Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire makes his stand on the sanctity of the Sabbath. It seems basically crazy to give up a chance at Olympic gold just because you don’t want to run on Sunday. Yet he holds his nerve and we’re supposed to respect him for it, even if I always preferred the Jewish guy, whose main problem is that he has to fight against England’s gentlemanly commitment to mediocrity.
On the LRB podcast a few weeks ago, David Runciman and I got into a discussion about the ‘hot hand’ phenomenon. He wrote about it in the London Review in 2006, in a piece on José Mourinho:
The quintessential instance … occurs in basketball, where certain players suddenly and inexplicably acquire the ability to nail three-point baskets one after another (in basketball you get three points for any basket scored from a distance of over 23'9", a formidably difficult feat which means even the best players miss more often than they score).
With the start of the NBA season last week, I’ve been thinking about it again (actually, I think about this stuff pretty much year round, but the season is a good excuse to talk about it). As David wrote in his piece, statisticians will tell you there’s no such thing as a hot streak.
This summer has for some time been looked forward to as a make-or-break moment for English cricket. With England and Wales hosting the World Cup and an Ashes series starting here in August, it should be the perfect opportunity to make cricket part of the national conversation again; to try and halt the decline in enthusiasm for, and participation in, England’s traditional summer sport.
The first mistake I made when I joined the basketball team in Germany was admitting I spoke the language. It would have been weird not to – it would have been very weird. But sometimes over the course of the year, I imagined what it would be like for people around me (coaches, players) to talk naturally with each other in the expectation that I couldn’t understand them. It would have given me an edge.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to waste time at school by talking about the basketball box scores from the night before. (A box score is rows and columns of statistical information: minutes played, rebounds, assists, points scored etc. I think it started as a baseball term. Scores in a box.) We wanted to come up with a formula that measured how good a player was: the Dominance Quotient, we called it, only slightly self-mockingly.
‘There are people,’ Roland Barthes wrote, ‘who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport.’ It is possible that those who put together the recent successful nomination to make the Lake District a Unesco World Heritage Site are just such people. The bid made much of the paintings and poems inspired by the landscape, but gave little attention to Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, which was said by Sir Walter Armstrong in 1890 to be ‘productive of the most unparalleled excitement in the Northern counties’.
A Thomas Bewick woodcut, thought to have been produced in 1776, shows two wrestlers engaged in the distinctive C&W back-hold.
‘Just wait till next year’ is the perennial cry of the disappointed sports fan, particularly in the US, where all the big sporting events – bar the Olympics – are annual ones. In the major American sports there’s no relegation or promotion, so year on year the same contests recur, and next time really could be different. It’s the glory – and the horror – of international sport that it doesn’t operate to that comforting rhythm. If you blow a World Cup, it will be at least four years till you get another chance. If you lose an Ashes series before we even get to Christmas, it won’t be next year’s Christmas present to have them returned.
On Sunday, Mike Pence walked out of a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers when players knelt on the field during the national anthem. ‘I left today’s Colts game,’ the vice president said in a statement issued by the White House, ‘because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.’ His walk-out reignited a controversy that has been smouldering for weeks.
Tomorrow's Super Bowl LI (or 51, if we are still allowed to use Arabic numbers) will not only be the biggest holiday in the American calendar, but also a test of a national mood we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
In 1998, after testing positive for high levels of testosterone, the American sprinter Dennis Mitchell blamed the result on alcohol (five beers) and sex (four times the previous night). It was his wife’s birthday, he said. ‘The lady deserved a treat.’ After failing three drugs tests in 2009 and 2010, the Olympic gold medallist LaShawn Merritt attributed the result to a ‘product I used for personal reasons’: the penis-enhancement drug ExtenZe. The Belgian cyclist Björn Leukemans, suspended for doping in 2008, claimed that high levels of testosterone appeared in his urine because drug testers interrupted him having sex with his wife. Anti-doping officials said that no amount of sex could explain the levels of synthetic testosterone in his blood.
