A Tribute

It’s fair to say that the last week or so has been pretty hectic in the sporting world… Well ok, the football world then! Fergie’s retirement, Wigan winning their first ever FA Cup before being relegated, Mancini’s sacking and, tonight, Chelsea’s opportunity to be the first team ever to hold both the Champions League and the Europa League titles at the same time. It’s easy for other sports to get overlooked at times like this and this has been the case for sailing, which suffered one of its most high profile tragedies on the 9th May 2013.

Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson, MBE, was one of a fantastic generation of sailors that have helped Great Britain dominate the sailing world in recent times. Simpson was introduced to sailing at the age of four when visiting his grandparents and his natural skill was soon spotted by many coaches, including Jim Saltonstall, one of the greatest British sailing coaches of all time and a key reason for Britain’s recent successes. Simpson’s life was then completely dominated by sailing – he even attended a boarding school that originally started as a nautical college and taught all the students how to sail.

As Simpson was developing to professional level he was among a hugely talented group of sailors, including Great Britain’s greatest Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie and long-term friend Iain Percy. On his own, ‘Bart’ was always just a step behind these two – in 2003 he won the World Championship bronze medal in the Finn class, with Ainslie winning the gold for the second time (he would later go on to win 4 more golds in this class, including in 2012). After this he then became Percy’s partner in the 2-man Star class, after the two had been training partners in the Finn class for a number of years. It was to be the start of a fantastic partnership.

Percy was much more experienced on the big stage, having already won Olympic gold in the Finn class at the Athens Games of 2000 alongside four World Championship medals in the Star Class (a gold and three bronzes). Simpson’s strength and power combined beautifully with Percy’s guile and they won their first medal together at the World Championships of 2007, finishing in third. However their greatest achievement came the next year during the Beijing Olympics, the pair finishing well ahead of Sweden in second.

They went into the Games ranked 12th in the world, with only four pairs ranked lower than them in the competition and, after a pretty poor opening two races, things weren’t looking good. But their form drastically improved and they managed to win both the 7th and 8th races while finishing second in races 6 and 9 to have all-but-guaranteed the gold by the final race. It was a dominant performance from Simpson and Percy and further showed just how good Britain were – this was one of Britain’s four gold sailing medals at the 2008 Games and their overall total of six medals was double the amount of everyone else.

After taking a break in 2009, Percy and Simpson reunited to win World Championship gold in 2010 before a silver medal at the same event two years later saw them going into the Olympics full of momentum. Everything was going well and they were ahead of the Swedish pair of Frederik Loof and Max Salminen going into the medal race on the final day, having won three races and finishing second in a further four. However the final race went disastrously, with the pair finishing well down the field, while the Swedes finished at the front to claim the gold and get their own back for 2008. It was a case of so near yet so far, as was the story for most of the British sailors. Again they claimed the highest number of medals (5), but four of these were silver and, if it were not for Ainslie’s amazing comeback in the Finn class, GB could have walked away from London 2012 without a gold in the sailing.

This was the last time Simpson raced competitively. He was gearing up for the America’s Cup, starting in a few days, when his boat capsized. For reasons still unknown to the general public, Simpson was trapped under the water for 10 or so minutes and could not be revived. His death has come as a shock to all – he was an extremely fit man in the prime of his career, still hurting from not winning gold at London 2012 and determined to make up for it. He wanted Britain to once again become a force in the America’s Cup, a race a British boat has not won since 1958, and died trying to achieve just that.

A true Olympic hero, RIP Andrew Simpson (17/12/1976 – 09/05/2013).

Calling all football and rugby fans… Don’t hide away just yet!

As the domestic football and rugby seasons come to a close, there are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t put your televisions into hibernation just yet. There is still plenty of action to come between May and August, including the greatest two-team rivalry in the world, a home nations tour down under and the prospect of another Brit conquering our near neighbours France.

