is angry, and that is just what Sonnen wants.
Can Sonnen hold Silva down and grind out an ugly win or will the champ’s crisp, beautiful counter-punching and brutal Thai knees deliver the knock out?
Also, lumbering light heavyweight veterans Tito Ortiz and Forrest Griffin batter each other for three rounds, rising action star Cung-Le attempts to high kick Patrick Cote through the cage and watch out for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wizard Demian Maia drop down to welterweight to fight the Korean brawler known as the Stun Gun. 
Don't miss this one.

 Many many thanks for that Hard Times. Submissions are always appreciated here at the Comments, so if anyone else wants to get in touch please do so. For anyone who missed it, Old Man Coach Jeff Rowe posted some great words about the class-based origins of the League/Union divide at the bottom of Tuesday’s piece and I highly recommend you go back to the last Comments and check them out.
 Enough for today. The Wimbly final, the British Grand Prix, mountain stages in the Tour, UFC: a wonderful smorgasbord awaits this weekend. Back with a round-up on Monday, enjoy your weekends.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

State of Originally a Good Idea

Morning folks, no Tour today as I’m on a Mugabe Media Lockdown until I’ve downloaded and watched last night’s stage, and the Euro 2012 review will be coming later in the week. Instead we’ll be taking a look at some Australasian/Oceanian/Antipodean/Down Underean favourites, otherwise known as ‘Sports The English Invented But Rarely Are Still Able To Win’. Specifically today, we’re looking at Rugby League, and with the deciding Origin encounter less than thirty-six hours away there are a couple of questions to ask about which direction the sport should be heading in.