Leamington Tennis Court Club was established in 1846, which makes it the world’s oldest real tennis club: not the oldest real tennis court, which is at Falkland Palace in Fife (built in 1539, open-roofed, unplayable in rain), but the oldest private members’ tennis club. Women were admitted as members in 2008 and there are reminders everywhere of the club’s 160-odd years without them. There’s a large oil painting hanging in the lounge of an exhibition doubles match: every one of the four players and fifty or so spectators is in trousers and has an imposing moustache.
Ossie Gooding was a fast bowler from Barbados who played cricket for the army and for Hampshire's second eleven in the 1960s. Then he played club cricket for Ashford, and, until he died in 2002, for Harold Pinter's team, the Gaieties. He worked for the Home Office and when they moved his job to Newcastle, Pinter bought Gooding's train tickets to London so he could play as often as possible. For many years, a Pinter XI took on the Guardian at a ground at Gunnersbury in West London. At the 1981 match, a Guardian batsman disparaged Gooding and his bowling. What he said, exactly, Gooding never let on, but it must have been bad: Gooding wasn't vengeful or quick tempered but his next ball to that batsman was a bouncer which hit his cheek. Teeth and jaw were broken, there was a lot of blood on the pitch, the batsman went off to hospital – 'retired hurt' entered into the score book.
I didn’t even see the game. I landed after a 12-hour flight in Kuala Lumpur, or versts away from it down the coast where the airport is, took a taxi first along empty roads past miles of billboards and equatorial foliage, and then through chock-a-block city traffic, stuck in tunnels, surrounded by high-rises, for another hour, before I got to my hotel at around 9 a.m. But the room wasn’t ready, so I sat in a lounge with my computer trying to stream the NBA finals, which were happening not only on another continent but on another earth day, 12 hours behind me, on a Thursday summer night after work in Miami.
In the Champions League tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid which finished last night, for roughly 145 minutes the two sides played at even strength, and United outscored Real 2-1. For roughly 35 minutes, Real were a man up, and outscored United 2-0. Real went through. The shape and flow of the game changed instantly after Nani’s controversial sending off. Whether or not his particular red card was justified, it seems to me that the whole idea of the red card itself is not, and it would make more sense if teams were able to replace a sent-off player, using one of their substitutions.
National teams haven’t raced in the Tour de France since 1961, when pressure from bicycle makers led to a return of the trade teams. But that hasn't held back the patriotic cheering for Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour in its 109-year history. Chris Hoy has called his victory ‘the greatest individual achievement in the history of British sport’, though Wiggins owes a fair amount to his team mates: winning the Tour is both a cumulative and a collective achievement. Unlike Hoy – who with his freakishly powerful body looks as if he could have excelled in any number of sports – Wiggins seems to have been born to be a cyclist. His father was a professional rider, nicknamed ‘the doc’ by his peers because he used to smuggle amphetamines to races in his son’s nappies, and Bradley was brought up watching the Tour. ‘It's what I’ve dreamed of for 20 years,’ he said yesterday.
So he’s done it again. After two and a half of years of wandering in the wilderness of, well, not mediocrity exactly, but second or third best-ness, after climbing the small foothills of adversity, a twingey back, a few disappointing chokes, a couple of kids, after going four sets with Britain’s first Wimbledon finalist since Bunny Austin, Federer is once again the number one player in the world. Terrific. I never liked Federer.
The only football ticket I’ve ever bought a from a tout was for the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester City and United at Wembley last year. It cost me more than a third of my monthly rent. After the tout had satisfied himself that I wasn’t a cop he told me that the ticket was ‘one and a half’ and that I could collect it from his pal. ‘My mate’s in the bookies, ’cause it’s bent round here with the Old Bill.’ In the bookmakers there were horses on the telly, beer in the air, and football on everyone’s lips. A thin man with an unlit cigarette in his mouth gave me a ticket in a Club Wembley branded envelope, and I handed over £150.
