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.

High stakes for India v Pakistan in Cricket World Cup

On Wednesday 30 March Pakistan plays India in the Cricket World Cup semi-final in the Indian city of Mohali in a match where more than pride and a place in the final are at stake.

The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to attend and India has issued 5,000 visas for visiting fans. Spectators will face an unprecedented level of security at the ground and a TV audience of 100m or more is possible.

For decades cricket has provided an outlet for the fierce rivalry between India and Pakistan but in the last two years the teams have played each other less frequently than usual as matches have been cancelled due to fears of violence.

A planned tour by the Indian team to Pakistan early in 2009 was cancelled after the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 in which over 170 people were killed.

Pakistan was also due to co-host the Cricket World Cup but following an attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore in 2009 the International Cricket Council took the decision to reallocate their share of matches to the other hosts India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

On the pitch the match is an enticing prospect with the quality and variety of the Pakistan bowling attack (Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, Mohammad Hafeez and others)  up against India’s batting power (Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and more). Both teams suffered defeats earlier in the tournament but looked impressive in their quarter-final victories.

Numerous opinion pieces have already been published about the prospects for cricket diplomacy (see for example Soutik Biswas at the BBC,  Myra MacDonald at Reuters, S. Dinakar in The Hindu, and an editorial piece in Dawn). No doubt media reports of activity on and off the pitch on 30 March will go into exhaustive detail.

Amid all the hype about India v Pakistan it’s easy to forget that the winners will then face Sri Lanka or New Zealand in the final on 2 April.

Let us hope that any controversy is limited to activity on the field. Spare a thought for the umpires Simon Taufel and Ian Gould, whose performance will be scrutinised by tens of millions. This match provides ample justification of the need for video reviews as sanctioned by the Umpire Decision Review System.

Blatter v Bin Hammam for FIFA Presidency

Mohamed Bin Hammam, President of the Asian Football Confederation, has announced that he will stand against incumbent Sepp Blatter in the election for the FIFA Presidency on 1 June. It promises to be a high profile campaign.

As a long-serving member of the FIFA Executive Committee, Bin Hammam is hardly an outsider but his challenge to Blatter, who has run FIFA since 1998, looks set to drive deep divisions within the organisation in the weeks leading up to the vote. There is also time for further candidates to emerge before the deadline at the end of the month.

The campaign is likely to generate much more attention than the most recent competitive election in 2002 (Blatter was unopposed in 2007), with extensive international media coverage already. See, for example the BBC, Al-Jazeera English, and Xinhua. With 208 Member Associations around the world eligible to vote it is one of the most global elections.

Driving positive PR coverage will be an important objective for the candidates as they seek to generate momentum because many of the member associations will want to be seen to back the winner.  Bin Hammam has set out in his manifesto his ambition to expand the Executive Committee and decentralise FIFA. Blatter may explain his programme at the UEFA Congress in Paris next week.

This is the first major election to lead a sports governing body since the advent of social media so it will be interesting to see to what extent the candidates engage with audiences online. Although it is member associations rather than the public who vote, popular support can only benefit candidates whereas widespread negative comment online could be damaging. You can follow both candidates on Twitter (Bin Hammam /  Sepp Blatter) and Bin Hammam on Facebook.

Commentators such as Andrew Warshaw and Keir Radnedge suggest that Blatter will be difficult to unseat but a lot can happen in 10 weeks. Expect plenty of lively debate before the election.

NFL lockout: what about the fans?

Now that negotiations between the National Football League (NFL) franchise owners and the players’ union in the USA have broken down, resulting in a lockout that threatens the 2011 season, only the lawyers seem sure to win.

In a move which is bewildering to outsiders, the players’ union has disbanded, become a trade association and filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against their employers.  Players are asking for more money, a reduction in training days (to reduce the risk of injury) and more compensation in the event of serious injury.  It is effectively an old-fashioned industrial dispute relating to pay and conditions between employees and management.

In common with other industrial disputes, both sides claim the moral high ground. The NFL claims that “the union left a very good deal on the table”. Meanwhile the players accuse the 32 NFL teams of “a unilaterally imposed set of anticompetitive restrictions on player movement, free agency and competitive market freedom”.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake at the moment but if the 2011 season does not take place the NFL’s $9bn in annual revenue could be lost.

