Can cycling capture the British imagination?

A view on cycling here in the UK from my colleague here in London, Charlie Almond:

In years to come, Sunday 24th July 2011 should be noted as one of the most successful in British sporting history; where we witnessed one of the most incredible achievements on one of sport’s most demanding and challenging stages.   It was certainly one for the headline writers, the triple success of Khan, England cricket & Lewis Hamilton was impressive enough and something to celebrate:

But it was the feat of a 25 year old Manx man on the Champs-Élysées that was the most remarkable, but possibly less appreciated.

Over the past 20 years, British cycling has had much success, particularly on the track.  The titanic battles between Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree in the 90’s saw them swapping the World hour record then in the 00’s Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins came to the fore, along with Nicole Cooke, Rebecca Romero & Vicky Pendleton in 2008.  But while gold medals briefly sparkle in the eyes of the public, the true measure of cycling success in the eyes of cycling purists is measured on tarmac, or to be precise, the cobblestones of Paris.

The Tour de France is one of the toughest events any athlete can compete in, both physically and mentally.  The first 10 days of riding see them maintain impressive speeds of around 45km/h over distances of around 175km.  Each day.  And that’s before the mountain stages kick in.  Visits to the Pyrennes and then the Alps have riders grinding out over two or three climbs on each stage, with climbs of around 12 – 20km long at gradients of around 8%.  It’s hard to comprehend the pain these guys go through, the lactic acid building in their legs particularly when climbing, but imagine walking to the top of the Empire State Building twice a day (without stopping)…and then you’re beginning to get close.

Only once before has a British rider ever won a jersey on the tour (Robert Millar was King of the Mountains in 1984).  Before Mark Cavendish, proud wearer of this year’s “maillot vert” (green jersey, awarded for sprinting) no British rider had been able to endure the pain and exhuastion of completing on these stages, day after day for three weeks and be there at the very end to sprint to victory on the final day on the Champs-Élysées.  Cav has done it three times now.

Now despite appearances, road racing is not just an individual sport.  You cannot reach the end of the race and be fresh enough for a sprint finish unless you have an exceptionally disciplined and supportive team.  They protect their lead rider: conserve his energy, keep him out of crashes, keep him fed and watered.  And in HTC-Highroad, Cav has one of the best teams out there.  And boy does he know it.  After every stage victory, one of the first things the Manx Missile will do is thank his team.  His best friend Bernie Eisel and the Australian Mark Renshaw are particularly important to him, both going beyond the call of duty to support his sprints to the finish line.

Unlike in France, Italy and to a lesser extent Spain (where cycling is a way of life and the main protagonists are treated like Demigods):

…here in the UK they are very much second fiddle to the stars of football, rugby, cricket, golf and even tennis (albiet for 2 weeks a year).  And that’s understandable, but perhaps that’s about to change.  One guy who will be looking on ruefully at Cav’s picture on the front pages will be Bradley Wiggins.  Riding for Team Sky (which for all intents and purposes is the Team GB Cyling team) he started the Tour in the form of his life and was looking to eclipse his 4th place finish of 2009 and challenge for the overall victory.  Sadly a innocuous looking crash on stage 7 saw Bradley break his collarbone, forcing him out of the race.  It was a cruel blow, both for Wiggins and for Team Sky who had prepared to support him all the way to Paris.  But he will be back – seeing the 34 year old Cadel Evans claim overall victory will encourage Wiggins that he still has time on his side while his absence allowed two younger Brits, Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift to shine and they have a bright future.

The question is will cycling now take a bigger place in the hearts of us Brits?  The heroics of Cavenidsh will certainly help.  So too will the major investment by Sky and hopefully other sponsors will follow suit.  Potential brands must have looked on enviously at HTC being plastered across the pages over the past few weeks – and Cav certainly knows the score when it comes to keeping sponsors happy…

With the likes of Cav, Wiggins, Thomas & Swift set to command the front of the peloton and hopefully keep their faces and jersey’s front of mind, this could be the ideal time for brands to invest in British cycling and take advantage of a golden generation.

Is Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius too good?

On 19 July South African athlete Oscar Pistorius achieved the qualifying time for the 400m at the forthcoming World Athletics Championships in Korea and for next year’s Olympic Games using prosthetic legs. His story of personal triumph inspires an unusual mix of emotions.

In running 45.07 in a race in Italy he moved into the top 20 in the 2011 rankings and proved himself a genuine contender against any 400m runner in the world. That makes some people uncomfortable.

When he burst on the scene as a prodigiously talented teenager at the Paralympic Games in 2004 it was a wonderful story: an individual born with a rare disability who had both legs amputated below the knee as a baby proved he could overcome the challenge and run remarkably fast with prosthetic legs.

In 2005 he set a new 400m personal best of 47.24 which took him into international territory among able-bodies athletes but some way off world class.

There was a long legal battle in 2007-8 before the Court of Arbitration for Sport finally ruled that Pistorius did not gain an advantage in comparison to other runners. He narrowly missed out on qualification for the Beijing Olympic Games but won three gold medals in the Paralympic Games.

