Posts Tagged ‘Olympics’

Squash’s Olympic hurdle

In Sport on February 6, 2013 at 1:22 PM

UK Sport caused uproar in many quarters recently with its unforgiving approach to Olympic funding, which saw four sports have all their Rio 2016 funding cut, leading many to claim the organisation completely threw away the much-trumpeted ‘Olympic legacy’.

I don’t want to discuss the merits or deficiencies of this policy – that’s another debate – nor to diminish the efforts of the sportsmen involved, but at least they had some goal to have funding for.

Squash has no Olympic funding from UK Sport, because, despite great efforts, it is still not an Olympic sport – something most in the sport consider a travesty.

As such, squash receives no UK sport funding. It is true Sport England recently announced it – together with sister sport racketball – will receive up to a sizable £13.5m over the next four years.

When interviewed on this, Joe Magor, Kent County Men’s Captain and Kent SRA Tournament Officer, said: “England Squash & Racketball have done a great job securing funding and helping out county associations with information on several funding schemes to build squash or grassroots levels and to build communities around squash, and this boost in funding will no doubt help.”

However, all Olympic sports receive such finance in addition to any Olympic funding (a reason why the four aforementioned Olympic sports were given no UK Sport funding).

The money is certainly welcome, but what squash would really benefit from is the exposure and glamour afforded by the Olympics, just as UK cycling has grown not only through funding, great training and individual brilliance, but through being promoted to mainstream TV channels and sports supplement front pages.

For all the plaudits Andy Murray has been (rightly) getting for reaching finals recently, Brits Nick Matthew and fierce rival James Willstrop – after Sunday no. 2 and 3 respectively (Willstrop dropping from no. 1) – have been reaching, and winning, international finals for around a decade.

On the Olympics and getting “no recognition”, Willstrop said: “We’re English, we’re sitting there in July with the world number one and two, the numbers two and three women, and there’s a home Olympics – you just could not get any more depressing.”

“Had we been at the Olympics and won medals you can’t even imagine what that would have done for the profile of the sport.”

Also, squash is great way to keep fit – with Forbes Magazine rating squash the toughest cardiovascular sport – and very well suited to modern lifestyle, being short and not weather-dependent.

The 850-plus-strong UK squash club network has a great atmosphere around it too; competitive but fun at all levels, with a culture of team squash where busy people give up time to organise, cook, transport and coach teams, and a nice culture of home teams entertaining opponents, when they congratulate and commiserate with each other. Not dissimilar from Dave Cameron’s much-derided ‘big society’, in fact.

This is not to say squash is particularly British – being popular all over the Commonwealth and also in Europe and North America – a point made by Mr Magor in favour of Olympic inclusion.

He said: “Squash has a well-established pair of men’s and women’s professional tours with events over 50 countries over all the continents (except Antarctica!)”

And in some spectacular and unusual locations too, such as the forthcoming 16th Tournament of Champions.

Such points and more were raised in the Squash 2016 bid, which, despite much IOC praise, was ultimately unsuccessful – with golf and rugby sevens the chosen winners.

Yet many people’s suspicion is that golf and rugby sevens were chosen largely for their commercial interests – a point argued by George Mieras, WSF Olympic Bid Co-ordinator, in a letter to Olympic officials.

He referred to President Rogge’s statement that golf and rugby sevens would “bring extra value to the games” (his emphasis), and claims none of the other bidding sports could match these two sports’ “potential for bringing in spectators, sponsorship and TV”.

However, he added: “What this therefore represents is a significant shift on the part of the IOC, adding the need for such commercial value to the long established Olympiad criteria and ideals, which we certainly fulfilled so well.”

The squash community can only hope Olympic officials change their mind for the 2020 Olympics, so this sport – brutal, exhilarating and (small ‘o’) olympic – gets the recognition it deserves, here and elsewhere.

Joel Durston

The Weird and Wonderful World of Olympic Basketball

In Culture, Sport on August 10, 2012 at 5:07 PM

I, like much of the rest of the UK it seems, have always viewed basketball with a kind of outsider’s indifference to the huge stir it causes on the other side of the pond. So it was curiosity that I hopped onto the Jubilee Line to the O…sorry, North Greenwich Arena for the Women’s Semi-Final of the Olympics between France and Russia.

The first thing to say is that the arena is a spectacular host to such glitzy showcases. The 20,000-capacity arena also plays host to the ATP World Tour Finals, which takes tennis well away from the prim and proper world of Wimbledon whites to a showy American-style spectacle, with lights and monitors littering the stands and the area high above the stage, and the stands rising from the ground precipitously, offering great views and acoustics.

