Beyond Cow Corner

. . . because why should those who actually play sport have all the fun of talking about it?

9 August 2012

Girls and Boys

Marginality score: 10/10

In what will probably be my last post of the Olympics (will be spending this weekend at family celebrations, rather than fuming over the marginalisation of some group or other), I want to look at the most marginal of marginal figures.

First off, an admission: I've used Caster Semenya. No, not like that; the above image has been a favourite starting-point of mine for introducing undergraduate classes to ideas about race and gender, usually in a book like Jackie Kay's brilliant novel, Trumpet:

(If you haven't read it, STOP READING THIS BLOGGING RUBBISH RIGHT NOW and go and get hold of a copy. Seriously.)

Semenya seems a lovely, down-to-earth, genuine (to use three fairly interchangeable adjectives) person. Oh, and the favourite for the WOMEN'S 800m. That's right, the women's race. Who cares if she has a bit more testosterone than the average woman? Michael Phelps has significantly bigger feet and lung capacity than the average man, but I don't see anyone accusing him of being part-fish.

Which leads me to my point: when people get irate about a perceived unfairness in sport, it's generally racially 'other' individuals who are taken to task. So this isn't a question about Semenya's gender, at all: it's an uneasiness (see Edward Said) rooted in her race.

As one final example, take a look at this Daily Mail article on so-called 'plastic Brits', who switched nationality to join the GB team. Not entirely coincidentally, there's mention of any male, white athletes: all three 'examples' (and they are ridiculous, justifying those inverted commas: both Shana Cox's parents and one of Tiffany Ofill-Porter's are British) are, surprise-surprise, black women. Again, it all comes down to race.

8 August 2012

And Now, The End Is Near

Marginality score: 6/10

Over the past few days, I've been musing on age, the passing of the years, Time's wing├Ęd chariot, and all that. But enough about missing deadlines and depressing conversations about years of birth; I'm talking about athletes on their (literal and metaphorical) last legs. In amongst the stellar performances from teenage wunderkinds in the pool, and the sharing of gold and silver men's 400m medals between two competitors with a combined age a year younger than the GB football team captain, there have been several examples of medals won at the other end of athletes' careers: Beth Tweddle (who, according to Louis Smith, is 'getting on a bit' at the age of 27) taking bronze on the asymmetric bars; Vicky Pendleton ending her career with two medals on the track, the last of which -- in the last race of her career -- was a silver behind the Australian 'cow'; and Nick Skelton leading the GB show jumping team to gold at the age of 54. As Skelton admitted, he hadn't been particularly successful in his Olympic career, stretching back 20 years:

'I've waited a long time, been to a lot of Games, made a lot of mistakes, but you couldn't do it in a better place than London. This has to be my greatest moment. [...] I said to the guys we needed to go out there and win it. I've waited 54 years for this, so you can certainly say it was a long time coming. I've had a few misses in my time, but finally we got there.'

This, for me, is what the Olympics is all about: training, and waiting, and sacrificing, for a lifetime -- whether it's 27 years, or double that -- in order to be the absolute best. This is why these athletes keep going: not for the love of the sport, although that has to be a factor; not for the rush of competition, although again that particular shot of adrenaline probably helps; but because they truly believe they have the ability to be the best.

Over at The Golden Latrine, there's a really interesting piece on what silver and bronze medals mean to those who miss out on gold. While I have to agree, however, that silver and bronze are 'a reward for exceptional performance, a reminder that you are among the best in the world at what you do', I can't help but feel that what makes an Olympian is the existence of a real belief in one's ability to remove that 'among' -- this is why Skelton, Tweddle, Pendleton, et al keep going.

In the end, the last word must go to (Sir? surely) Bradley Wiggins:

'Once you have been an Olympic champion, you don’t talk about the other medals. If asked, I will normally say "I won three golds" because that’s the only colour that matters.'

2 August 2012

In Praise of the Overdogs

Marginality score: 0/10 (This is cheating a bit. Can you write a post on the marginality of the non-marginal?? Hmm.)

