Benjamin Markovits writes about what it takes to win at sport
When I was seven, my father took a job at Oxford and moved us from Texas. We stayed two years. He signed me up to the local football club, Summertown Stars, and sent me to the local Church of England school, St Philip and St James. I was already a competitive, sport-obsessed child, and responded to the sense of cultural difference by exaggerating it. During a classroom discussion – I can’t remember about what exactly – I quoted the great Green Bay Packers football coach, Vince Lombardi: ‘Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.’ My teacher, Mrs Hazel, asked me if I believed that. I said I did. She turned to the rest of the class: ‘But we don’t believe that, do we?’
Many of the frustrations a foreigner feels trying to adapt to a new country can be dismissed as homesickness or misunderstanding. And yet there did seem to be a core of difference between the two countries, which Americans of my parents’ generation complained about (the weather, the central heating, the ice cream) and the British took pride in. Here’s a crude way of putting it: the measure of character, in Britain, was your capacity to put up with something; in America, it was your ability to sort it out. And yet I can’t help feeling, as a naturalised Brit who spent about a third of his childhood in England, that this country has changed – and that what’s happening in sport is a way of measuring that change.
For one thing, the British are winning again, and they’ve had to come to terms with this fact. Tim Adams in the Observer called it a ‘national conversion from doubt to faith’. By common consensus, the transformation started ten years ago, when England won the rugby world cup under the guidance of Clive Woodward, who went on to become ‘director of elite performance’ at the British Olympic Association (he retired in 2012, just after the summer games). Two years later, the England cricket team ‘took back’ the Ashes after eight straight defeats to Australia. The Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy won a couple of majors and became the number one golfer in the world. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. Then came the London Olympics, about which there was a lot of national grumbling, until they started. Britain ended up third in the medals table, behind China and the US. Andy Murray won the US Open in tennis. Justin Rose won it in golf. This summer, Murray won Wimbledon and Chris Froome followed Wiggins to victory in the Tour de France. The cup ran over.
There’s plenty of material for a different story, too. Woodward followed his world cup triumph with a poor Six Nations tournament and a winless tour of New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions. McIlroy has flatlined since winning the PGA in 2012. Murray spent his crucial developmental years in Spain (which currently has more top 25 players than any other country), partly because of the failure of his older brother to progress under the guidance of the LTA. England’s Ashes success is also a measure of Australia’s decline, and the team choked badly on the verge of winning its first big title in the 2011 world cup final against India, showing the sort of loss of nerve England usually reserves for penalty shootouts in international football tournaments. Yet – football aside – there does seem to be a new degree of confidence in the air.
‘You can say what you like,’ at least three people said to me around the time of the royal wedding, ‘but we do put on a good show’ – a line supposed to demonstrate two of the received national characteristics, class and modesty. Then Margaret Thatcher died (her funeral was another good show) and there was a lot of talk about the way the country had changed since she became prime minister, a year before I joined Mrs Hazel’s class. Arguments ran along predictable lines: the privatisation of industry, the role of the unions, immigration, education, the economic and cultural gap between North and South. Several columnists (on both sides of the political divide) attributed Britain’s recent sporting success to Thatcher’s influence, and the culture of money-oriented competitive individualism that characterised her time in office.
The London Olympics had been a good show too. The opening ceremony was one long advertisement for Britishness, another rather immodest celebration of modesty, and the games themselves bore out the virtues people once liked to associate with the British Empire: large-scale, good-natured efficiency. And as in the good old days, the British won: 29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze medals – their best finish since they dominated the first London Olympics in 1908 with 56 golds. Those numbers tell us something else that hasn’t always been true: more often than not, when they were close, the Brits came first. Some of that can be attributed to home advantage and the cheers of the crowds. But how much can be attributed to something else? I’m suspicious of the desire to ascribe failure and success in sport to character. Athletes usually win because they are better, and they are usually better for technical reasons that are relatively easy to measure. Winning isn’t a moral quality.