However, it’s not all over for winter sport fans just yet. This Saturday brings the FA Cup final, with displaced Premier League Champions Manchester City aiming to salvage something from a wholly disappointing season, while Wigan Athletic will be hoping to avoid repeating Birmingham’s feat from 2010/11, where they won the League Cup but were also relegated. This is swiftly followed by the Europa League final, in which Chelsea will aim to prove British sides are still a force in Europe, and then the Champions League Final. This should be the most intriguing encounter of all, pitting the best team in Germany (Bayern Munich) up against last year’s Bundesliga champions (Borussia Dortmund). Despite Bayern leading the German league by 20 points these two had a fiery encounter just the other day, ending in a 2-2 draw – expect more fireworks in the final.

The day after it is confirmed that Germany has the greatest domestic sides in Europe, France takes centre stage for the first time this summer as the French Open gets underway at Roland Garros. Rafael Nadal is the undisputed King of Clay, having won this competition 7 out of the last 8 times it has been held. But he has not attended a Major since his shock loss to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last year – will he be fit enough to retain his title? The women’s championship looks much tighter on paper, with there having been 5 different winners since Justin Henin’s victory in 2007. Australian Open victor Victoria Azarenka is not one of these five and nor is Serena Williams, who has only won this tournament once (2002). Picking a winner from this group is nigh on impossible, so keep your eyes glued to what should be an enthralling tournament.

The British and Irish Lions tour of Australia kicks off during the French Open on the 1st June. The last time the Lions toured down under, back in 2001, they won the first Test comfortably before being thrashed in the second. The final game was a much tighter affair, with the Aussies just winning by six points. The also lost 2-1 during their last tour (South Africa, 2009) but with a young, dynamic and exciting team expect our boys to give the Aussies a real test this time round. With 15 players from the Welsh team that won the 6 Nations earlier this year, including the Player of the Tournament Leigh Halfpenny, playing alongside starlets such as England’s Owen Farrell, Ireland’s Brain O’Driscoll and Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, this is arguably the strongest Lions side for a long time and I really feel they can come back victorious as well as tanned.

The ICC Champions Trophy will be played out for the final time in June, but the highlight of the cricketing summer has to be the Ashes, which will be contested between England and Australia for the 67th time since the inaugural series in 1882-83. While the buzz surrounding this series may not match that of 2005 or 2010-11, there is huge excitement in the cricketing world at the prospect of this latest chapter in what is the greatest rivalry in sport. Both teams have had less than perfect years, with England relinquishing the no.1 Test spot after losses to Pakistan and South Africa while Australia were  absolutely spanked by India just after the Asian side were themselves beaten by our guys over the winter. But both sides boast tremendously resilient captains in Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke alongside hugely talented batsmen and aggressive bowlers. On paper England should have no problems but nothing is guaranteed in the game of cricket – let’s just hope we can get 25 days of dry weather!

Wimbledon will then yet again grip the hearts of the nation as the 127th Championships take place at the end of June and start of July. Roger Federer broke a lot of British ones last year as he defeated a valiant Andy Murray in the final, who finally seems to have won over most of the home public. However, his subsequent victory at the Olympics, followed by his first Grand Slam win in the US, proved the Scot does indeed have what it takes to win. Can he be just the third Brit, and the first male, to win at Wimbledon during the open era? And can he end a 77 year wait for a British man to win at SW19? And what can the British girls do at their home games? Keep a keen eye on Laura Robson and Heather Watson as they aim to cause a few upsets on their way through a tournament that guarantees drama, upets, tears and an awful lot of grunting.

Finally, France will become the focus of the sporting world for the second time on the 29th July as the 100th Tour de France gets underway. Three weeks of hills, roads, hills, villages and ultimately more hills will test the greatest road racers in the world to see who will end up with the yellow jersey. Last year’s champion Sir Bradley Wiggins won’t be defending his title, with Sky team-mate and last year’s runner-up Chris Froome being chosen to lead the team instead. Mark Cavendish will also be looking to add to his record 22 Tour stage victories and, with Wiggins, Cavendish and youngster Alex Dowsett all having made very good starts to the Giro d’Italia, it looks as if British cycling is in for another good year.

