Friday, 20 July 2012

Lords of the Rings.

Competitors were surprised to learn that instead of a dense conurbation, London is in fact a rolling expanse of lush countryside. Complaints that the facilties in the athletes' village extend to a post office run by an old man in a flat cap and a small church hall selling tea cakes have been vehemently denied by the ODA


Seven times I've seen or heard multi-Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson on the TV and radio over the past week. Seven. Among other things, he's unceremoniously stuck two fingers up to his fans from all those years ago by telling me that he won his races by phasing out the supporters' noise in the stadium because, as he sees it, 'they can't win it for you'. He's also sagaciously highlighted the errors of other sprinters' ways by pointing at their freeze-framed limbs on a screen and shaking his head at their outrageously misaligned postures. In addition, he told me how his antecedents' struggle to freedom from slavery are directly linked to his ability to run around a track faster than pretty much anyone else. All this in a voice so dull and monotonous that it makes Sally Gunnell’s sound like Marilyn Monroe singing to President Kennedy.

Anyway, what this all means is painfully clear. Anyone more famous for their absurd style of running than their personality should never, by rights, command so much air time. But this is the Olympics. Also known as the 'Bloody Olympics' by default in my office. It's similar to a wartime situation, this. Not just because we've drafted the army in, but because everything’s tense, slightly different from usual and because no one talks of anything else. Just like before the onset of the Blitz, millions are trying to live a normal life and battle on despite the conditions. Rationing, not of food, but of space is the reality today as we fight and we scrape and we push and we try beyond all the odds to counter the invasion.

Things are changing in London, as we've all been reminded by the authorities in the most jocular way possible. TFL have successfully managed to smuggle, through a 'humorous' ad campaign, the awful truth that no one will get anywhere at all during the Games. This is fine, if you believe the billboards with their hoards of robotic, smiling commuters happily acquiescent to the jams. Not so fine if, in reality, you're a neurotic stockbroker unable to get into Pret of a morning. The same is true of the roads which have been painted in celebration, and these murals of misery will go on to haunt us still further following the end of play as they laboriously paste over them again. Presumably ambulances will still receive priority along Games Lanes, but one assumes that they won't be readily available anyway considering the temporary surge in population and probable number of Japanese tourists calling 999 to complain that their train is late.

How cynical, you might retort. I agree, and there is a lot to celebrate during this festival of sporting excellence after all. All the more reason to visually shout about it, wouldn't you say; to brazenly display the five colourful rings of champions throughout this magical metropolis? Except you can't, not without permission. Around town, the Olympic rings logo is harder to spot than an enjoyable element to competitive cycling. There's one at St Pancras, that's a nice one, and one hanging from Tower Bridge. Plus, if you get up really close to these, you might be able to make out the ® and TM legends underneath. The other place you'll see the rings is in the previously maligned Games Lanes (probably patented so worth the cautious capitalisation), which is a sad use of such an iconic image when you think that the bulk of London's road users will subconsciously associate these with stress, missed appointments, astronomical cab fares and destroyed personal lives.

Legislation exists to prosecute anyone displaying the Olympic rings, or the London 2012 logo without permission from the London Organising Committee of The Olympic Games, or Locog to give it its altogether more menacing sounding acronym. Not that you would want to display the London 2012 logo of course, which looks like 4 slabs of concrete hastily pieced together by quick drying cement then sprayed pink, but nevertheless these trademarks are fiercely protected by the people responsible for the sycophancy towards official Olympic sponsors. Admittedly, these corporate oligarchs have gone a long way to funding the Games, but the extent that organisers will go to to protect these brands has already been widely documented, including the ludicruous monopoly on McDonalds fries within the Olympic Park. This was further fuelled this morning following Lord Coe's comments on Radio 4. So strong is the grip of these sponsors that even the head of the organising committee, the Lord of the rings, when jokingly asked about the extent of these rules could only confirm that visitors would 'probably' be able to enter Olympic venues wearing Nike trainers. 

The same paranoia surrounds the intellectual property of the Olympic logos. Anyone deemed to be 'cashing in' on these official scribbles will be ordered to remove them and could face legal action under existing legislation. Though no one has ever been prosecuted under this law, you might want to put money on 2012 being the first deployment of such powers. One cafe owner near the Stratford site for instance, has already felt the piercing gaze of the all seeing Locog eye after it was deemed that his three-year-old 'Cafe Olympic' must change its name in accordance with the sponsorship rules.