In the 1980 Moscow Olympics (which were boycotted by America), the first after Thatcher’s rise to power, Britain came ninth, with five gold medals, seven silver and nine bronze. They came 11th in Los Angeles in 1984 (when Russia boycotted), with another five golds; 12th in 1988 (five golds again); 13th in 1992 (five golds yet again). The nadir was reached in Atlanta in 1996 with one gold and 36th place in the overall medal table. But after 1996, they made two distinct jumps up the rankings, first in Sydney in 2000, where they came tenth with 11 golds; then, after a similar performance in Athens (tenth place again, nine golds), surging to fourth place in Beijing, with 19 gold medals, 13 silver and 15 bronze.
Even the way Britain won in 2012 suggests something new. In 1980, none of Britain’s five golds was won by a woman, and only four of its 16 silver and bronze medals went to women. In 2012, 11 of the 29 golds were won by women. Many of Britain’s biggest stars in 2012 were born outside the UK, including Bradley Wiggins (Belgium) and Mo Farah (Somalia). Jessica Ennis, the ‘face of the Olympics’, is mixed race. Britain’s posh athletes did well too, winning two golds in dressage (two more than they had ever won before); the queen’s granddaughter won a silver as part of Britain’s eventing team. Britain excelled in some of its traditional strengths, like rowing, although the gold the British women won in London 2012 was their first in the sport.[*] Britain’s success was greeted with surprise, but it was not an aberration. Something has changed.
The best book I know on the relationship between sporting culture and success is Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s account of the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball team.[†] The argument is compellingly simple: sports teams are run like gentlemen’s clubs rather than businesses, and clubs don’t base their business decisions on facts but on codes and intuitions. A club’s first priority is to maintain the distinction between those inside and those outside the club. The trouble with inside knowledge is that it is supposed to be inscrutable, to resist outsiders’ attempts at rational analysis. It is cultural rather than statistical, and Lewis demonstrates persuasively how often cultural knowledge is wrong.
Moneyball presents expertise – the seasoned intuition which comes from years of first-hand experience and the attempts of scouts, coaches, managers, ex-players and commentators to make sense of it – as a kind of bias, an obstacle to be overcome. Lewis writes about Oakland’s general manager, Billy Beane, and his Yale-educated sidekick, a numbers guy called Paul DePodesta, who attempted to apply Wall Street style derivatives analysis to the problem of how to win baseball games. What’s attractive about sport from this point of view is that it gives you a yes or no answer, a win or a loss. Beane and DePodesta were putting a theory to the test: that maths gets you closer to that answer than seasoned intuition.
The reason baseball yields so well to this kind of analysis – called sabermetrics, after the Society for American Baseball Research – is that it offers so many statistics. But the idea has obvious applications outside baseball. We can get stats on anything – happiness, education, health, earning potential, marriage – and, properly analysed, they give us probabilistic knowledge we can use to help make choices. But what most of us want from knowledge is not just the truth, but an intimacy with the truth. We want, in other words, something much closer to seasoned intuition. Beane and DePodesta wanted to think they had insulated themselves from such feelings, like private equity guys who break up companies because the parts are worth more. It’s just business.
‘Anyone who wanders into Major League Baseball,’ Lewis writes,
can’t help but notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts make their livings. The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you’re very good, you don’t survive in it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won’t be tolerated … There are many ways to embarrass the club, but being bad at your job isn’t one of them … That’s not to say that there are not good baseball executives and bad baseball executives, or good baseball scouts and bad baseball scouts. It’s just that they aren’t very well sorted out. Baseball doesn’t subject its executives to anything like the pressures of playing baseball, or even of running a business.
Even in the big money world of American baseball, you could get an edge in 2002 by applying the lessons of corporate efficiency to the problem of winning ballgames. What if, instead of a ball club, with all its codes, traditions and biases, we took something like ‘British culture’, with all its codes, traditions, biases etc? What strikes me most looking back on my little confrontation with Mrs Hazel is not what a tick I must have been (though that strikes me too), but the need she felt to stand up for a way of thinking. Lewis’s description of a major league baseball club more or less captures what many Americans used to feel about England – that it was a closed shop, operating according to codes that couldn’t be explained to outsiders. You can’t get anything done in this country, I used to hear Americans say, and if you try people will probably dislike you for it. Everybody just puts up with everything.