This is the shortest of short posts (at least one of you will be pleased to learn) on the fact that while watching an underdog can be fun, sometimes I do quite like watching an overwhelming favourite win. We've already had a bizarre interpretation of the Olympic spirit, which has been deftly analysed here, among other places; seeing a plucky underdog doing his or her best sometimes reflects the 'Olympic dream', but isn't seeing a player or team at the top of their game what the pinnacle of sport should be all about? You can keep Eric the Eel -- I'm off to watch Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte playing the swimming-pool equivalent of duelling banjos.

31 July 2012

Gender Trouble; or, Why Some Areas of International Sport Appear to Be a Bit Edwardian, Still

Marginality: 7/10 (I thought this topic was either incredibly marginal [up near 10], because the sidelining aspects of gender in sport are such troubling issues, or not at all, because these questions are so very mainstream. In the end, I wussed out and split the difference.)

Ninety-nine years ago this summer, Emily Davison drew a definite and long-lasting link between gender and politics. Not only was her protest set against the back-drop of a sporting event, it was fatally enmeshed in one; nearly a century later, however, it appears that Davison's sacrifice hasn't meant an awful lot. At least if the following three stories are anything to go by.

(1) Zoe Smith
I've got the news round-up on in the background, and they've just shown highlights from Zoe Smith's weightlifting. She's an articulate, intelligent, funny, self-deprecating, beautiful young woman. Does any of this matter in the context of her sporting achievements this afternoon? Not a jot. What matters is that, at the age of 18, she came in the top twelve in the world in her weight class. There were only 11 women who did better than her, a full 10 years before her weightlifting peak. Yet internet trolls are more inclined to focus on her looks and her weight. I know there's been criticism of Tom Daley since his perceived failure today, but none of that was related to his physique; in Smith's case, could it perchance be to do with her gender?

(2) Japanese Football
(H/T @bengoldacre) As I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago, the Japanese Football Association have a strange attitude to gender equality: while the men's football team travelled in first-class seats on the flight to the UK, the women's team travelled in economy. This was in spite of the fact that the women's team are ranked 3rd in the world, while the men's team barely scrape into the top 20. Although the relative financial pulling powers of the two teams might have had something to do with this -- 'they attract more income, therefore they get more spent on them', sort of thing -- behind every financial decision is a political one: why do the male players, inferior to their female counterparts in terms of skill, attract more money? Until we start to address these sorts of underlying questions, the vicious circle (men are seen as better than women => they are favoured more => they have more spent on them => they are seen as better than women) will keep on turning.

(3) Victoria Pendleton
Yesterday, a press conference with Victoria Pendleton that focused on the rivalry between the British cyclist and the Australian Anna Meares kicked off with the frankly astonishing question 'is Anna Meares a cow?':
On Five Live, one of the journalists very astutely commented that she doubted a similar question would be asked of a male athlete, switching 'cow' for 'sod' (I suspect she would have used something stronger in a less public-broadcasting context). This got me thinking: why is this, and what does it imply about media attitudes to sportspeople? Put simply, this question demotes women: instead of competitors, they are petty bitches; instead of sportspeople, they are political-correctness-gorn-mad glorified housewives. And until these sort of attitudes start to change, we're all going to be the worse for it: women, men, athletes, and soundbite-hungry, morally defunct journalists alike.

29 July 2012

'Everybody hates us -- we don't care'

Marginality score: 6/10 (This scoring will be a regular thing, as I give my highly objective tariff for the relative marginal status of each of the sports/competitors I blog about. Because everyone likes ratings, right? Or maybe it's just stats geeks like me.)

Everyone's favourite angry Manxman gave a couple of interesting responses when being interviewed after his second consecutive failure to win Olympic cycling gold. One was a delightfully ranty answer to an unwelcome question about the after-effects of the Tour de France on his performance in London:

The other was a much more introspective, sombre sequence; according to Sad Cavendish (let's call him Mark Mark I), the failure of the British team was down to the lack of help they got from other national teams:

For those of you not familiar with the ins and outs of cycling road racing (so that's the more sane 98% of the population), a word about team tactics: in a stage race like the Tour de France, success on any one day is not a very big issue; overall time -- the General Classification -- is key, so there's little point in busting a gut to finish as high as possible on any one day. Bradley Wiggins, this year's TdF winner, only won two stages out of 20, but consistently finishing in the top 20 or so was enough for him to win by a margin of nearly 3-and-a-half minutes. Often, a breakaway of 6-10 riders will escape the pack (peloton) and one of those will win the stage; unless someone who's high up in the overall standings joins one of these breakaways, the rest of the riders -- who are divided into teams of 9 -- won't bother chasing them down.

