Category Archives: Sport

Should we boycott next year’s Winter Olympics?

Stephen Fry up

Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected actor Stephen Fry’s request to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in protest at Russia’s homophobic laws.

Vladimir Putin’s new legislation allows for the imposition of heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of eighteen. The Russian city Sochi hosts the games.  Athletes have been warned they’ll be penalized if they “propagandise” on the issue.  The probability is that there will be no boycott and that the controversy will resurface again as we approach the 2018 football World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  By then it’s probable there will be several openly gay footballers.

As with any boycott, there is a balance of interests.  Athletes aiming to compete at next year’s Games will be training hard and dedicating themselves to winning a medal.  Clearly, none of them – straight or gay – would want to sacrifice their chances.  Any protest over political, social or moral issues risks casualties of this kind. Individuals have their own interests at heart and there is nothing wrong with this.

On the other side of the balance sheet are collective issues, in this case one concerning fundamental human rights.  Gay people are currently stigmatized in Russia.  Like all international sports tournaments, the Winter Olympics presents an almost natural forum for events far removed from sport.

Some people, like Cameron, prioritize individuals’ interests over all others.  He believes it would be wrong to prevent athletes competing in what will probably be their career-high tournament. Fry’s call for a boycott suggests he thinks, if Russia is allowed to proceed in an uninhibited way, the effect will be to condone its attitude towards gay people.

So who is right? The first lesson history teaches us is that sporting protests do work: they force issues often involving prejudice and inequality to the attention of the world and concentrate pressure on offending nations to reconsider their policies, laws and sometimes ideology.

The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 was instrumental in the eventual fall of South African apartheid in 1990: it effectively ostracized South Africa by prohibiting sporting contacts.

Boycotts usually make headlines and attract the rhetoric of interested parties who talk regretfully about how unfortunate is it that sport and politics have become mixed-up.  In fact, sports and politics are not just mixed-up, but entwined so closely that they will never be separated: sport is an effective vehicle for promoting or publicizing causes, principles and aims, aswell as full-blown ideologies. Presumably, this was on the minds of Black September when it planned what turned into a bloodbath. The group’s demands for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners were not met, precipitating a sequence of killing at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The massacre was horrific and condemned almost universally, but it made the condition of Palestinians known to the world.

Earlier at the 1968 Olympics, there had been an iconic moment when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black berets and gloves and bowed their heads on the victory rostrum while the US national anthem played. At the time they were decried as unpatriotic and hounded out of sport.  Now they are revered as the men who made America’s prejudice against black people known to the world and in their own way made their imprint on history.

There are those who will argue that we could find fault with the host of practically any major sports competition.  Remember, Britain, which held last year’s Olympics, is not without critics. So when we consider protests, we have to think in terms of a political or moral triage, assigning degrees of urgency to issues, some of which demand more immediate attention than others.  The gay issue in Russia does, in my opinion, require attention.  Gay people are, we understand, habitually persecuted in a nation with a population of 143 million, and where the attitude towards homosexuality is basically the result of a hangover from the Soviet Union combined with Putin’s crass and populist ideology.  I respect the rights of the athletes who will defend their freedom to choose whether or not to attend and compete in the games.  But they should ask themselves whether they would be complicit in perpetuating a social and political arrangement that is morally repugnant.

Should doping be allowed in sport?

Who believes athletes are squeaky-clean innocents whose most serious vice is a nicotine patch? Then why do people pretend to be surprised when we discover that some high-profile champion has been using dope?  Rarely a week goes by without some figure from sports returning a positive test.  Since 1988 when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold and chased back to Canada in disgrace, there have been many, many supposedly great athletes reduced to “cheats” after the discovery of banned substances.  Diego Maradona, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and so many others have been involved in drugs scandals of some kind.

The lesson is clear: athletes across the whole spectrum of sport have indicated their preference to take drugs.  And, like it or not, we – and the media – encourage them.  Not obviously, of course.  But we demand athletic performances that make almost inhuman demands on the body, and are disappointed when we get less. What if we simply allowed athletes to use whatever substances they choose, then ask them to declare what they’ve been taking?  Then we could commission research, investigate the substances, their effectiveness, their side-effects and, where necessary, their dangers.  We could feed the information back to athletes and advise accordingly.  It would create a more open, honest and, most importantly, safer environment.  It’s not a popular idea and, in this video, I discuss it on Channel 5 news.

The start of a new season, or the beginning of the end for women’s football?

Women’s Super League kick-off this week a big step towards equalityWomen’s football enters a new season, this time with its matches live on TV and radio. As in previous years, the question will be: when will the women’s game catch up with the men’s? The answer is, of course: never. Association football is a game created by men, played by men, run by men and, for the most part, watched by men. For most of the twentieth century, women were persuaded they should not play sport of any kind. They were considered too frail for the physical aspects of sport. Remember: football, like other collision and contact sports, was designed as a way of validating masculinity. Among the other dire warnings to women were: they would not be able to have children, or they would develop the secondary characteristics of men, like deep voices, square jaws and facial hair. Were women allowed to compete with men, we may not even have a women’s game: football — and perhaps most other sports — would be mixed. Women and men would compete on the same playing field. Ridiculous? It sounds it, but there are no physical reasons stopping women competing in integrated teams. Only cultural prohibitions. Last year I blogged on this subject and below I reproduce the argument.