This is certainly the culture that Clive Woodward felt he was reacting against when he took over English rugby in 1997. ‘In the last decade one of the largest amateur sports the world has ever known made the transition to a professional game. Here in England, more than anywhere else, the game has been through an immense period of adjustment moving into this new era,’ he writes in his memoir, Winning! Woodward played rugby for England and the Lions, but he believed it was his experience in business that qualified him to coach the national side.
When I started as coach, I was determined to run the England rugby team like a business, so over the years I’ve canvassed hundreds of sources for new business techniques in line with all my experiences in the corporate and small business world. In finding what would work best for England rugby, I have brought together hundreds of business concepts in a totally new way.
It’s striking how many of Britain’s recent sporting successes have been managed or directed or narrated by people with a background in business or an interest in business think. David Brailsford, the general manager of Team Sky and the performance director of British Cycling – and therefore the man behind Britain’s eight gold medals in cycling at London 2012 and the Tour de France victories of Wiggins and Froome – studied sports science and psychology before doing an MBA. When the Lance Armstrong story broke, Brailsford was worried about the possible implications for Team Sky, which had adopted a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to drug cheats. So he called his friend Alastair Campbell for advice and turned to a book he was reading, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse – about big business.
The trouble with all this, from the point of view of the sports fan, or even the sports-books fan, is that business speak (at least as spoken by Clive Woodward) sounds like such horseshit. Woodward’s account of his world cup victory was ghostwritten or co-authored by an American called Fletcher Potanin. ‘He came to this story with no preconceived notions of the tradition of England rugby or of the game in general. As such we were able to give the rise of England’s success a new perspective. He is a businessman specialising in the transformation of company cultures and the development of specialised business systems.’ It’s hard to know whether Potanin or Woodward is more to blame for confessions like the following: ‘In my life I have always been searching for a fleeting and elusive sensation that is best described as “winning”, but in a different way from what most people understand.’ You can find Potanin online: ‘As part of ongoing service to clients, Fletcher Potanin regularly conducts consultations and in-house training programmes to help teams embrace new business systems like The Communication Tools of the Courtesy System.’
These passages don’t sound much like Moneyball, which sidelines psychology in favour of the predictive potential of measurable facts. Sports psychology, business speak, Alastair Campbell: all this is less Margaret Thatcher than New Labour. (Woodward took over the England rugby team around the time Blair came to power; halfway through his second term, England won the rugby world cup.) But even Moneyball has something of the flavour of New Labour. The obsession with targets and statistics may start out as a way of effecting meaningful changes, as a means to an end, but it’s hard to prevent the targets themselves from becoming the point. Beane’s approach to managing the Oakland A’s involved bypassing the traditional experts (the club’s coaches and scouts) and bringing in his own consultants. He centralised power and made decisions on the basis of long-term statistical goals, not more obvious measures of success such as winning the next game. The climax of the story of the Oakland A’s doesn’t come with a victory in the World Series, because they didn’t win it. Their biggest triumph was to break a statistical record, for consecutive wins. As Beane points out: ‘My shit doesn’t work in the play-offs. My job is to get us to the play-offs. What happens after that is fucking luck.’
How much of Britain’s recent success can be explained by luck? At a pinch, I’d suggest the timing of Andy Murray’s rise to greatness. His success isn’t evidence of a change in sporting culture: tennis allows talent to flourish in isolation. Britain has always had great golfers, including probably the best player of the 1990s, Nick Faldo; the major victories of Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy look more like the continuation of a tradition than something new. Cricket is different. It is the British sport closest to baseball, so it’s worth asking whether it lends itself to a Moneyball-style explanation. But it’s also the sport that seems most archetypally British (class-based, leisurely, connected to empire), so it makes an interesting test case for any account of the evolution of British sporting culture.