State of Originally a Good Idea

Now I should throw out an early caveat here: Korea is not exactly a hot-bed of Rugby League passion, and five years here have meant that my finger is about as far away from the pulse as a proctologist’s. I still watch the Warriors when I can, and could probably name a starting thirteen for them, but I have only vague notions of who plays for whom as regards to the other NRL clubs these days. So you might be able to imagine my astonishment when I discovered that Queensland had somehow conspired to win State of Origin five years running. Five freaking years in a row: how the hell does that happen???
 I was a huge ‘leaguey’ (sp?) as a young teen, and Origin was always the pinnacle of every season but, from memory at least, it was seen as pretty special if either side could win two years in a row. So as a Blues supporter, but I think just generally for the health of the competition, a NSW win in Brisbane tomorrow night is crucial, though I’m sure most Queenslanders would hotly dispute that. But seeing as I have little familiarity with the players and teams, I’m not really in a position to preview the match itself. Today’s musings are instead inspired by this Benji Marshall article I came across last weekend.
 For those who are unfamiliar with it, there seems to be some controversy going on in League circles about young Kiwis being lured into playing Origin by big paydays, and thereby making themselves ineligible to play for NZ. Unsurprisingly given he is the Kiwi captain, Marshall is both disappointed and angered by this, although his argument is somewhat undermined when he states that he played for Australia at the youth level “out of spite, not because of money.” His sentiments aside, for me the situation raises larger questions for the game in terms of international credibility, which is something several other largely Commonwealth based sports also struggle with.
 I think a decent measure of a sport’s ability to claim that it is truly an international competition can be judged by its World Cup. If there are more than five sides who can believably claim to have a real chance at winning the Cup, then you have international credibility. To be honest, I think a number as small as five is being a little generous, but it is at least a reasonable jumping off point for this debate. If we look at the other major team sports played in the Commonwealth- rugby, cricket, and netball- we see League has a pretty tenuous position (football and hockey get a pass from this- football for very obvious reasons, and hockey due to it being pretty firmly established throughout Asia and Europe.)  
 With both rugby and cricket you can make a decent case for at least five sides having a realistic chance to win the next World Cup. Certainly only four sides have won the Rugby World Cup in the seven editions of the tournament to date, but you probably have to include France in the list as they have made two finals, and Wales could conceivably pull off enough upsets to also win the thing. Cricket has had five different winners in ten Cups, and England have been runners-up three times, NZ has made the semis six times (yep six failures to reach the final I hear you ‘where is the top half of my glass-ists’ cry), and South Africa will surely triumph sooner or later. So while neither of these sporting codes are global behemoths, they at least have some basis for claiming to be credible as an international game.
 Rugby League and netball have no such believability. The League World Cup has always been a mismanaged farce (remember Sydney-presents-Lebanon in 2000?), with only three sides who have any chance of winning the competition. Netball is even worse off, with a Trans-Tasman showdown almost guaranteed to be the final of any major tournament. Now this is definitely not meant as a criticism of these sports in terms of viewing entertainment or participant's enjoyment. Without wanting to get into the tiresome debate of Rugby vs League, you can at least say that even the most ardent rugby fan would have to admit that the ball is actually in play in League for far longer than in Rugby. League players are huge, immensely fit athletes, and there are no obviously discernible reasons why rugby is more widely played and watched. As a personal anecdote, when I was a young fella at school, during lunchtime we would never play rugby, and always play league simply due to the wonderful simplicity of the game. You can’t have hordes of school kids playing rugby unsupervised because who is going to pack down the scrums or officiate on the rucks? With league, you simply have a much more accessible game.
 Also on a personal level, one of my favourite activities as an eleven and twelve year old was going to Northland Community Centre one night a week for ‘Multisport’. For a sports crazed individual like myself, this was utopia: every week I was introduced to a new game. Orienteering and lawn bowls are fondly recollected, but the two codes that stand out strongest in my memory as being incredibly fun to play are handball (why this sport has been unable to replicate the passion that it entails within Europe in other parts of the world is truly beyond me) and netball. Netball is fast (arguably), requires awesome skill and fitness, plenty of scoring, and has specialised positional play: all the factors that make a team sport great. So why does it have such limited international appeal? Men, that’s why. We’ve screwed the sport up in two different ways.
 Firstly, on an historical level. Netball was created in the late 19th-early 20th Century as a “socially appropriate” sport for women (sorry, I’m too lazy to quote sources, but ‘Wikipedia’ has a real bibliography if you care.) Basically this means that the rules reflected the patriarchal nature of society at the time: women are delicate flowers and shouldn’t play a sport that is rough and tumble. Hence the massively picky ‘contact’ rule that constantly disrupts the flow of the game, and lead one wag on twitter to dub the sport ‘Whistleball’. I hate the contact rule. If you look at the size, strength and all-round athletic ability of modern netball players, they do not need the over-protection that this law, based on extremely out-dated notions of feminine fragility, provides them. But the rule persists, and for me at least, makes the sport virtually unwatchable.
 And the second way that men have ruined the game is that we seem unwilling to support, at least in numbers large enough to make it internationally viable, a sport that we are more or less excluded from playing. It’s not as if the concept of a game that is played on a court with a round ball that you throw through a hoop cannot be an international phenomenon, but netball has been hamstrung from the start.
 But what about league? Why has it not taken off on the same level as rugby? It may surprise you to know that league has had an established World Cup since the 1950s. Yet still it struggles. In NZ it will always be dominated by rugby, whether in numbers of clubs, players, and funding, or media attention. In Australia it has to fight off AFL, rugby and football for punter’s dollars and time. And in England it is still unable to escape the stigma of being seen as a game for uncultured Northerners. Which all leads me in a very longwinded and roundabout way back to Benji Marshall’s article.
 League has some decisions to make. The Origin concept is awesome, but needs to be updated. Player’s eligibility being dependent on which state you played your first representative match in is all well and good, but when it was conceptualised in the early 1980s it is unlikely that it was envisioned that scores of Kiwis would soon be amongst the possible participants. Thirty years later, allowing young Kiwis to be poached by Origin sides has real long-term repercussions for the sport. If you only have three credible international sides and the game’s administrators allow one of them to be weakened, particularly to the benefit of the country that is already the dominant force, then you might as well just give up on international competition. Which, in league’s case, might not be such a terrible thing, provided they have another concrete plan to sustain the sport. The sport’s power undoubtedly resides in Australia: the NRL is the best competition with the highest quality players, and the decisions made by the NRL powers-that-be will decide the fate of the sport. If they choose to prioritise Origin over internationals, then so be it. It is a very short-sighted stance, but one that is completely in keeping with the chaotic, fractious manner in which the game has been administered throughout its history. If the World Cup and Tri Nations competitions are to be undermined, then they need a Plan B for international interest.
 I would suggest something along the lines of an international club competition, maybe played biannually. At the moment the winning NRL club plays the winning Superleague club in a one-off match that has no relevance to anyone, largely due to the timing of the game. Instead, take the top four clubs from each comp and have them play some kind of month long tournament every couple of years. Yes, the scheduling will be tough, initially it will be expensive to  stage, there will be complaints aplenty from all corners and in general many hurdles to overcome: in short, it will need vision and courage from administrators to create this. Sadly, I have little confidence in those holding the reigns, and as such, rugby league’s international credibility will continue to fade away. Don’t get me wrong, I love league and am massively amped about the chance to watch the Origin decider tomorrow night. I just think more could be done to ensure the long-term international health of a sport that so many people are very passionate about.

