Archive for the ‘sport’ Category

TED conference excludes sport. Why?

The latest TED Global conference has been taking place in Edinburgh this week. As usual, the talks offer fascinating and insightful opinions on some of the big issues facing our world but sport hardly ever features. I think this is a shame.

TED is dedicated to “ideas worth spreading”. The original concept for the conference series involved bringing together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. In recent years the format of short, inspiring presentations has proved ideally suited to YouTube and many of the talks are viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

On the face of it, sport would seem an ideal subject to address: sport is an extraordinary cultural phenomenon which permeates almost every society and has a major role to play in health, community life, the entertainment industry, the news industry, international relations, medical research and more.

In elite sport we watch men and women pushing back the boundaries of human performance; we see global competition in accordance with standardised, objective rules which push standards ever higher.

So why doesn’t sport feature more than very occasionally at TED?

I believe the answer is that sport still lacks intellectual credibility because of attitudes among a particular type of opinion leader. Arts, culture more generally, social sciences, these are acceptable subjects for intellectual debate whereas sport is not.

It’s tempting to generalise that the type of person who writes the agenda or speaks at a conference like TED is the type of person who was engrossed in a book or a computer while their class-mates at school were enjoying sport but that can’t be true in every case.

The sports world has taken a lead in many important battles: challenging prejudices regarding race, gender, disability; bringing people together in the same arena when politics cannot; inspiring disadvantaged young people.

Sport and the issues that surround it have become a field of serious academic study but if sport is to fulfil more of its potential it has to take on the battle for intellectual credibility.

It is perhaps unfair to single out TED for excluding sport as a topic because the absence of sport from intellectual debate is a wider issue.

For those of us who believe in the value of sport, the challenge is to take it out of its allotted place at the back of the newspaper, at the end of the news broadcast, on the dedicated sports shows and at sport specialist conferences. Sport needs to feature more in the comment and lifestyle sections of serious media, in the scientific and economic journals, in political debate.

We will know we have been successful when the first TED Sport conference takes place.

South Sudan: football and Olympic teams coming soon

Now that South Sudan has gained independence from the north and become the world’s newest sovereign state, it is likely that sport will provide one of the earliest and most visible expressions of national identity.

Along with setting up a capital city, a currency, an internet domain and taking up a seat at the United Nations, the creation of new sports teams will be high on the agenda for the new government of South Sudan. According to the BBC, basketball and football squads are already in training for their first international matches, even if the facilities are somewhat basic.

International sports federations and the International Olympic Committee have clearly defined procedures for welcoming new member countries because it happens on a regular basis. In some cases they are established countries which now wish to formalise their participation in a particular sport but there has also been a steady stream of new sovereign states over the last twenty years, including the countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

In some cases new countries can make rapid progress in sport. Montenegro has had a remarkable rise from 199th and last place in the FIFA rankings when they played their first match in 2007 to 16th place today.

For newly independent countries international sport takes on a particular significance: supporting their national teams brings the people together, giving them the chance to wave flags, sing the national anthem and identify with heroes.

The birth of a new country often follows a period of instability and sometimes violence – a brutal and long-running civil war in the case of Sudan. After so much suffering, the appearance of new sports teams seems a positive sign of progress towards stability, as well as confirmation of nationhood.

On the other side of the new border, the split may provoke strong emotions and the relationship between the two countries is likely to be difficult in the early years. Sport in these circumstances can provide an outlet for patriotic fervour. It is no surprise that matches between neighbouring countries are often the hardest fought on the pitch, sometimes involving tension between rival fans.

Faced with daunting challenges, as the New York Times points out, South Sudan is perhaps unlikely to match Montenegro’s record. Nevertheless, now is a time for optimism and sport has an important role to play.

The cheers will be loud and heart-felt when the South Sudan football team plays its first competitive match, and when the Olympic team enters the stadium at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.

Two countries divided by uncommon sports reporting

As newspapers increasingly look for online readers across national borders in their quest for advertising revenue, the challenge of catering to differing tastes in sport increases. The solution will presumably involve covering a wider range of sports and employing columnists from different countries but it’s still early days.