So walking into the stadium to the sounds of Kanye West’s Power, accompanied by a light-show on the floor to which all the players were introduced felt, if you’ll excuse the overused term, epic. The players were all introduced in that stereotypically American-sports-announcer manner as they warmed up with their court sprints and lay-ups. Meanwhile some black Ant and Dec-like figures were trying to whip the 75%-full stadium into a kind of friendly frenzy, designating the four sections of the crowd the ‘Rihanna Stand’, the ‘Oasis Stand’, the ‘Van Morrison Stand’ (us), and the ‘Bob Marley Stand’. For better or for worse, it’s hard to imagine that at Wigan v Bolton.

Then, almost as a surprise due to all the hoop-la, the countdown was sounding for the start of the game and the jump-off. I think France got the first points on the board, but in truth I couldn’t tell you in any kind of certainty. This is partly because of the ridiculous high currency of scoring in basketball, making the only real reaction to any baskets oh, that’s cool , good shot, rather than the hyperbolic reaction that meets, say, goals in football. It’s often said that the reason Americans have high-scoring sports, staged with such razzmatazz, is a cultural thing: that something in the (typically) more polarised, here-and-now, just generally ‘big’ culture precludes the appreciation of a gritty 1-0 win away at Stoke. And, watching this very un-British staging of sport, there’s certainly something in that. For the other reason it’s hard to keep track of the score is the whole atmosphere. It was almost as if the players were peripheral figures to whole thing; hired stooges, paid to entertain at some bizarre, faux urban disco/Butlins hybrid.

The dads’ dance-off

The break after the first period contained a dads’ dance off, for Pete’s sake (a tie breaker for their two families drawing in the family shootout they had…somehow it seems it was always destined for the dance-off).  The only thing that would make the whole thing any more ‘audience interactive’ would be if a searchlight randomly stopped on a crowd member every time there was a free throw (the equivalent of a penalty), and for that lucky lad/lass to COOOOMMMMEEE ON DOOOOOWN! and try their luck. That’s not to condemn the whole shebang – just to point out that dancing dads and kiss cams are probably not quite what the ancient Greeks had in mind when they created the Ancient Olympic Games as a noble and pure pursuit of perfection for mind and body. I, for one, had to consciously remind myself a few times I was watching the best female exponents of a sport in the world, not a circus troupe.

Not a spare second is wasted, unfilled by some hollering from a master of ceremonies, dancers, light trick or burst of music, the latter often reduced to sounding like an aggressive nugget of sound that would greet someone opening a computer. In the sphere of sports, basketball is truly the ADHD kid, let loose on all the toys (to football’s working-class kid done well who now votes Tory, somewhat guiltily). Every stoppage, even the second-long gaps between someone scoring and the defenders collecting the ball, is filled by a blast of music, typically hip-hop or dance. I was sat there, envisaging some hyperactive MDMA-riddled bloke up in the control room, uncontrollable in his excitement at all the gadgetry around, waging his personal vendettas on unadulterated emotion, silence and gravitas.

Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists, Peridot, entertained the crowds at half-time, and in between the third and fourth quarters there was some guys and gals doing some breakdancing/somersaulting act with skipping ropes (very impressive, it must be said), and some dressed as Games Makers even broke into a little jig when sweeping the court. There was also some points scored in between I think.

All in all, not one for the Daily Mail reader who enjoys his cricket, but (or therefore) pretty good fun. (Oh, and I believe France won. But then I’m still not entirely sure I didn’t pay for the privilege of walking into some super high-tech, virtual reality vision of sport in the future, like a kind of sports version of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron.)

Joel Durston

Great Olympic Moments

In Sport on July 25, 2012 at 5:12 PM

Cathy Freeman wins the 400m (and more) at Sydney 2000

Sportsmen and women are often said to carry the hopes of nation with them. It’s often just media hyperbole – but if it were ever true, it’s true of Cathy Freeman in the Sydney 2000 Olympics, her home Olympics.

Relations between Aborigines and those descended from British (or other) settlers in Australia have been strained ever since colonisation in 1780. For much of this period up until the late 20th century, the country operated an oppressive separatism, based on the racial distinction. Indeed, the term ‘aborigine’ did not exist until after settlers moved in as, until then, there was any ‘newbies’ to distinguish them as ‘natives’. According to historians Loretta De Plevitz and Larry Croft, “[aborigines] were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.” Right up until a landmark referendum in 1967, called by then Prime Minister Harold Holt and which passed with 90% approval, the vast majority of Aborigines had no real legal or electoral representation, with forced removals a regular occurrence. Matters improved for aborigines after, with many achieving noteworthy positions in politics and sport. But it was not until 1999 that an official apology was released, and associated action taken, by the Australian Government – a Motion of Reconciliation drafted by then Prime Minister John Howard and Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway, branding the treatment of Indigenous Australians (as is becoming common, more PC phrasing) “the most blemished chapter in our national history”.