In a one-off race, however (the Olympic road race, for instance), there are two major differences. First of all, overall position does matter (whatever your gym teacher told you -- try telling someone like Steve Redgrave that it's 'the taking part that counts'), and secondly, the teams are much smaller -- 4, rather than 9. So when a breakaway gets away from the field, reeling it in is both more important than in a longer race (as if the breakaway isn't caught, those in the peloton won't get medals) and more difficult (more riders on a team = more bodies to spare chasing down escapees = an easier ride for the team favourite [in France, Wiggins; in London, Cav]).

To return to the first interview, with Angry Cavendish (Mark Mark II), the interviewer may have had a point, although it might have been a bit galling for AC to hear that the media and supporters might have thought his month in France had a part to play in his failure. Perhaps the members of the British team, 3 of whom took part in this year's TdF (Cavendish, Wiggins, and David Millar), were still in 'stage race mode': when they realised that a breakaway was forming ahead of the peloton, maybe there was a collective assumption that this wasn't such a problem. 'Tour de France fatigue', in other words, might take various forms.

22 July 2012

Torch, Torch, Run with Torch

My first post of a marginal nature concerns the sideshow of lighting the Olympic flame. This can be the most beautiful of moments (think of Mohammed Ali in 1996), but it's usually a bit of a pointless exercise (the 22-year-old virtual unknown John Mark in 1948 springs to mind). So when Daley Thompson and Steve Redgrave (sorry, Sir SR) have a slightly undignified spat about which of them should light the Olympic cauldron this year, it feels ridiculous precisely because it's often such a meaningless accolade.

That's not the only reason it's mildly annoying, though: it also feels a little like two 6-year-olds arguing over the ownership of a toy car. So while I'm secretly a bit of a Redgave-ite (five golds! in different Olympics!!), I say screw the Seb-Coe-befriending and other politicking, and let's give it to neither of them. Here are a few ideas, with their Olympic credentials (Redgrave and Thompson's records included for the purposes of comparison):

Sir Steve Redgrave: 5 Olympic Titles, 9 World Titles, 0 World Records
Daley Thompson: 2 OT, 1 WT, 4 WR
Matthew Pinsent: 4 OT, 10 WT, 1 WR*
Dame Kelly Holmes: 2 OT, 0 WT, 0 WR
Ben Ainslie: 3 OT, 11 WT, 0 WR
Sir Chris Hoy: 4 OT, 11 WT, 2 WR
Sally Gunnell: 1 OT, 1 WT, 1 WR
Linford Christie: 1 OT, 1 WT, 4 WR**
Sir Roger Bannister: 0 OT, 0 WT, 1 WR
Paula Radcliffe: 0 OT, 4 WT, 3 WR

* Pinsent once held the WR for the largest lung capacity of a sportsman, at 8.5 litres. Thank you, Wikipedia...
** Christie's 4 WRs include 3 in the 35--39 masters age group.

It looks like the Torch-bearer should be another knighted individual sportsman, then. Put your Bran Flakes down, Sir Chris: you've got some lighting to do. (Honourable mention to Ben Ainslie, though: who knew he was that successful?)

BCC Redux: Marginal Olympics

So, 'Beyond Cow Corner' is back, in time for the Olympics. But every man, woman, and canine will be writing about sport over the next few weeks -- how was I going to be different? I mused, somewhat melodramatically. Luckily, I was saved from drowning in rhetoric by my other half, who suggested I take a look at the events from a marginal perspective: niche sports, sidelined nationalities, liminal athletes, etc. (Ok, that wasn't a real 'etc.' -- I'd run out of both suitable nouns, and synonyms for 'marginal'.) All comments, criticisms, lavish praise, and suggestions of topics for future topics welcome. 

(First up, I go for the important issues: who should be carrying the Olympic torch?)