 Enough rambling from me for today. Euro review and Tour later this week, and a preview (hopefully with some input from MMA aficionado Hard Times Molloy) of Saturday’s upcoming epic, UFC 148- Silva vs Sonnen. Take it easy.

Friday, 29 June 2012

You Stuporous Funker

Feeling a bit stuporous myself this morning, which is to say un-stoked, as I managed to unwittingly discover the result of the Germany/Italy match that I was twenty minutes short of fully downloading whilst researching Le Tour. Suffice to say you can book my seat at the head of the table for your next Dick Meeting. Dinnae fuss yerself, there’ll be nae spoilers here, but my morning is ruined. With no classes today and eight hours to kill at my desk, I may still watch the match, but I also have all six series of Reno 911! which might be better for cheering myself up.
Helping to raise a smile is this excellent summation of the English effort at the Euros that I received from Brendan Dempsey:

"Stewart Downing was picked for the England squad on the back of a season where he contributed no goals and no assists in the Premier there is one player who can look back on the Euros and say he has performed to his full potential. Same old England."

Excellent stuff there from Demps.

There was some incredible news overnight from Wimbly, with Nadal going out in five sets to world number 100 Lukas Rosol. He’s the lowest ranked player to ever beat Nadal at an Open, and save for 2009 when he was injured, it is the first time Nadal has failed to make the final since 2005. Unfortunately for Kiwis, Marina Erakovic went out with a bit of a whimper in straight sets, but hopefully she can kick on in the doubles having made the semi final last year.
But enough of all that. I know all you lycra enthusiasts out there are champing at the bit, so let us turn our attention to Le Tour.

‘Allez’ means ‘go’

“Smithers, you infernal ninny, stick your left hoof on that
flange, now! Now, if you can get it through your bug-addled
brain, jam that second mephitic clodhopper of yours on the
right doodad! Now pump those scrawny chicken legs, you          stuporous funker!” – C. Montgomery Burns

With the increased sophistication of communications technology and developments in sports science, this is not the kind of instruction we are likely to hear from team managers in the 2012 edition of Le Tour. But with no Alberto Contador or last year’s runner-up Andy Schleck, what can we expect this year? Well, before getting too deeply into it, for an explanation of the basic terms associated with the race, check this blog from last year, and scroll down to the section that is imaginatively titled, ‘Some Basic Terms.’

The Route

For the first time since 2009, the GC (I told you to check the blog), will be weighed much more heavily in favour of time trials than mountain climbs. I’m not overly pleased about this, as I find epic battles up spirit crushing slopes of astounding length and steepness to be far more exciting than checking split times as riders boosh around alone on a time trial. I think it also overwhelmingly plays into the hands of just two of this year's competitors, though of course the organisers couldn’t have known this when they planned the course.
Now it should be noted that this isn’t due to a lack of climbs. In fact there are more HC, Cat.1, and Cat.2 climbs than there have been in the last five years. But the defining stages are likely to be 9 and 19, featuring 41.5kms and 53.5kms in time trialing, which is huge, around 30% more than last year. And why is this significant? Because up a mountain, you can follow or ‘mark’ your major opponents, but on a time trial, you’re out there alone, with no team mates, and no wheels to sit behind. As already mentioned this is likely to benefit two riders in particular, but more about that anon.
Obviously it’s hard to say too much more about a course that runs for over 2000kms in total, but there are a few other distinctive features this year.
-the race starts in Belgium this year, and also visits Switzerland.
-the mountain stages are not as evenly split into two distinctive groups, as they usually are. Instead, from Stage 7 right through until Stage 17, there are only a couple of let ups for sprinters and domestiques.
-it will all be aesthetically stunning, and will make being in the middle of sweaty, humid, dusty, hazy Seoul quite excruciating.