His recent performance generated a huge amount of media interest around the world with most commentators in favour of him competing (see, for example the London Evening Standard- “Ignore the moral dilemma, let Oscar run in our Games” and Corriere dello Sport – “Blade Runner’s enterprise makes the world more equal and gives inspiration to those who, like him, have never resigned themselves to the limits imposed by their physique or insidious discrimination”). Meanwhile, the BBC presents both sides of the argument - “The debate surrounding Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius”

Public blog comments are more mixed (over 40 comments on this article in the Guardian and sceptical views on athletics blogs).

While everybody admires his performances and wants to watch him run, some people are uncomfortable if he is genuinely challenging for the top places at the Olympic Games. In the opinion of many, finishing 6th in the first round at the Olympic Games would be acceptable but winning the gold medal would not be.

That main concerns expressed are that the artificial legs give Pistorius an advantage (or at least a more advanced version might do so in future) and that a potentially dangerous precedent is being set. Could crazy ambitious parents one day consider amputating the legs of their children to make them run faster?

Sport occasionally throws up these difficult dilemmas but Oscar has overcome every barrier put in his way and thoroughly deserves his chance to compete at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. If he stays fit and gets selected by South Africa he could become a global icon.

The final word on the subject and the best headline accompanies James Corrigan’s article in the Independent: “Puritans are just taking the Pistorius”.

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.

Sport tackles new frontiers

When FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced in December last year that the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments would be played in Russia and Qatar respectively, it was a surprise to many football fans but not to the bookmakers.

This decision continued a trend: where China led in 2008, the other BRIC countries are following. Between 2014 and 2018 Russia and Brazil will both host the Olympic Games and the World Cup, the two mega-events in sport which reach a TV audience of three or four billion with several hundred million watching the most popular live broadcasts. India has already put on the Commonwealth Games, co-hosted the Cricket World Cup and may submit an Olympic bid. And as Qatar proves, it’s not only the BRIC countries that are getting involved. Formula One has also been making a determined effort to appeal to new markets recently, adding races in Abu Dhabi (2009), Korea (2010) and India (2011). The planned race in Austin, Texas in 2012 can even be classed as expansion into a new market given Formula One’s patchy record in the USA.

However, global expansion also increases risk. The 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled at short notice due to political unrest, and attempts to reschedule it were met with strong opposition. High profile sports events can be disrupted in any country but sponsors and broadcasters will be wary about committing investment if they perceive significant political, economic or reputational risk.

For a growing sponsorship industry and other stakeholders in sport, these new frontiers present both a challenge and an opportunity. New markets are challenging because the global HQ and local managers may be unsure about how to make the most of a major event, especially if the sport is unfamiliar to local consumers. On the other hand, successful sports sponsorship could give a brand a real boost in an important territory.

Sponsorship can help achieve a number of objectives ranging from enhancing the brand or the organisation’s reputation through to business development and building relationships. The internal communications opportunity is often a significant factor too. Although the emphasis and approach will vary by country, the majority of major sport sponsors are mass-market consumer brands.

Government relations objectives tend to be a higher priority for sponsorship in those emerging markets where strong political connections are essential for business success.

The fundamental appeal of sport sponsorship is that major events provide an effective way to reach a large audience at the moment when they are pursuing one of their own interests through media channels (or actually at an event). Naturally, sponsorship innovates in step with the media industry – mobile apps are in vogue this year as sponsors seek new channels to counter the decline in audiences for individual TV stations.

A few global brands with sponsorship experience, such as Coca-Cola (an Olympic partner since 1928, believe it or not) will have significant local market presence and expertise virtually everywhere. However, the same may not be true for other brands of Western origin which are still feeling their way in emerging markets. Even if they are familiar with sponsorship, they may need local expertise to make it relevant. By contrast, ambitious local market brands may be looking at sponsorship for the first time, eyeing the potential for international promotion.

Sponsorship activity which works in one part of the world may not be right in another. In its marketing campaign for the Beijing 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games, McDonald’s changed its well-known slogan to “I’m lovin’ it when China wins”, in an appeal to Chinese national pride. Adopting a similar strategy, the Canadian elite athlete training programme before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games was called “Own The Podium” but it faced criticism from some commentators who took offence at the name.

In summary, the fact that major sports events are gravitating to emerging markets presents new opportunities for brands. Successful sponsorship programmes in the countries where the major events will take place in the coming years will combine international best practice and local market understanding to create a carefully tailored approach.

So, what should brands be doing now to prepare to take advantage?

1) Look at your brand’s objectives in emerging markets and consider whether sponsorship could help, especially if countries such as Brazil and Russia are relevant to you

2) Put together a team that combines sponsorship expertise and in-depth market knowledge to research the options

3) Consider whether your brand could provide an important value-in-kind product or service to a sports event. If so, the organisers will welcome you and there will be a logical way to promote the association

4) Recognise that Olympic and World Cup organisers restrict sponsors to a very specific exclusive category. If you need more freedom another sports property may be a better option

5) Think about your competitors’ objectives – would it worry you if they sign the deal?

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.