But that’s not all – between now and August there is also the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot, two golf Majors, the Women’s 2013 Euros, a handful of Formula 1 races and both the IPC and able-bodied World Athletics Championships. One thing is for certain – sporting fans have no excuse to be bored this summer!

The Greatest Battle

It was once a taboo subject and to be associated with it was a fate almost worse than death – those affected were treated differently to everyone else, stigmatised, humiliated and traumatised just because no-one could physically see what was wrong with them. Even those in the medical profession were sceptical, yet in current society it’s seen as just as big a problem as obesity and who slept with whom in EastEnders last night. Nothing about mental illness has changed, but the way it is perceived and whom it affects has altered a huge amount.

In sport, however, is still very much in the foetal stage of development. Even in early 2006 many people were questioning Marcus Trescothick’s decision to leave the England cricket team’s tour of India early due to a ‘virus.’ It has later transpired that this was the start of his battle with depression as a result of the hectic lifestyle he led, but at the time everyone was inquiring why he felt the need to withdraw from the side. He fought hard to overcome the problem, appearing against the Sri Lankans just a few months after leaving India, but was still criticised by members of the press who felt he wasn’t taking his international career seriously. Looking back now, that was a truly disgusting view to take – here was a player fighting outrageously hard to beat a mental illness that could end his life and yet there were people holding an inquest as to whether he should be allowed back into the England team or not. It shows how far our understanding and tolerance of such problems has increased in just the last seven years.

There are some out there who believe that professional sportsmen and women have it easy and that they don’t know what it really is to feel depressed. One argument I often hear is ‘these sporting stars are being paid millions to do what they love, how on earth can they have mental issues?’ From the outside it seems a valid argument – being paid well above the national average to do something you love whilst getting all the latest equipment and celebrity attention in exchange for a few press conferences and charity events… That seems like a wonderful lifestyle! But for those actually in that position it is often quite the opposite. The time available to themselves and their families is limited, while the pressures of being away from home for months on end can easily take their toll on both the physical and emotional state. There are also some professionals who get paid less than your city trader or local MP and are in the same boat as every ‘normal’ person, fighting to keep paying the bills and the mortgage. While some may be able to cope with this others could easily slip into a depressed state from which it’s hard to emerge from.

Looking on Wikipedia it seems as if I’m wittering on about a problem that only affects a tiny minority of sporting stars. The website stating that less than 15 famous sporting stars have been diagnosed with ‘major depressive disorder.’ These include the footballer Stan Collymore, Mike Tyson and, most tragically of all, German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life in 2009 after battling the condition for 6 years. Yet there are so many more who have suffered with depression and similar illnesses throughout their careers – Trescothick is one, with former England teammates Steve Harmison and Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff both retrospectively admitting they also struggled to even get up in the mornings. These stars are not reporting their problems to anyone else, whether it be through fear of losing their place in team or not wanting to admit there is something wrong with them. Or worse, because they fear of what others will say about them. Even in 2013, when the study of psychology is so much more advanced than ever before and the treatments for mental illness extremely effective, our heroes cannot admit that they are struggling with depression because they don’t want people to change their perceptions of them. They aren’t robots, they are human beings just like we are and should be allowed to have faults without everyone laying into them.

One thing that really worries me personally from the lack of coverage of mental illness in sport is what it could do to those not in the public spotlight, those young players fighting to make a name for themselves and break into the professional game. Not only do they have to win the battle to play alongside their more experienced clubmates, they often have to also deal with exams, funding themselves, moving away from home, finding a place to stay, paying the bills and maintaining relationships. While this may not be as pressurised as being the centre of attention all the time and spending months in foreign countries, all of these things can build up and lead to the development of depression, which could ruin their careers before they have even started. Because they are new to the game their troubles can often be overlooked and the help they need denied. I think there should be a much greater focus on the mental states of those coming through the ranks to professional standard to help them cope with the demands that being a sportsman brings. Some may not need it but there are others, myself included, who will have a greater chance of developing mental disorders like depression because of their personality and/or other social factors. We are the ones who will need guiding from a very early stage in order to stop ourselves falling into a deep oblivion, hating the games we love and, potentially, taking our own lives.