Walking around the city, it really is difficult to tell that this festival of sport is upon us. Take the jubilee, for instance, when the (unpatented) Union Jack was bloody everywhere. The lesser-spotted rings however, only really appear conspicuously along some official routes, most notably along the Old Kent Road to remind anxious dignitaries that they are still on the right track to Royal Greenwich and not, in fact, descending into the wild and unlawful ghetto of South London from where they may not escape with the wheels of their S-Classes intact.

When you consider the Games from ground level in this way, the vehement retention of the Olympic brand seems tantamount to one big bureaucratic spoiling of sport. The sad fact is that the place you'll most likely spot the colourful emblem of sporting excellence, and historically the pinnacle of amateur competition, is on a tin of Coca Cola or beneath the smudges of burger sauce on a Big Mac wrapper. Or a UPS van. All brands with solid sporting pedigree, nothing less.

And so, with the Games bearing down on us like a demented one-eyed Olympic mascot, all we can do is hold our collective breaths and stand hand-in-hand against the corporate, gridlocked, multimedia onslaught that looms on all sides. And when all is said and done, when all fades away and the population of East London wake from their sedatives, only Michael Johnson will remain. With microphone in hand, he'll lament the lack of any real modern day talent amid the dwindling lights of the spectral Olympic stadium until West Ham arrive and turf him out back to the Crystal Palace athletics arena where the twenty thousand seats will far outnumber the few people that every really cared about competitive athletics.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

See You at the Crossroads

The Final 'Final Whistle' Column - The Goldsmiths Leopard. Published May 2012

The organisers' comprehensive anti-hooliganism drive was an unmitigated success.
There were few fans available after the game for comment.

So, the ref is looking at his watch, preparing to blow full time on ‘final whistle’... And what a great place to leave the world of sport, delicately teetering, like the bus at the end of The Italian Job. Except that unlike Michael Caine, I don’t have a plan...

At the time of going to press, we have just about got our collective Leopard breaths back from the whirlwind that was the final five minutes of the Premier League season. This is just the beginning. In fact, instead of balancing precariously on a cliff, the British sporting nation, along with many Leopard writers, finds itself unceremoniously dumped at a crossroads. Waiting along one road is the final of the Champions League, where a battered, shoestring Chelsea side will turn out against an in-form, organised Bayern Munich team. Where will that one take us? Spurs fans will be hoping it’s a dead end, as a Chelsea win in Munich on Saturday would put them into European no-man’s land and on another trudge through the Europa league with the resultant loss of the fourth Champions League spot for next season. Di Matteo deserves a medal, but sadly, he’s not even assured a job. Especially given that Abramovich may look to oust him for the very man the Italian outsmarted in the semi-finals. Go figure.

Another road leads us kicking and screaming into Euro 2012, with a brand new (old) manager, who instilled little optimism with his appointment of Gary Neville as coach. Yes, the uglier of the two ugly brothers may be England through and through, but so is a fry-up, and that gives you heart disease. What Hodgson was thinking, I suppose we’ll never know but one thing’s for sure, the England team bus will be a distinctly Scouse free zone if Manc nationalist G-Nev gets his way. The job’s a big risk for an unproven coach, especially as Neville looked a nailed on choice for the second pundit spot on Sky’s Super Sunday next season. At least now there’ll only be 11 people having to put up with his drone.

A third avenue takes us majestically on to London 2012, providing the road isn’t blocked. It’s a miracle that everything is ready for the Games if we’re absolutely honest with ourselves. I was half expecting to have to base this entire column on the general ineptitude of the Olympic Delivery Authority, but it looks like they may have pulled it off. That’s not to say they won’t forget something important though. It’s always the way: after all, you only ever remember your toothbrush when you’re halfway down the motorway. The difference here of course, is that in the ODA’s case the toothbrush may just turn out to be failing to order the lightbulbs in time for the opening ceremony. Depending on the outcome of these games, Seb’s either going to be given a plinth on Tralfagar square or tried in the media equivalent of the Hague. But, it’s the taking part that counts, right? Only if Britain finishes outside the top 5 in the medal table...