The Economist this week
mentions that the Daily Mail website, Mail Online had over 40m unique visitors in May 2011, up 60% on last year. Much of the increase comes from readers in America. Meanwhile, about one third of over 30m monthly visitors to the Guardian website come from the US.

Both papers are making concerted efforts to attract US readers through new overseas correspondents but the sports sections are still resolutely UK-focused. In common with other UK media, both the Guardian and Daily Mail provide a staple diet of football coverage all year round with seasonal coverage of rugby, cricket, Formula 1, golf, tennis, horse racing and others. Olympic sports such as athletics and cycling enjoy more prominence than would have been the case a few years ago due to the proximity of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The New York Times is the only newspaper which has more unique visitors to its website than the Mail Online, including many from outside the US, but its sports coverage clearly targets American readers. The top menu in the sports section lists baseball, NFL, college football, NBA, hockey, soccer, golf and tennis. The lead stories about Wimbledon in recent days are naturally about American players rather than the sole British player still in the competition, Andy Murray.

Any sports fan who has watched the global news channels such as CNN, BBC World or Al-Jazeera English will have noticed the inadequacy of their sports reports. In the first place they have to decide which sports to cover, which requires a compromise given the wide range of nationalities among the viewers. The second issue is that the global news channels frequently don’t have the necessary rights to show clips of sports events which would feature in national TV news broadcasts. As a result, the combination of match scores shown on screen and assorted clips satisfies few.

Web users who proactively seek out online newspapers from other countries probably have a particular interest in international news. There is no reason why this should not include sports news but it would require significant investment to provide adequate sports coverage to cater for readers in two or more countries.

International sports specialist news sites probably lead the way in this area. ESPN have both a US and UK version of their website with no apparent overlap in content and Eurosport maintains an impressive range of 15 national sports news websites alongside TV channels in numerous languages.

For the immediate future, newspaper sports reporting looks set to remain nationally focused. It’s a curious fact that while sport itself is inherently universal and global, sports reporting is carefully tailored to national audiences.

“Rain stops play” but should we let it?

The weather forecast for the start of the Wimbledon Championships on Monday 20 June is unsettled. Rain delays seem inevitable, much to the disappointment of spectators and TV viewers. Surely in this day and age something can be done?

Several of the outdoor sports have to suspend play when it rains, including cricket, baseball and tennis on some surfaces. Golf, football, rugby, Formula 1, road cycling, sailing and others are also disrupted by very bad weather.

Although there have been rain delays at sports events in the UK in recent days, such as the cricket Test Match between England and Sri Lanka and horse racing at Royal Ascot, overall significant progress has been made in the last few years.

The Centre Court at Wimbledon has had a retractable roof since 2009 which allows play to continue at least in one court in the event of rain or darkness. Drainage and covers at the leading cricket grounds are now so good that play can resume rapidly even after heavy rain that would have wiped out the rest of the day in years gone by. Meanwhile, horse racing has some all-weather artificial courses, field hockey is played on artificial turf and a handful of venues around the world can house football, rugby or American Football in a wholly enclosed space.

For sponsors and broadcasters, the threat of disruption due to bad weather is an occupational hazard which contrasts with the virtual certainty of indoor sport. You would think that it would be in their interests to focus more on events that are unlikely to be delayed or cancelled. However, sport’s original settings are more often outdoor than indoor and only basketball and ice hockey among leading spectator sports are always held indoors.

So what does the future hold? Research into artificial turf surfaces will no doubt continue with the eventual result that all sports played on grass will have an artificial option which is as good as grass. A few more venues like the Louisiana Superdome will be built to house team sports indoors, although the high cost will prevent more widespread adoption.

I think rain delays will continue to feature in sport because the institutions and fans enjoy belonging to a tradition. Part of the enjoyment of Wimbledon or attending a cricket match on a fine day stems from appreciating the sunshine in the knowledge that winter will arrive one day.

In any case the supporters of summer sports have it easy. Winter sport is the most vulnerable of all to the vagaries of the weather, as any ski fans will testify.

Co-ordination needed to tackle corruption in sport

The consequences of alleged corruption in sport can sometimes seem trivial compared to the serious issues of “real” politics but in fact lives are at stake.

A professional footballer from South Korea called Jeong Jong-Kwan died in an apparent suicide in late May while under investigation for match-fixing in the K-league, where criminal gangs involved in illegal gambling have sought to influence players. It is too early to know whether any blame can be apportioned to the footballing authorities concerned.