The 2013 Masters tournament was controversial and thrilling, producing some magical moments and others that certain individuals may want to forget. It came down to a play off between 32 year-old Adam Scott against the Argentine Angel Cabrera. On paper they shouldn’t have even been contesting for the title – Scott was world number 7 and runner up at the 2012 Open Championship, while Cabrera was ranked some 262 places behind the Aussie and had a highest result of 7th in any Major Championship since his victory at Augusta in 2009.  But something about this course brings out the best in the Argentine and he was agonisingly close to taking the title with a putt that finished less than 30 centimetres away from the hole.

It was a truly special four days of golf that threw up pretty much everything you could ask for from a Major. There were tantrums (namely from Tiger Woods), penalties, sublime shots and lots of balls finding the water – spare a thought for Kevin Na and last year’s winner Bubba Watson, who both took ten shots to complete the par-three twelfth hole after having real troubles negotiating the river in front of the green. But there were also many players who had much more luck, such as Luke Donald and Jason Day who both managed to find the hole when stuck in the bunkers. They may say that they meant to do that and this may be true, but everyone knows that any shots that holes from the bunker has to had some element of luck, no matter how good they are. There were also plenty of similar shots from outside the green to, the most memorable of which came from Italian Matteo Manassero – he was six over par and fighting to make the cut to take part at the weekend when he produced a special shot to eagle the par-five eighth, finding the perfect spot on the green that allowed his chip to spin back and find the cup.

One man who may be cursing his luck more than most, however, is Woods. Having reclaimed the number 1 spot in the world rankings in the lead up to the tournament, there was a huge buzz about the possibility ofthe four-time Masters winner claiming his 15th Major. He played solidly, if not spectacularly, throughout the tournament and was at one point leading alongside Day on the second day before throwing the lead away, including finding the water at the 15th which led to a bogey, and finished three shots behind going into the weekend. But this was to be later increased to five shots after he was given a two-shot penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard. Basically, when he took the shot at the 15th again after finding the lake he dropped the ball two yards behind the original starting position, which should have incurred an addition of a further two shots to the bogey he had already made at the hole. This would have meant he would have scored a triple bogey but this wasn’t marked on the card, as Woods didn’t think it had to be. Normally an incorrect scorecard would lead to disqualification but the officials didn’t feel that was necessary seeing as it was clear to them Woods had no intention of breaking the rules. This spurred him on to play even better golf but the gap was just too big to bridge and he had to settle for equal fifth place overall.

Another player on the wrong side of the officials was Guan Tianlang. At the tender age of just 14, the Chinese player had already made a name for himself after becoming the youngest ever player to appear at the Masters, before playing beautifully to finish only three over par at the end of the first day. But he was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons come the end of the second day, being penalised a shot for slow play. Fortunately he still made the cut for the weekend, an impressive feat given that he’d never played the course before or even appeared at a Major Championship

On the homegrown front things weren’t so positive. Lee Westwood was the best of the Brits, carding three under par for the tournament to finish equal eight, while Justin Rose will be disappointed with his two over after such a promising start to the tournament. Amateur David Lynn took the tournament by storm with a round of 68 on the first day but fell away badly on the third day to finish well down the field while Scots Paul Lawrie and Sandy Lyle, twenty five years after his victory at Augusta, also made the cut for the weekend but finished well in low positions. The Brit who will be most annoyed at his performance, though, will be Rory McIlroy – having started the year playing like a drain, the Northern Irishman finally found some form the week before the tournament, finishing second at the Valero Texas Open, but he never really looked in contention for victory here. His putting was very ordinary at best and he just fell apart on the third day, carding a round of 79 to leave him five over par. He recovered well on the final day but, like Woods, it was a case of too little, too late.