A fourth track leads us smoothly and gentlemanly to the summer’s cricket tests. God only knows how the erratic England side will perform, having gone from world’s best to shaky outsiders in the space of 6 months. You’d expect them to beat the Windies, but I’d expect a squad of spaniels in whites to beat the Windies, given that most of their top order is chasing the rupees over in the Indian Premier League.
Looking back the way we’ve come, the road has been a bumpy. Who’d have said three months ago that Man City would overturn an eight point deficit to beat United and clinch their first top flight title in living memory? Not Betfred it seems, which sagaciously paid out over half a million to punters on a United league victory back in April. Who also would have thought at the start of the league season that Alex McLeish would narrowly avoid relegation with Aston Villa? Oh ok, fair enough; I’d have paid out on that in January. It was a vintage year for the Premier League, and one that rightly cements it as the most exciting, if maybe not the most technically advanced, in Europe. As Chelsea showed however, the Sunday league technique of bodies behind the ball can pay dividends and crucially, not one of Messi’s 60 goals this season was scored past this resolute defence, which was already depleted of its two central assets in the semi-final second leg.
As far as national pride is concerned, the argument will continue to rage as to which is best football league in the world. Criteria varies, but Champions League success is a healthy barometer.

Only one English team per year has made it past the quarter final stage in recent times, which for many indicates a falling away in technical merit for a domestic league that regularly enters four teams a year. However, as Charles Darwin would have told you when he wasn’t out stealing other people’s ideas, adaptability is the key and Chelsea showed it in abundance that night in the Nou Camp. Where Manchester United had been ripped to pieces by the classy Catalans the year before, Chelsea rolled up their sleeves and got the job done. Considering this was in front of 90,000 hissing Spaniards, the feat is magnified. The fact that Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League this year is irrelevant: they still won the day when it mattered. Even Torres got a goal, before quietly slipping back into his spiralling depression via a freak hat-trick against QPR.

The argument goes that in England’s crumbling Premier league, lack of homegrown quality spills over onto the international scene. But this is pure drivel. Surely the best homegrown talent plays to a higher level amid the best in the world? Besides, England have always been terrible, except for one giddy summer in the 60s when everyone in England was so high it’d have been impossible not to win something on home turf. Three Lions on your shirt, chest, arse or anywhere else will never change that. No, regardless of the result of Saturday’s final, Chelsea have single-handedly proven that the English Premier League is the best in the world through their sheer stubbornness – like only the British can.

And so now the end is here, and I, along with the ODA, Team GB, Chelsea FC, Roy Hodgson, England and the British Public, face the final curtain. The Olympics were organised, and will no doubt be run, in a truly British fashion. Chelsea will do what they can to bring home the Champions League title to the most exciting domestic league in the world. Hodgson will work his nodding little face off to progress past the quarter finals of Euro 2012, and The Leopard will continue trying to produce something a little different but eminently readable in the way I have attempted to do here this year.

So, at these crossroads, we’ll travel each and every one of these highways, and looking back we’ll say that more, much more than this, we did it our way.
And it’s been a good’un.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


Eric Cantona signals his position in the
recent world football respect rankings

'I'm about to give you all of my money
And all I'm askin' in return, honey
Is for a little respect.'

Aretha Franklin was not discoursing on professional football when she sang these immortal lines, but they are as relevant to the beautiful game in 2012 as they ever were to furthering women’s rights in the late 60s. Such is the lack of respect that modern footballers seem to have for almost everyone.

I, like the rest of the country’s media and football fans, am under no illusion that football is a beautiful game. It’s not. It’s ugly as hell, and the media loves it that way. The second incarnation of ‘shake-gate’ was held at Loftus Road recently, or rather it wasn’t, as the powers-that-be at QPR decided to cancel the players’ nonsensical polite greeting before the FA cup tie against Chelsea. Handshakes, after all, presuppose respect. The spotlight shone on the pre-game handshake of Terry and Ferdinand was brighter than the one trained on the match itself, which only goes to show the vested interest of sports reporters for scandal. This is neatly demonstrated through a volley of recent incidents, be they racist (see Evra), sexist (lineswoman Sian Massey), violent (Balotelli) or monetary (Redknapp).

The attention paid to on and off field controversy in British football is nothing new. Cantona’s kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995 received as many column inches as his superb goals ever did. I don’t intend to play down the seriousness of abuse in the football, on the contrary, it should be highlighted in a bid to render it socially unacceptable, but I do take issue with the salivating circus of today’s media in escalating matters beyond the immediate context. The Terry/Ferdinand shake drama is evidence of this, as BBC Five Live cut ceremoniously to full pre-match commentary on the eventual non-incident.