Match-fixing has been identified as a major issue facing sports around the world and sports federations are now taking positive steps to counter the threat. International cricket, for example, has established its own an Anti-Corruption and Security Unit where any information regarding corruption in cricket can be reported anonymously.

In March there was a meeting involving the International Olympic Committee, government ministers from several countries plus various international organisations at which it was agreed to form a task force to help protect sport from illegal gambling.

But match-fixing is only one aspect of corruption in sport. Doping continues to damage the reputation of  cycling, athletics and others despite increasingly rigorous testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency, international federations and national anti-doping organisations.

In the cases of match-fixing and doping, there is a concerted effort by the leaders of sports organisations to solve the problem.

However, there are other types of corruption afflicting sport that are further removed from the field of play where evidence of progress is less clear-cut. Examples include the payment of bribes in return for awarding business contracts, and improper inducements to vote either for bidding cities/countries or for individuals standing for election. These illicit activities are often only uncovered when an insider speaks out or fails to cover their tracks.

Sports organisations generally lack adequate tools and resources to investigate and take action in response to allegations of corruption. Ethics committees in international federations have limited powers – of course they cannot act like a police force.

Since many international sports organisations are accountable only to their members (some of which probably have a disincentive to blow the whistle) and commercial sponsors (which are focused on their own businesses),  the protection against corruption is weak.

With lives at stake, not to mention billions in hard currency, it is time for a co-ordinated international approach to tackle corruption in sport. It will require further discussion to determine the right structure for the new international body or system which should be adopted but there may be a role for Interpol and perhaps also for the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The Chairman of the Danish Football Association Allan Hansen advocates the creation of an international investigation unit into sports fraud and corruption.

The experience of recent days, months and years shows that the “family” of sport cannot be left to tackle corruption on its own and that the consequences are too serious to be ignored.

Ice Hockey World Championships and the limits of globalisation

Unless you are from one of the mountainous countries in Europe or Canada, you may not be aware that the Ice Hockey World Championships conclude today in Slovakia.

The final pits Scandinavian rivals Sweden and Finland against each other at the end of a tournament involving the 16 best teams in the world and 17 days of competition.

There is a complication: the end of season play-offs are currently underway in the NHL, which means that some of the star players are not available. It is noticeable that Olympic finalists last year Canada and the USA were both knocked out in the quarter-finals in Slovakia.

Ice hockey is a very popular sport in a number of countries and one of the hottest tickets at the Olympic Winter Games yet its world championship struggles for global visibility. Of the 16 countries who qualified for this year’s event, 14 are from Europe, of which 11 have a population of 10m or less.

Climate, physical geography, culture, history and government support combine in unpredictable ways to determine which countries participate in which sports. While individuals can sometimes reach the top despite the lack of tradition in a particular sport in their country, in team sports it takes many years for also-rans to become serious contenders. As a result, few team sports can claim to be global.

A comparison of the teams who have qualified for the Ice Hockey World Championships with other sports events demonstrates this point. Canada is the only country which is competing in the ice hockey which also qualified for the recent Cricket World Cup involving 14 nations. Canada, France, Russia and the USA are competing in both the ice hockey and the 20 team Rugby World Cup later in the year but of these only France is currently in the top 10 in the rugby world rankings.

In all that makes 50 qualification spots in three of the major team sport events this year which have been filled by 40 different countries. The major markets not involved in any of these events include China, Brazil, Spain and Korea.

For sponsor brands which value an association with sport and are global (or wish to be), the limited reach of specific sports presents challenges. The FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games offer the broadest international audience but for a high price. Almost any other international sponsorship asset will be relevant in only a range of markets.

The ice hockey teams from Sweden and Finland deserve recognition for defeating the best that the rest of the world could offer but don’t expect South America, Asia or Africa to notice.  While sport is global, most sports are not.

Seve Ballesteros: sporting icons are not produced by systems

The sad death of golfer Seve Ballesteros is the lead story today in Spanish media such as El País, El Mundo and Marca. The glowing tributes appearing in media around the world (BBC, USA Today, L’Equipe and many more) prove his iconic status.