There were no such problems for Scott – going into the final day he was six under par, one shot behind leader Cabrera. While both were extremely consistent throughout the tournament it was the Argentine who found himself in the spotlight, surprising everyone with his delicate putting and gorgeous tee shots, allowing the Aussie to quietly get on with his game. He was also overshadowed by fellow Australians Marc Leishman, leader after the first round, and Day, meaning Scott could concentrate on himself without having to worry about any media frenzy. All of a sudden he appeared alongside Cabrera at the top of the leaderboard, taking casual fans and experts alike by surprise. It’s not as if no-one knew he could do it – he has improved his game year-on-year and always played well at Majors – but few people were actually following his progress that closely. However, he is a more than deserving winner of the Green Jacket after a supreme four days of golf in which he was one of few not undone by the conditions and kept his nerve superbly in a tense play-off to become the first Australian to ever win one of Golf’s Major Championships.

Honestly, is it really that good?

It’s a topic I touched on in ‘The dark truth behind the great spectacle’ but I feel so strongly about it that it deserves a whole blog devoted to it. Honesty – is it really the best policy?

One of the requirements of being a sporting sensation is dealing with a media that is often cruel, self-centred and with a tendency to twist what has really been said in order to make headlines and sell newspapers. As a result our heroes have become less and less inclined to say what they feel – rather than being honest with the fans the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Frank Lampard, people whom the whole country have huge respect for, come out with the same old clichéd rubbish in press conferences and interviews. Wiggins himself admitted in a recent documentary that he hates talking to the press because they harangue him for answers continuously, not thinking about anyone but their bosses and a good story, while he just wants to enjoy some peace and quiet after a long day cycling. People don’t seem to realise that these sportsmen and women are human; they need their personal space, their rest and recovery, just as much as anyone else does.

But going back to the honesty side of things, Wiggins also said he hates talking to the press because he doesn’t want what he says to be twisted in a way that undermines himself, his team-mates or the sport. I think the same can be said with the majority of athletes – they only say things that they know cannot possibly be misconstrued and damaging. I wind through interviews on programmes like ‘Match of the Day’ and often go off to do something else when the drivers are answering questions on the grid before a Formula 1 race because I just find them so boring. All they do is repeat phrases that they have been taught to say, such as ‘For sure it’s going to be hard but I think we’ve got a good chance of winning,’ or ‘the boys played great today and we were unlucky to have lost’ – it’s not honest, it’s not what they really want to say and it’s incredibly tedious. As fans we want to hear what these professionals say what they really feel but we are continuously let down because they fear coming into disrepute if they say the slightest little thing out of place.

It’s an understandable reaction though – every time someone in the public domain says what they really thinks they are often victimised for it. The social networking system has given these role models a platform where they can interact with their fans and be honest with them without having to go through the media first. But this form of interaction is arguably even worse for the players – they can be ‘trolled,’ insulted, even threatened by fans of opposing teams. In trying to be honest with the fans they are being exposing themselves to even more abuse than if journalists misquoted them. Not all of them help themselves though, Ashley Cole being a prime example. He called members of the FA a ‘bunch of t***s’ after being accused of lying in the John Terry racism trial – that wasn’t a good idea and eventually landed him with a £90,000 fine but the bit that irks me more than anything in this case is that the tweet was removed within hours of it being put up. If you’re going to be honest then go the whole way and show you mean what you said, don’t remove it – you’re going to be punished anyways and if it’s what you really mean then don’t hide that fact.