It was in this context that the stunning 400m victory from Cathy Freeman, a woman of Aborigine heritage and the country’s primary track icon, and her celebrations afterwards – with Aborigine and Australian flags – acted as vindication of the political changes and Aborigines’ long struggle for civic rights and representation. (Even if her green and silver, hooded all-body suit get-up, kind of resembling a futuristic space bunny, did seem a little ill-fitting to represent a group typically so in thrall to tradition. Maybe, paradoxically, that was the point.) And it was what made her lighting of the Olympic Cauldron a beacon for a (finally?) progressive, equal Australia.


Glorious failure – Derek Redmond and Eric Moussambani

As much as we like to think of it as fluffy and inclusive, the Olympics is an elitist event, make no bones about it – a stage for those gifted athletes who have honed their talents with relentless, brutal training. Further, an event which, really, only recognise its top three exponents at any given time (some athletes would argue only one). The draconian separatism of podium and non-podium makes no concession to match fitness, sportsmanship, morality, or even endeavour in and of itself. Here, fourth place in the world – an exalted achievement in any other walk of life – is only thought of in relation to the medal winners; a so-close-yet-so-far, gallant loser or so-close-yet-so-far. As us Brits know all too well (Dean Macey, Paula Radcliffe in the 10,000 in Sydney 2000 etc etc) – at least until Beijing’s impressive showing. (Or maybe that’s just my old man’s well-worn fandom coming through). Gold will win you global glory, multimillion-pound sportswear contracts, probably even a film; Silver, some national TV punditry; Bronze, at least a cereal contract; 5th place is positively obscurity.

That said, the Olympics is not just some grotesque allegory for the corporate world. Far from it. Of course, it is inherently cutthroat for the athletes, but the end (for at least, 99% I’d venture) is a glorious vindication of all their hard-earned work, played out through a medium which is intrinsically meritocratic and where the only losers are those who have to be prepared for it. Everyone else is enthralled, even inspired by the skill and determination of the Herculean feats. And all this is underpinned (or at least should be) by, if not friendship, deep respect for the endeavour of the competitors and consequent sportsmanship, borne out of a sense that, though everyone wants to win, there is noble pursuit of something greater at stake – a triumph of the human spirit.

Nowhere is this more evident than in this joint pick: Derek Redmond and Eric the Eel. Derek Redmond was in blistering form going into the final of the 400m Final at the Barcelona 1992 Games. He started strongly, but halfway down the back straight said he heard a shot from the crowd, which milliseconds later he realised was his hamstring, tragically, going. As all his competitors (rightly) sprinted on, Redmond knelt down in agony. But then  – undeterred – heroically hobbled on round the bend, one armed on the stricken leg and his faced etched with pain. Coming onto the home straight – with all the other athletes long finished – his dad ran on, brushing aside the protesting official to give his son the physical and emotional support to limp over the line…to the standing ovation of nearly all the crowd. Redmond’s disqualification paled into insignificance; if anything a validation of this incredible act.

Equitorial Guinea is not exactly renowned for being a powerhouse in Olympic swimming. As such, no one paid Eric Moussambani, then 22, much attention when he lined up in a preliminary heat of the 100m Freestyle at Athens 2004, clad in just swimming trunks (aerodynamic swimsuits evidently hadn’t reached the third world), alongside Niger’s Karim Bare and Tajikistan’s Farkhod Oripov. However, things got a lot more interesting when the other two false-started, leaving Eric puzzled as to the next course of action – which was, of course, to run it with just him. He started off reasonably, with a competent dive and inauspicious start, but it soon transpired that he was rubbish, at least by the technical standards of competitive swimming – moving limbs in a quick and co-ordinated manner in water. He clocked in with a time of 1:52.72 – more than twice standard Olympic time, and probably slower than you or I could manage; certainly slower than Ian Thorpe did twice the distance. Everyone, however, loves a trier. And all those in the stadium, after initial laughs, warmed to this plucky lad, raising the roof to get him home in the final length (the BBC commentator was questioning whether he could make it) . Pundits, like sponsors cashing in on this incredible story, labelled him ‘Eric the Eel’, and revealed he had only been swimming about 8 months and that there was no Olympic-sized swimming pool in his native Equitorial Guinea, which meant often braved the shark-ridden Atlantic Ocean to train – transforming him from plucky (but rubbish) underdog to a kind of strange embodiment of the Olympic spirit.

(As a postscript, Eric toured Europe flushed with glory and a relatively lucrative Speedo contract, and set his sights on proving, at Athens 2004, that he was more than just a novelty act. Sadly, however, documentation suspiciously ‘lost’ by the country’s despotic government prevented him from earning a visa to either train at the University of Wisconsin or compete in Athens. He has, though, achieved a respectable 100m time of 57 seconds (very respectable considering his plight), and is now the national swimming coach of Equitorial Guinea. So kind of a happy ending.)

Both may not have returned home with a medal – but, arguably, with far more.

Joel Durston