One of the reasons that club owners are willing to risk a cancelled season is because the value of their profitable franchises has been rising year on year. The players stand to lose their season’s wages but they seem prepared to hold out in the hope of a better agreement. The biggest losers would be the fans and the young players who will miss the chance of getting signed. TV broadcasters and the economic activity linked to match days would also be adversely affected.

Considering that about half of the American public watched Super Bowl XLV on 6 February, it is unfortunate that the fans don’t have any direct say in the dispute. ESPN writer Howard Bryant makes the point that the world could carry on without the NFL and “the only message sports leagues understand is the message that the public will pay to watch something else”.

Both sides are willing to gamble that the public will forgive them when the dispute is finally settled. Judging from the evidence of previous lockouts in American sports (including the whole NHL season in 2004-5), fans tend to apportion more blame to players than owners. While the sport involved is damaged, recovery follows fairly quickly afterwards.

It is still possible that the NFL and players will reach a settlement in time for the pre-season preparations to take place. Until that happens it is the lawyers who look best placed to benefit.

Earthquake in New Zealand: how sport responds to tragedy

When tragedy strikes, as it did in Christchurch, New Zealand on 22 February, sports event organisers and athletes have to decide the best way to respond. The response is often dignified and well-judged.

The New Zealand cricket team, which includes several players from Christchurch, faced Australia in the Cricket World Cup just three days after the earthquake. There was a minute of silence before the match and the teams stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle during the break between the innings.

Looking further ahead, the Rugby World Cup will take place in New Zealand in September and October. The Lancaster Park rugby stadium in Christchurch has been closed for two weeks while the damage is assessed. Although forthcoming club matches have been moved to other venues, the early signs are that the stadium will be repaired in time for the Rugby World Cup.

It remains to be seen how the organisers will respond in September – everybody from the government to relatives of the deceased, the players and the International Rugby Board will have a view on what is appropriate. After the earthquake the organising committee quickly published a holding statement reassuring people that the tournament will still take place in New Zealand.

It is now a year since the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games where Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili tragically died in a training accident on the day of the opening ceremony. It was a huge shock for everybody at the Games (I was working there) and left very little time for changes to be made to the ceremony. There was a minute of silence in Kumaritashvili’s honour, the Olympic flag was lowered to half-mast, he was remembered in speeches and the Georgian delegation wore black armbands when they marched into the stadium. In what was a nightmare scenario, the organisers managed to respond in a respectful way.

The Vancouver case was particularly difficult because the accident took place at the Games. More often tributes at sports events relate to loss of life elsewhere. Football fans are familiar with the minute of silence before kick-off (sometimes now replaced with a minute of applause) and black arm-bands which may commemorate anything from the loss of a famous former player to a major natural disaster.

Spectator sports events are full of rituals, ranging from national anthems to the toss of a coin to handshakes between players. The audience knows these rituals intimately and so immediately understands the significance when the rituals are changed for some reason. Provided that the individual or people who are being remembered are in some way relevant to the audience, the response is usually heart-felt and genuine.

I am confident that the organisers of the Rugby World Cup will find the right way to remember the terrible loss of the people of Christchurch.

Bahrain Grand Prix: what would you do?

Will the first Formula 1 Grand Prix of the season take place as scheduled or not? The race is planned for 13 March in Bahrain, where there have been violent clashes between protesters and the security forces in recent days, leading to several deaths and many injuries.

While the people of Bahrain may be preoccupied with their wider concerns, the race organisers both internationally and locally face a difficult dilemma just three weeks ahead of the race. There has been extensive media coverage of the story (see for example Reuters and Al-Jazeera English).

There are a number of questions to consider:
- If the race goes ahead, will it be safe for all concerned?
- What is the deadline for making a decision?
- What do the teams and other stakeholders think?
- What are the reputational risks of running the race/cancelling?
- What are the financial implications of going ahead/cancelling?
- If the race goes ahead will everybody participate?
- What kind of precedent is being set?

It will be very hard to know if the right decision has been taken even after the event. The race may pass off without incident but at the cost of reputational damage. Or, if the event is cancelled and the region is peaceful during the competition,  it could still be claimed that the Grand Prix would have provoked trouble.

From time to time team managers and other stakeholders do security assessments ahead of a sports event, as happened before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Although it is entirely responsible to listen to different points of view and survey the evidence, predictions are inherently unreliable – nobody knows what will happen in Bahrain. Whatever procedure is put in place for assessing risk, ultimately the decision will depend on the personal opinion of a small group of people.