In August I was at Chester-le-Street to see Durham County Cricket Club host an Ashes test for the first time in its 22-year history. The Riverside Ground is a wonderful place to watch a test match, less a stadium than a parenthesis in the landscape, a bit of architectural punctuation that separates one piece of greenery, flat and lush and roughly circular, from the rest – from the trees and the river and the park. By holding one of the most important fixtures in the calendar there, cricket hoped to accomplish, briefly, what the HS2 is designed to do at much greater expense: establish a bridge between North and South.
It’s hard to imagine a sport whose clubs feel more like gentlemen’s clubs. A cricket club doesn’t sell season tickets, Durham’s commercial director, Scott Sherrard, told me: it sells membership. A member isn’t just a fan, he’s one of us. So it seems unlikely, on the face of it, that England could owe its cricketing success to the strategies of Billy Beane. A cricket club feels very much like an insider organisation, and although cricket and baseball have many similarities, there are obvious differences between them that make Lewis’s insights hard to apply. In the first place, there’s a lot less money in cricket. Most players tend to come up through the club system, through training academies. This is significant, because Beane wasn’t really trying to pick the best players (conventional baseball wisdom has always been pretty good at identifying those), he was trying to pick the most undervalued players. There are variations in the payrolls of county cricket clubs but nothing like the variations in baseball. If money isn’t an issue, Beane loses some of his edge.
Scott Sherrard set me up with the current one-day captain of Durham, a South African called Dale Benkenstein, one of those good-looking, clean-shaven, thirty-something athletes on the cusp of a move to the business end of things. He was extremely interested in baseball, especially in its training techniques, but he didn’t have much to say about the number-crunching behind the A’s’ success. One of the things you pick up on quickly when you talk to athletes is that there’s a limit to their analytical interest in the sport. Thinking gets you caught from behind, O.J. Simpson said, talking about American football, the sport he used to be famous for. Athletes don’t necessarily want to understand what’s going on, they want to think the kinds of thought that allow them to succeed – and there’s a big difference between the two. The kinds of thought they favour work well as mantras.
Benkenstein thinks English cricket’s recent success comes down to infrastructure: it has the best infrastructure in the world. Not the school system, which, he said, is much stronger in South Africa. (Eight of England’s squad of thirty this summer were born in South Africa. Two of England’s stars, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, learned their cricket in its schools.) What he meant by infrastructure was the county game, which has more clubs and money than the domestic game in South Africa or Australia. The other big factor was central contracts. In 1999, England was the lowest-ranked test-playing nation. The England and Wales Cricket Board, which had been set up two years earlier to take over control of the national team from the Marylebone Cricket Club, decided to employ the best players directly, so that they could train together away from their county duties. And England got better.
That’s one side of the story. Australia’s decline is another. Benkenstein attributes this (he’s not the only one) partly to the growing popularity of Twenty20 cricket, a baseball-sized version of the game which takes only a couple of hours to play and rewards heavy hitters. The sport is in a funny kind of crisis. The big commercial ticket remains the international test; to support the international game you need a strong county system; yet the only way the counties can survive is by playing a version of cricket that teaches skills directly opposed to the ones players need to thrive in international tests. It’s a problem.
Sherrard arranged for me to watch some cricket from the boardroom. At lunch I sat opposite another guest of the club, Adam Applegarth, the former chief executive of Northern Rock, a local boy made good, after a fashion. Sunderland-born, Durham-educated, he presided over Northern Rock’s expansion into the fifth largest mortgage provider in Britain but was widely criticised for the run on the bank in September 2007 that played a large part in the financial meltdown. Applegarth looks more like an ex-rugby player than a cricketer: balding and cheerful, physically strong and comfortable with his strength. When I told him what I was writing about, that I was trying to explain Britain’s recent run of sporting successes, he said the explanation was simple. Money: the lottery money introduced by John Major in 1994.