Ballesteros burst onto the scene as a 19 year-old, finishing runner-up in the British Open in 1976. Among dozens of tournament wins during his career were three Open titles and two US Masters. He was also the inspiration behind European success in the Ryder Cup from 1985 onwards after decades of American dominance. With his flair and sense of drama he probably did more than anyone else to popularise golf across Europe in the last 30 years.

Many sports governing bodies and sponsors try to extend the appeal of their events by supporting the development of young athletes in new markets. Through funding for youth programmes, training camps, wildcard entries and holding championships in developing countries, federations seek to broaden the pool of contenders. Occasionally it works, particularly when there is already an infrastructure in place within a specific market which can harness the international investment.

A successful example is the introduction of Italy into the Six Nations rugby tournament in 2000.  Although the Italian team has not yet been close to winning the title, it has been consistently competitive and achieved some notable victories.

But what sports federations and sponsors really crave is superstars from outside their core markets, athletes who can transcend their sport and appeal to an audience well beyond the traditional fan base. Those of a similar generation to Seve Ballesteros include the likes of Boris Becker, Roger Milla and Lance Armstrong.

While star athletes often have a strong family background in their sport – Ballesteros came from a family of golfers and Becker’s father set up a tennis centre – they rarely seem to be the product of official sports development programmes.

With some honourable exceptions (such as the US college sports system and the FC Barcelona youth academy), development programmes succeed in broadening the base of competitive youngsters but seldom unearth charismatic champions.

It may be that sports federations and sponsors should concentrate more on capitalising when they are fortunate enough to have a superstar in their midst and worry less about the very difficult task of producing the next one.

Ultimately it is the icons of sport who do more to inspire the next generation of stars than any well-meaning official intervention. At the US Masters last month Phil Mickelson said that watching Seve’s 1980 Masters victory as a 9 year-old influenced him to take up golf.

Farewell Seve Ballesteros. Your legacy lives on.

World Snooker: Judd Trump in the role of fearless newcomer

21 year-old Judd Trump, who has been narrowly defeated in the final of the World Snooker Championships, played the familiar sporting role of the fearless newcomer attempting to overturn the established order.

He was up against three times world champion John Higgins. Higgins has been in the top six for 15 years whereas Trump was ranked 24th before the start of the current championship.

When sports fans are “neutral” – that is to say without any allegiance to a particular competitor based on their nationality or team – they often instinctively have a preference for either the veteran champion or the young upstart. As a rule, the majority favour the youngster, perhaps because sport needs a constant supply of new talent.

Even John Higgins acknowledged in an interview about Judd “he’s the new wonderboy the sport’s been looking for”. Meanwhile Trump, who is generally diplomatic, hinted at what he really thinks when he said “a lot of the top players are getting a bit older and there are more gaps for people to come through”.

Conforming to tradition, the younger player is full of daring and panache, showing “no fear” in his first semi-final appearance. In contrast, as befits the older player, John Higgins is a “consummate tactician”.

It is curious how perfectly the two players have fulfilled these stock sporting roles. In golf you could contrast Rory McIlroy (inevitably described at the US Masters as “fearless”) and Matteo Manassero with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who were said to be making “a last stand against the fearless kids”.

In men’s tennis a few years ago the dominant champion Roger Federer faced the upstart Rafael Nadal. Now they and Novak Djokovic comprise the established order but one day they will face a new challenger. No doubt he too will be fearless.

It would be harsh to criticise either media or fans for repeated stereotyping as there is clearly a link with the natural order of things: the confident young man wants to prove he has come of age while the older man fears that a loss against a younger rival will be a sign of his own mortality.

It’s not so different in the world of the arts, politics or business where the established leaders also eventually face a challenge from impetuous youth and commentators are perpetually trying to identify the next star. In international sport, however, the shift from the old to the new generation is often particularly abrupt and brutal. No wonder it’s the older generation who are fearful.

On this occasion it was experience that prevailed over youthful promise: the wily old pro hangs on for another year.

Gérard Houllier taken ill: sympathy, speculation but no surprise

When Aston Villa football manager Gérard Houllier was taken to hospital on 20 April with suspected heart problems it was a shock for football fans but not a surprise. If anything, the surprise is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Houllier, who made a full recovery after emergency heart surgery in 2001, had a thorough medical check-up in September last year before taking on the Aston Villa job. After seven difficult months, the stress seems to have taken its toll.