When a significant perceived threat emerges in the lead up to a sports event there is a familiar pattern:
- The host country and organisers seek to reassure people
- The governing body or rights-holder will be supportive in public but frantically looking for an alternative in private
- Sponsors and TV broadcasters will wait to see which way the wind blows
- Athletes will look to their management for guidance and then make a decision based on their gut instinct
- Spectators will stay away if in any doubt
- The event will usually go ahead with less disruption than feared

In the specific case of the Bahrain Grand Prix the consequences of cancellation or postponement would be significant but not on a scale that would overwhelm Formula 1 as it begins a long season. In the context of a severe political crisis, an initial postponement seems likely.

What is the right decision? We will never know.

Social media power: Egypt today, sports tomorrow?

The surest sign of the significance of social media in the revolution in Egypt is that the regime moved so quickly to disable it. Could the dramatic impact of social media in world affairs be replicated in some way in the less serious world of sport? I think it could.

Social media activity has caused minor controversies in sporting circles in the last couple of years, such as when junior British tennis players had their funding withdrawn after photos appeared online depicting “unprofessional behaviour”. More recently, any number of athletes have attracted criticism for undiplomatic tweets, such as footballer Jack Wilshere complaining about refereeing earlier this week.

But these are generally trivial. There have been few examples of the kind of mass activism in sport that social media can help to facilitate. I suspect that it may be only a matter of time.

So what sporting issue might inspire a major protest?

Football club ownership and management frequently riles supporters. The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, whose objective is to gain a significant level of ownership of the club, claims over 160,000 members.  They have already made their presence felt through their green and gold scarves and shirts.

Elections for sporting leaders generate interest and controversy but they are unlikely to capture the public imagination. Perhaps a more likely reason for a mass protest is a controversial decision in an important match.

The Cricket World Cup is about to get underway and will stir passions, particularly in the host countries of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Big domestic and international football matches also inspire very strong emotions.

Fans have always vented their anger through whatever means and media are available to them. However, occasional public campaigns to overturn judging decisions taken on the field of play have rarely yielded results.

One notorious example was an Australian rules football match in 1967 known as the Goalpost Final. The crowd invaded the pitch in protest at a crucial refereeing decision right at the end of the game and tore down the goal posts, preventing a kick being taken which could have changed the result. The match was abandoned and a couple of days later the governing body decided the match outcome was “no decision”.

If fans feel strongly enough that they have been wronged, social media provides useful tools for organising a campaign. The other essential ingredient is for fans to believe that their action could change a result. As has been seen in Egypt, once the movement has real momentum, it can be unstoppable.

For sports governing bodies and rights-holders there is now an even greater incentive to ensure that their judging procedure and appeals process stand up to scrutiny.

Six Nations rugby tournament reveals multiple national identities

The evergreen annual RBS Six Nations rugby tournament is underway and so it’s time for large numbers of Londoners to reveal themselves as Scottish, Welsh or Irish.

That is hardly surprising, considering that London draws people in from all over – there are many thousands of French and Italian people in the city as well. What is curious is that the identity of so many Scottish, Welsh and Irish fans is revealed only by the colour of their rugby shirt. In the absence of a distinguishing accent, name or home town, there may be no obvious clue. In fact, it’s quite common to meet rugby fans whose loyalty is to the land where their grandparents were born.

An article in the Daily Telegraph rather unkindly groups together these fans as “plastic Celts”: people who have probably lived all their lives in England and who, in many cases, will happily support the England football team.

It may seem inconsistent to support one national team in rugby and another in football but that doesn’t make the allegiance any less real. It is of course common in the UK for people to have relatives from different places so multiple identities are to be expected. And it can be very complicated. A fan who simultaneously supports the Welsh rugby team and the England football team may well root for Scotland when they play against England at rugby.

As international mobility increases, more and more people are likely to identify themselves with multiple countries and athletes also become eligible for more than one national team. Following controversies about eligibility in previous years, the International Rugby Board now only permits players to represent one country at senior level during their career.

Cynicism about the tenuous links that some fans (and athletes) have to their national teams is not going to disappear but their allegiance should be respected. One of the enriching aspects of  sport is the way in which it enables people to express their multiple identities.

Although I don’t claim any allegiance to Wales, I was reminded again on 4 February that the singing of the Welsh national anthem before Wales v England  in Cardiff is one of the great spectacles of world sport.