But the national lottery wasn’t the ECB’s only source of money. Sky began broadcasting cricket in 1990, but in 2006, on the back of England’s Ashes success, it acquired exclusive rights to all of England’s home matches. Since 2006, when the Sky deal was struck, the ECB’s reserves have increased from £2 million to more than £30 million. The money goes not only into paying the England players but supporting the counties (that a test was held in Durham at all is evidence of the board’s desire to spread the wealth). Another way of describing the structure of English cricket is as a kind of public/private partnership, where the public body (the ECB) is financed by private companies (such as Sky and the county clubs) to their mutual benefit. It’s New Labour through and through. The only ones who suffer are the richer clubs, and the fans who don’t have Sky and can’t watch the cricket.
Sherrard was hoping for good weather and five days of cricket, which would mean five days’ worth of ticket sales. In spite of England’s national success, many of the counties are suffering financially, and hosting an Ashes test match is one way of replenishing the coffers. In the event, he got four days of bright, sometimes windy, sometimes cloudy, English summer, along with a century from Ian Bell, an Australian revival and a match that swung each way from session to session. But on the fourth afternoon, a spell of fast bowling from Stuart Broad turned a promising run-chase into an Aussie collapse. After the fall of Brad Haddin’s wicket, the only question remaining was whether the light would hold long enough to allow England’s seamers to bowl Australia out. The clouds came and England brought on their spinner, Graeme Swann; then the clouds passed over, the sun broke through, and Broad finished off the Australian tail. The Ashes had been won, everybody could go home, and Durham lost out on a fifth day of receipts. England’s surge cost the club £150,000.
Cricket, cycling, rugby, tennis, golf. The Olympics. Ten years’ worth of playing games. You win some, you lose some. Britain these days wins a little more often, loses a little less often. It’s hard to generalise about the reasons: there are too many of them, and some have nothing to do with countries or cultures or organisations. You can’t ignore the importance of talent and luck. But if you look closely at different victories, threads begin to appear, names and places crop up again and again. Lottery funding; TV contracts; Loughborough University. Clive Woodward played rugby and studied sports science at Loughborough, and Sebastian Coe trained there under George Gandy. Woodward credits Coe and Gandy with teaching him the importance of professionalism; it was Coe who hired Woodward years later to be director of elite performance for the Olympics. The National Cricket Performance Centre is based at Loughborough, where a Cambridge maths graduate called Nathan Leamon plays the part of Paul DePodesta, England’s numbers wizard.
Some of the connections are personal and real, between Woodward and Coe, and Brailsford and Campbell; others, such as Applegarth’s presence in the Durham boardroom, are more suggestive and symbolic. The connection you can make between the growth of the City – the increasing importance of financial services to the British economy – and the success of British sports is a bit of both. The lesson of Moneyball is that sport is a business and that people who are good at business will be good at sports – or at least at running them. Britain’s Olympic success is a clear example. The Games are chaotic and large in scale and made up of very different kinds of event featuring very different kinds of athlete: the sort of set-up, full of potential for market inefficiencies, that can be exploited by smart management. This is part of what makes the role of lottery funding so awkward. People bad at playing the odds are giving their money to people who are very good at playing them, and are determined to fund only the most likely winners. Excellence before participation, as Woodward puts it. The joke about the British at London 2012 is that they did very well at sitting-down sports – cycling, rowing, riding – which attract a relatively small pool of athletic talent, and for which technical advantages in coaching and equipment can be decisive. In rugby, Woodward professionalised an amateur game and England won; then the rest of the world caught up and England stopped winning. Cricket has been professional for longer, but it’s a second-tier sport: relatively few people play it, and ambitious athletes whose gifts allow them to succeed at football will probably choose football. Cycling is the ultimate niche sport: success depends on a narrow range of talents and the quality of training and equipment. These are all sports in which successful top-down management can produce results.
You can imagine an algorithm designed to estimate the competitive standard of any human activity. It should take into account such things as the size of the talent pool, how early the talent gets spotted, the rigorousness of the training culture and the amount of money at stake. It may turn out that, according to such an algorithm, there is nothing humans do more excellently than play football. Certainly, the British have found it harder to succeed at football than at any other sport. The standard explanation is that the clubs are too powerful and the country is too weak. There’s another way of putting this. What you need in football is the equivalent of a manufacturing base: you need to support and develop a vast pool of talent. Cycling and rowing and swimming can be run on a financial services model, by deploying assets intelligently. But success in football depends on the grass roots: it’s cultural. When Greg Dyke complained recently about the dire state of English football, he talked in protectionist terms: you’ve got to allow English talent to prosper at the expense of free-market principles.