Barack Obama suffered a split lip nine or so months ago playing basketball, severe enough to require 12 stitches. Obama likes basketball and has played it competitively since he was a schoolboy in Hawaii. One of his enduring grievances is directed at his high-school basketball coach who didn’t make him a starter on the varsity team, a decision Obama regarded as unfair and, perhaps, related to a certain animus on the part of the coach.
So England has lost out to Russia in its bid to host the 2018 World Cup. David Cameron's last minute slapping down of Michael Gove over school sports' funding was clearly too half-hearted to make a difference. Those secret plans to distribute tickets in lieu of housing benefit will have to be shelved. Cameron can perhaps console himself with the thought that he may be out of office by the time he gets his complimentary seat at the final in Moscow. Here's hoping. After all, as Sepp Blatter said, 'football is a school of life where you learn to lose.'
India’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games have become an international embarrassment. Earlier this month the Central Vigilance Commission examined several construction projects relating to the games and found them wanting, a judgment confirmed by the recent collapse of a bridge that injured 27 people. It even looked for a while as if the games could be cancelled. There are also many stories of corruption. The National Campaign on Dalit (ex-untouchable) Human Rights alleges that $150 million was siphoned away from schemes for assisting low castes in Delhi to be spent on the games. According to the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, construction workers have not been provided with safety equipment and are being paid less than the minimum wage. Some reports say that as many as 49 people have died building stadiums and facilities for the games.
It's fair to say that almost everybody spends at least part of the day wondering what would be the result of a football match between a professional team and a hundred primary school children. Thanks to the internet, we need speculate no longer. The evidence is now in. The J-league team Cerezu Osaka can be seen here playing 100 schoolboys. The Metafilter link takes you to the goals but it's also worth seeing the moment at 4:50 when the two teams come out. I don't want to give away the result, but among the various points of interest is the extravagant way the professionals celebrate when they score against the children.
To file in the department of 'Can this possibly be true?' – a piece from the New York Times about Wall Street's fascination with curling. That's right, curling, the mesmerically boring sport which is basically bowling on ice with heavy flat stones. After the closing bell in the markets, CNBC switches to showing the curling from Vancouver. Apparently the chilled-out boringness is why the moneymen like it. The guys on the Street say it is 'like chess on ice'.
Sport is very different when mediated by a television camera. On screen, you lose all sense of a ball's true speed, of the players' astonishing agility. Roger Federer's forehand on TV is still a thing of beauty, but it's something you can (almost) take for granted. Seeing it for real is a useful, if crushing, reminder of how far removed it is from anything you could come up with yourself. On two consecutive nights last week, thanks to some generous colleagues at the newspaper where I work, I went to the ATP World Tour tennis finals at the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome) in Greenwich. The organisers went for maximum American-style razzmatazz. Before the players came out there was a long build-up involving flashing lights, a rousing voiceover, and clips of interviews displayed on giant screens suspended from the ceiling.
Philosophical theories of justice generally assign an important role to rectification, the putting right of past wrongs. Thierry Henry's handball in France’s World Cup qualifier against Ireland last Wednesday has offered a mass exercise in rectificatory justice, with many in the Republic calling for the game to be replayed. The Irish know what they’re talking about, having recently had to take the Lisbon Treaty referendum to a replay in order to get the right result. FIFA has spoilsportingly turned down the Irish FA’s pleas. The iniquity is blatant. But why stop with the Henry handball? Why not rectify other instances of footballing injustice? English readers will need, in fact want, no reminding of the anguish of Maradona’s 'hand of God' goal for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup. That one should obviously be replayed.
I was glad to see in today's press that it was decided to separate the question of what sex Caster Semenya really is from the questions of whether she could keep her medal or compete in women's sports. It seemed to me that the drive to publish the results of the sex determination tests was always sensationalist and intrusive, and that it missed the important points at issue in this situation. Yesterday's decision by the IAAF goes part of the way to honour the complexity and vulnerability of the person here, but also to affirm the way her gender is bound up with cultural and familial modes of belonging and recognition.