Fellow managers immediately offered Houllier and his family their best wishes for a speedy recovery. According to news reports, the club has made a responsible decision to give him as much time as he needs to recover. There is also plenty of sympathy from fans on Aston Villa blogs.

However, Houllier has not always been treated with such sympathy. As recently as 31 March Henry Winter wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“These are challenging times for Villa’s manager. Over the past month, the Frenchman has been accused of everything from lacking passion to poor man-management and deploying players out of position. He has been lambasted for attempting to impose his more possession-based philosophy too quickly on a squad largely raised on Martin O’Neill’s counter-attacking principles…”

And so it goes on for several hundred words. On the same Aston Villa blog which is now wishing Houllier a rapid recovery (with full sincerity), one poster spoke for many when he wrote on 21 March:
“What a load of rubbish!! Houllier out and I’ll be singing the loudest!! We have two weeks to get him out or be relegated it’s Lerners choice. Sing and shout all you like but the players don’t want to play for him!”

Meanwhile Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, who is among those who has quickly offered Houllier his best wishes, was involved in a highly personal and public row with him in January after the move of Darren Bent from Sunderland to Aston Villa.

The point is not that Gérard Houllier has been victimised or singled out for unfair criticism but rather that football management is an almost impossible job. As the now more sympathetic Henry Winter writes, management is like an addiction and there is no escape from endless media scrutiny. Dr Dorian Dugmore, who assesses the health of managers, comments that the average tenure of a football manager in England is 18 months and they often neglect their own health while worrying about the fitness of their players.

Football, like other team sports, is to some extent a zero-sum game: in the Premier League only one of 20 teams can win the title in any given season and three teams will get relegated. One team’s success comes at the expense of another team’s failure. That is why managers patrol the touchline during games with such evident anxiety.

The pressure on football managers is unlikely to abate. There is already good work being done to highlight the issue of the health risks to managers. Let us hope that Houllier’s illness provides fresh impetus to managers to look after themselves. Get well soon, Gérard.

Weekend golfers rejoice at pro’s 16 shots on one hole

Every amateur golfer’s worst nightmare came true for highly-ranked pro Kevin Na, who shot 16 on a par 4 in a PGA Tour event while wearing a microphone for the Golf Channel.

Na, who stayed surprisingly composed as he repeatedly hacked at his golf ball  in dense undergrowth, has claimed an unwanted record for the highest ever score on a par 4 in a PGA Tour event and become famous in the process.

As every media industry follower knows, content is king. It’s just unusual for a golfer to provide so much content on a single hole. Consequently, the story has hit the sports news in numerous countries, from a sympathetic column in the New York Times to a blow by blow account in the Daily Telegraph and an expression of gratitude on the Ruthless Golf blog.

As you would expect, the video on YouTube has over 200,000 views and there are hundreds of posts on Twitter, many expressing the empathy that comes only with shared experience.

But the whole story is told most succinctly in a single photo by AP photographer Eric Gay, which perfectly captures Na’s look of horror as his second attempt at a tee shot heads into the forest.

Hapless errors by sporting stars that make them look like the rest of us can inspire emotions in the audience ranging from pity (particularly if the stakes are high) to anger (“you’ve let me down”/”don’t you care?”), glee (especially if we’re supporting the other team) and schadenfreude (if we dislike the athlete or envy them). In this case the media coverage is gleeful with more than a hint of schadenfreude.

We watch elite sports coverage because we recognise and admire the high performance of the athletes. And yet occasional howlers often attract more attention than moments of inspiration because they are unexpected and can have such an impact on results. For example, TV news coverage of football will often show the goals and any glaring misses. There is no room for competent professional play in a 30 second clip.

As occasional golfers rejoice that a full-time pro can appear so inept they should take note that Kevin Na somehow managed to pull himself together and finish the remaining nine holes of the course in three under par. It’s clear that his 16 was a freak occurrence.

The charm of this story is that nobody really got hurt: Kevin Na will live to fight another day and he can console himself with the thought that, like almost all sporting records, his will be broken one day. His fellow golfers probably dream about it every night.