To help you keep on top of the route and stages, a couple of excellent links, from The Guardian and the official Tour site.

Teams, riders, contenders

So due to the length of the time trials, this year’s race is widely predicted to be a fight between defending champion Cadel Evans of Australia and Bradley Wiggins of the UK. Unfortunately, Evans has a (deserved) reputation as being an extremely dour and defensive rider, and with even less reason to go on the attack in the mountains than usual, many neutrals out there will be hoping a few darker horses can emerge from the pack and put the favourites under pressure. I have to say though, that after looking through the complete rider list for this year, I found myself making note of many names that could conceivably shake things up. In fact, of the twenty-two teams competing this year, I wound up selecting twelve that were strong enough overall to have a chance at the GC, or had some wildman in their midst who could produce something remarkable.
But what makes predictions for any of the jerseys so tough this year is the looming specter of the Coca Cola McDonald's Lloyds TSB General Electric Proctor and Gamble Acer Samsung Panasonic Visa Adidas BMW Games. Many riders are expected to pull out of Le Tour in the second week, including sprint giant Mark Cavendish, and it quickly becomes very difficult to accurately assess the long-term strengths of many of the leading teams. A gold medal is a big lure, and with the London course to favour sprinters, the Green Jersey in particular may turn out to be a wide open contest.
On the whole though, BMC for Evans, Radioshack for Frank Schleck, and Sky for Wiggins look like the teams most likely to produce a Yellow Jersey winner. They all have a lot of strength in depth- Gilbert, Hincapie, Quinziato and Van Garderen for BMC; Kloden, Monfort, Voight, Zubeldia and Popovych for Radioshack; and Eisel, Hagen, Knees and Rogers for Sky- which is always the most crucial factor over three weeks of racing.
Outsiders who could produce a winner include Euskatel for Samuel Sanchez, Liquigas for Nibali or Basso, Garmin for Vuelta winner Ryder Hesjedal, Lotto for Jurgen Van Ben Broek, or Rabobank for Robert Gesink. And actually, looking even more closely I can see a few other names- Menchov, Gerrans, Leipheimer, Valverde- who, if absolutely everything goes right for them and they have the best form of their lives, could make it to at least the podium on the Champs-Elysees.


I guess I’ve probably lost many of you already, so I won’t go into as much depth for the sprint (Green) jersey or the climbing (polka dot). New Zealand’s sole representative this year is Greg Henderson, and he will be a key lead out rider for the Lotto team’s star sprinter Andre Greipel, who will be amongst many possible contenders for the Green should Cavendish withdraw early. Other names being bandied around are Matt Goss from Orica, Jose Joaquin Rojas of Movistar who came second to Cavendish in 2011, and a twenty-two year old named Peter Sagan from the Liquigas team, who Eurosport describe as a ‘Slovakian sprint sensation.’ Nice. There are also a few veterans around such as Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Pettachi and Oscar Freire who may still fancy themselves too.
Up the mountains is particularly difficult to predict due to some new climbs, fewer double point summit finishes, and my inability to keep on top of the vast hordes of Spaniards and Frenchmen who live to assail these peaks. You can find out more about the Polka dot Jersey here, but I reckon Moncoutie, Sorensen and Sanchez or one of his teammates are the best shout. Personally I hope it goes to Johnny Hoogerland due to his heroic return to the race last year after being sideswiped into a barbed wire fence by one of the TV cars, resulting in thirty-three stitches. Beast.
Also, watch out for Alexandre Vinokourov. Seriously, he's back again. He could just as likely win the race or turn up at your door with an AK-47. You have been warned.

Ok then. My personal prediction is that when they finally arrive in Paris, Evans will be pipped very narrowly by Wiggins, but my offical dark horse prediction is Robert Gesink. The best places to follow the action on a daily basis are at Eurosport or the offical Tour website, and of course here at the Comments. There is of course plenty of other sport on this weekend, but I think that that is more than enough for today. The Comments will be back early next week with a wrap of all the weekend's action, a look ahead to the final week at Wimbly, and the opening stages of Le Tour. Until then, have a good couple of days.