But if Britain, or at least British sporting culture, is becoming more business-like, and in that sense Americanised, there is one important respect in which it still lags far behind the US. American sports tend to be run in an un-American way. The ‘premier’ leagues of baseball, American football and basketball practise (to different degrees) a kind of socialism: they share revenues, cap salaries and reward failure (by giving the worst performing clubs first pick in the annual draft of college players), all in order to foster a competitive balance between clubs. Americans may be obsessed with winning, but they also believe in a level playing field. No American league would tolerate the imbalance in the Premiership. It’s not a sport in America if everybody doesn’t have a real chance of winning.
Faith in the level playing field is one way of explaining the high degree of integration in American sports. The other is a love of money. If you pay clubs enough to win games, they will eventually put out the best team possible, regardless of race. It’s no coincidence that Premiership football, the British sport which has by several orders of magnitude the most money behind it, is also the most integrated. But even in the Premiership there’s been an almost total failure to integrate the coaching fraternity; as Michael Lewis points out, the game is a ruthlessly effective machine for sifting talent, but there is almost no level of incompetence, or worse, that clubs won’t tolerate off the field of play. There is one black manager in the Premiership and only five in England’s entire professional game. In the National Basketball Association, by contrast, 14 out of 30 head coaches are African-American. I wouldn’t make too much of this: this ratio is still way below the percentage of black players in the league. In the NFL, the ‘Rooney rule’ requires owners to interview at least one minority candidate for any coaching job, but there are currently only three African-American head coaches and one offensive co-ordinator in the league, and no black coaches were hired last summer. The owners’ ranks in all sports are still dominated by white men.
But cricket and rugby have failed even to integrate the playing field. This is especially embarrassing for cricket, which should be able to draw on British Indian, Pakistani and West Indian populations which are passionate about the sport. Leicester, for example, has a higher percentage of British Asians (28.3 per cent) than any other city, but Leicestershire has only two British Asians in its twenty-strong county cricket side. One evening in Durham, Sherrard invited me and my father-in-law to join him for dinner, along with several cricket journalists and members of the club. At one point my father-in-law asked the table why there weren’t any black cricketers in the England team these days. There were several in the 1990s. One of the guests, a shrewd, likeable, knowledgeable ex-cricketer said (this is as close as I can come to remembering his answer) that it was because most players these days tend to come up through the academy system, which is very rigorous and takes several years: it tends to expose any weakness of character.
There was a silence, then one of the journalists turned to him and said: ‘That doesn’t make sense. What do you mean?’ The conversation went back and forth for a while, then moved on. After dinner I told my father-in-law: you have your answer. But over the next few days I thought of what else I might have said. About the history of sport, which is, apart from anything else, a history of the way received opinions about race get exploded by new facts. And I remembered what it was like to be a minority player in my own chosen sport, basketball. For reasons that are hard to pin down I never played up to my ability in school. I don’t want to make too much of that ability, but I was six and a half feet tall, co-ordinated, fairly quick – athletic enough to get a minor league pro job after college. But at 13 I was shy on the court, easily intimidated, soft-handed (as my coaches used to put it, generously). I probably didn’t work hard enough either: kids who feel scared or shy tend not to try. But since I was white and good in school, nobody blamed my failings on weakness of character. They just thought I couldn’t play.
[*] The success of America’s female Olympians suggests that Britain still has room to improve. In 2012, 29 of the US’s 46 gold medals were won by women. In other words, British men won more gold medals than American men, but American women won almost three times as many as British women. This is the kind of success you can legislate for. The US Education Amendments of 1972 include a clause (known familiarly as Title IX) that requires federally funded education programmes to spend as much money on women’s sports as on men’s. As a result, in spite of the absence of a deep-rooted tradition in soccer, the US has the top-ranked women’s soccer team in the world.