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“Absolutely we could beat them, why not?” said Hope Powell, when asked whether the England women’s football team, which she manages, could beat Roy Hodgson’s team. “‘I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women, but with technical ability I think we’re as good as the men.” Her comments came a couple of days after Marianne Vos, the most successful female bike racer of all time, and a multiple world and Olympic champion, called for a women-only Tour de France to run parallel with the traditional men’s race.

The contrasting approaches to women’s sport raise an interesting question: could women hold their own in competition with men, or are they destined to compete against each other in separate events? Hope wasn’t advocating an all-out open competition. In fact, she added ‘I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women,” before pointing out that technical skill is a factor in football. What she didn’t realize is, according to the few studies on the subject, if you take a woman and a man of equal weight and subject them to the same training regime for, say, six weeks, in the same environment with same diet, the woman’s body will respond in the same way as the man’s. In terms of muscular strength, the woman will remain five percent below the man. But how significant is five percent? With the exceptions of power lifting and weight lifting, sports require skill. The reason why females can’t compete against men has its source in culture, not the physical body.

Let me illustrate this with the marathon: the men’s world record is 2:03:38, compared to the 2:15:25 women’s best; in other words, women are about eight percent less proficient. It seems to reinforce the argument that women can never catch up with men. Until we realize that women weren’t officially allowed to run the distance until 1964. Since then the women have improved the record by over 1 hour 12 minutes; in the same period, the men’s record has been reduced by about 21 minutes. The moral of this would seem to be that, when women are allowed to compete openly in an event, they can perform at least on comparable terms with men. Imagine how the world’s number one female would fare in a head-to-head with the top male had women been competing with men for the past 105 years? (The first world marathon time was recorded in 1908). Most people will argue that the results would be basically the same: physical differences between the sexes will always determine the outcome. But let’s consider the impact of cultural change.

We can gain some measure of the rate of women’s progress in sports over the past couple of decades by glancing back at what was once a standard text, Social Aspects of Sport.  In the 1983 edition of their book, Eldon Snyder and Elmer Spreitzer wrote about the types of sport women have been encouraged or discouraged from pursuing. “The ‘appropriateness’ of the type of sport continues to reflect the tenets of the Victorian ideal of femininity,” they wrote.  They argued that for most of the twentieth century women were permitted to compete in sports that emphasized aesthetics and grace as opposed to strength and speed were acceptable. The rougher pursuits involving head-on collisions were not. There were exceptions, but women who opted for more rugged sports risked being stigmatized as “mannish.”

Now, women compete in every sport, even then ones that were once strictly “men only.” Even the once-exclusive male preserve of combat sports has been breached. Professional women cage fighters appear regularly on major MMA bills; Taekwondo is an Olympic sport, as is women’s boxing. Women are involved in virtually every form of combat sport. Over the years, women have not achieved as much as men; yet the conclusion that women can’t achieve the same levels doesn’t follow logically. In fact, it could be argued that, if women had been regarded as equally capable as men physically, then they would perform at similar standards, and that the only reason they don’t is because they’ve been regarded as biologically incapable for so long. And Vos and Powell have, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to this.

It would be ridiculous to deny that there are differences, though they are of significantly less importance than our conceptions about them. The body is a process, not a thing: it’s constantly changing physically and culturally, as our perceptions of it change. Competitive performance promotes changes in terms of muscular strength and oxygen uptake; changes in diet and climactic conditions induce bodily changes too, of course.  In our particular culture and this stage in history we understand women and their association with men in one way; in another place and at another time, this relationship may be understood quite differently. It is a matter of convention that we organize sports into women’s and men’s events, just as it’s a convention to award Oscars for the “best actor,” a man, and “best actress,” a term that’s still used to describe the best female actor.

The experience of women in sport virtually replicates their more general experience. They have been seen and treated as not only different to men, but also inferior in many respects. Historically, women’s position has been subordinate to that of men. They have been systematically excluded from high-ranking, prestigious jobs, made to organize their lives around domestic or private priorities, while men have busied themselves in the public spheres of industry and commerce. Being the breadwinner, the male has occupied a central position in the family and has tended to use women for supplementary incomes only, or, more importantly, as unpaid homeworkers, making their contribution appear peripheral. Traditionally, females have been encouraged to seek work, but only in the short term: women’s strivings should be toward getting married, bearing children, and raising a family.