The usually monosyllabic Alan Shearer made a valiant attempt on Match of The Day recently to play down the recent racism scandals, saying that we should simply stop talking about it and get on with the football itself. This, naturally, came at the end of a fifteen-minute link devoted to discussing it. The same happened on ITV’s coverage of the FA Cup third round, during an excruciating thirty seconds when presenter Matt Smith desperately tried to explain what he meant when suggesting that studio pundit Paul Ince was ‘uniquely positioned’ to pour comment on the issue.

Paradoxically, you may say, the last paragraph only serves to continue the debate, rather than putting it to bed. This would be the case, except when recent matters are viewed from a slightly different angle.
Racism in football is unacceptable, agreed. However, it is my belief that ‘racism’ as a term needs to be examined. I do not believe that John Terry is a racist. By that I mean to say that I don’t think the England captain views himself as intrinsically superior due to his colour, or actively dislikes anyone purely for their different racial background. It is partly the insistence on viewing racism through the anachronistic eyes of the 1980s that perpetuates the belief that he does.

There is a tendency to view racism with unspeakable fear. Not fear of actual hatred towards people of other races, but of the word itself and its connotations. It is a social taboo that causes the British (especially) to freeze in fright, wince and change the subject. This is partially why the television discussions of the recent incidents in football have been so awkward and stilted.What I mean by this is simple: there is a difference between a racist comment and full-blown racial hatred. Sports journalists and pundits, on the whole, fail to recognise this.

This fear is clearly motivated by the awful history of racism in this country. But, with all the progress that has been made towards racial equality, why do we still panic at the thought of raising any issues even remotely related to race? Partially because a whole generation have been rendered petrified of saying ‘the wrong thing’ after a volatile period that saw inexcusable and vehement racial abuse. This was during the first days of black players’ emergence in the English game; the days of Viv Anderson, Garth Crooks and tellingly, the Toxteth and Brixton riots.

Alan Hansen is one such fossil from these times, as shown recently during his confused ramble in which he practically said that some of his best friends were ‘coloured’. We live in a fully integrated multi-cultural society, and I do not believe I am na├»ve in suggesting that a racist comment (by which I mean referring to a someone by their colour) in football or any other arena is tantamount to racial hatred. More importantly, I believe there are worse problems in sport that continue to be overshadowed because of the huge taboo that exists around the term ‘racism’ – especially in the British media. Yes, it doesn’t help that the head of football’s world governing body is tactless on the subject of race, but does anyone really think that Blatter is a racist? He’s just out of touch, that’s all.

John Terry may be a lot of things, but I don’t believe he hates black people. He has grown up through the football system as a friend and colleague to players of all races and backgrounds, the Ferdinand brothers included. Yes, he may sleep with his team-mates’ wives, but I don’t believe he despises Anton Ferdinand for his ethnicity.

It is alleged that Terry called Ferdinand a F****** Black C***. Horrible, yes, but there is an equal chance he was referring to the referee as a F****** Blind C***. If this were the case, then his FA hearing (and his criminal trial) would undoubtedly have a different, more lenient outcome than if he were found guilty of racial abuse. But is either acceptable? Not at all. It is precisely the fear we hold as a nation about racist language after the dark ages of the 1980s that has caused the matter to be discussed at such length. It is also why the misogyny directed at lineswoman Sian Massey and the trenchant homophobia on the terraces are not given a proportionately adequate airing, not to mention the sickening abuse that referees take every week.

Is, for instance, selecting the colour of someone’s skin inherently worse than commenting on his or her sexual orientation? Or, in the case of Luke Chadwick when he played for Manchester United, the fact that someone is spectacularly ugly? Only when viewed through morally confused spectacles.

The progress made in tackling racism within football is tremendous. Several high profile initiatives, including ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ and ‘Let’s Kick Racism out of Football’ have worked hard to level the playing field for black and mixed-race footballers. What I am suggesting here is a level-headed view of abuse of any kind in football, and sport at large. Instead of trying to form a narrative of racist episodes in football, sports journalism has a responsibility to grow up, view things as they really are in 2012 and get real. Beautiful and clean the game may not be, but let’s not kick dirt in its face unnecessarily. Address the equally despicable problems that referees, women officials and gay footballers receive, and we might just get somewhere.