Women are underrepresented in politics compared to their total number in the population. They consistently earn less than their equivalent males and are increasingly asked to work part-time. Despite recent changes in the number of places in higher education occupied by women, they tend to opt for subjects (like sociology and art) that won’t necessarily guarantee them jobs in science and industry. When they do penetrate the boundaries of the professions they find that having to compete in what is, to all intents and purposes, a man’s world, has its hidden disadvantages.

Women’s experience has been one of denial: they simply have not been allowed to enter sports, again because on a mistaken belief in their natural predisposition. Because of this, the encouragement, facilities, and, importantly, competition available to males from an early age hasn’t been extended to them. In the areas where the gates have been opened — the marathon being the obvious example — women’s progress has been extraordinary. Given open competition, women could achieve parity with men in virtually all events, apart from those very few that require the rawest of muscle power. The vast majority of events need fineness of judgment, quickness of reaction, balance, and anticipation; women have no disadvantages in these respects. Their only disadvantage is what many people believe about them: in sport as in life, women will simply never catch up.

Tour de France: Do we care if the riders use drugs?

A mysterious contagion is blighting the planet; earth has fallen prey to zombies. Am I going to write a review of the $200 million Hollywood blockbuster World War Z? No: I’m commenting on the Tour de France, which starts for the 100th time on Saturday, June 29.

Cyclists now resemble the undead against whom Brad Pitt battles in the film. Doped-up automata, unresponsive to their surroundings, they are like corpses controlled by chemists. At least that’s what our media would have us believe.

Cyclists have always taken dope. When the Tour first started in 1903, strychnine and cocaine were the drugs of choice. By the late 1950s, synthetic stimulants, especially amphetamines, were regularly used to sustain competitors through 23 days of the most exacting physical demands. Jacques Anquetil (1934-87), who won the Tour five times, spoke openly about how cyclists didn’t opt to use drugs: they just couldn’t do without them. No one cared. Only after Britain’s Tommy Simpson died during the 1967 Tour, did cycling – indeed, sport generally – begin to wonder whether competitors needed protecting from themselves. Anti-doping rules were introduced in the early 1970s, but have had little effect in cycling.

Last year, during his confessional interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong was asked if doping was part of the process required to win the Tour. He answered: “That’s like saying we have to have air in our tyres or water in our bottles. It was part of the job.”

If Armstrong is to be believed, drug taking in cycling is not seen as a transgression: it is normal behaviour. Armstrong was a scapegoat: someone blamed for the wrongdoings of others, especially for reasons of expediency. It made more sense to hang the most famous cyclist in history out to dry rather than examine the entire culture of the sport. Armstrong merely confirmed what most people have known, or at least strongly suspected for years. Cycling is a sport in which doping is an everyday practice.

Here’s my question: do we care? The media tell us we do, or, if not, we certainly should. The media themselves care: they have turned Armstrong from one of the greatest heroes in world sport to the biggest cheat in history. I’m not sure the rest of us feel the same way. Some years ago, I was involved in a round table radio discussion in which one of the discussants suggested that we should stage two Tours de France: one for riders who used dope, the other for those who chose to compete au naturel. “It’s possible,” I replied. “But who’d watch the clean Tour?” We’ve all become used to athletes pushing themselves towards and, occasionally, beyond the limits of the human body. We love intense, unbridled competition. Sport conceals its own preparation: we won’t see the riders taking drugs, yet we’ll know they are using something; and we will enjoy the competition just the same. People like eggs for breakfast; they don’t need to see chickens that produced them fed.

If consumers were so turned off by cycling’s close association with drugs, the Tour wouldn’t have lasted long after 1973 when the first authentic tests revealed the widespread use of drugs by riders. Since then, a steady crescendo has built, every Tour yielding cases of doping. The 1998 Tour was so affected by doping that it was known as Tour du Dopage. And yet the race continued to grow in popularity. In terms of live spectators, the Tour is the biggest sports event in the world – by some margin: over 12 million people throng the streets over the period of the race. The Tour is only thinly popular outside Europe, but an estimated 2.5 billion people are exposed to it, counting those who read about it in newspapers. Television corporations pay about $200 million per tour to the organizers. Sponsorship deals are valued in dozens of millions.

Despite Armstrong’s evidence about the ubiquity of drugs in cycling, despite 2006 winner Floyd Landis’s claim that the cycling’s corrupt governance has created an environment where cheating is required, and despite last week’s admission by Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour in 1997 that “almost everybody back then took performance-enhancing substances,” enthusiasm for this year’s Tour will be undimmed.

There is a disconnect between how the media reacts to doping in sport and how fans think and feel. Consumers don’t share the delirium that follows a positive test. We have doubts, but they rarely interfere with the satisfaction we take from the Tour. In common with all other athletes, cyclists are not there to provide decency, moral direction or lessons in propriety; they are not supposed to be paragons of rectitude whose most iniquitous habit is an occasional e-cigarette. They are supposed to send a sudden, strong feeling of excitement or exhilaration through us. When they do, they solicit our approval. We’re not in denial: we know they will probably be using dope. Sport is a world long since purged of goodness.