But expressing what you really feel without holding back can also lead to even worse consequences. Racism is a rather nasty storm that has reared its ugly head again in football recently, with players and fans alike being accused of using insulting language towards others because of their skin colour. My last paragraph may then make it seem as though I can excuse this kind of behaviour because these people are being honest and expressing what they really think. That is in no way true, I don’t condone any sort of discrimination in sport or life in general, but it highlights the complexity that being honest can bring about and can make us understand yet another reason why sporting stars don’t always say what they think – they may have views that, if expressed, could be turned into meaning something completely different and much nastier but certain sections of the public domain.

Honesty is a really tricky subject, something I know from personal experience. I have been hated, victimised, rejected and reprimanded for expressing my views, yet I also have been respected for not holding anything back. Although I am still young I can sort of understand the turmoil these role models go through when deciding whether or not they should say something they feel that will let them sleep easy at night or something that may reflect how they really feel but could have huge implications. I can, therefore, conclude that I don’t think it’s being honest that is important – it’s choosing what to be honest about, when to express it and how it’s done.

‘To me!’ ‘To you!’

It’s a debate that has been going on for nearly 2 weeks now – should Sebastian Vettel be condemned or praised for his breaking of team orders to win the Malaysian GP? The answer should be obvious… Unfortunately, in the complex world of Formula 1, incidents like this really aren’t that simple.

For those of you who have no idea as to what I’m going on about, Vettel was in second place behind Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber after the final round of pit-stops during the second F1 Grand Prix of 2013. The German was clearly quicker than Webber but was told to stay behind him, yet he still tried to fight his way past. Despite repeated warnings from his race engineer ‘Rocky’ and team principle Christian Horner, the triple-World Champion eventually muscled past and won. Those of you who don’t watch Formula 1 may be thinking ‘well, he was quicker so he should have been allowed past’ – in an ideal world that would be the case, but Formula 1 is a sport full of tactics and strategical decisions made in a fraction of a second and there is no going back on them – Red Bull had decided that Webber was to be the man to win the race as he was ahead after the final stops and that should have been that. It wasn’t.

Vettel, though, cannot be blamed entirely for this. Yes he should have followed the orders of those who employ him to win races, but they themselves could have handed the situation much better. He’s a hungry young driver who is used to success, so it is understandable why he did it. The team should have realised that Webber was too slow and told him to either hurry up or let the German past. But knowing how the Aussie has reacted to similar situations before Red Bull decided that he deserved to be put first for once, a rarity for the team. Since the infamous crash between Vettel and Webber during the Turkish Grand Prix in 2010 (where the German was trying to force his way past while Mark was driving slower to conserve fuel) I feel that the latter has been treated hugely unfairly by the team – he was blamed by both Horner and team owner Helmut Marko for that incident while just a few races at Silverstone he was clearly treated as the team’s second driver. Both cars were sporting updated front wings that weekend, yet Vettel’s broke in practice. The decision was made to give Webber’s to Sebastian and give the German the advantage – if it had been a point near the end of the season where Vettel needed a win to claim the Championship this could have been understandable but the fact was this was a race halfway through the year and both drivers had a very good chance of winning the Driver’s Title. The incident that Webber is probably fuming about currently, though, happened a year later at the same track in a reversal of the other day’s situation – Webber was clearly quicker that Vettel and fighting to get past yet was told to ‘maintain the gap’ at a time when team orders were banned and he should have been free to race his team-mate.

I really do feel for the Aussie and can completely understand his frustration – he is driving for the fastest team on the grid, winners of both the Driver’s and Constructor’s trophies for the last 3 seasons, yet he is the one having to make sacrifices for his team-mate. This time round it seemed as though the team were putting him first for a change and yet still he came off second best. His comments after the race were, surprisingly, restrained, saying that people will never really understood what went on. He did, though, claim that ‘he [Vettel] will have protection as usual,’ referencing the fact that Horner and Marko are often very quick to defend their younger driver whenever he makes a mistake. For the last few years now Webber’s disdain towards certain team members, not least his team-mate, has been evident yet he has always stuck at his job, determined to prove them wrong. But I think this could really the final straw for the man dubbed Formula 1’s ‘unluckiest driver’ for many years now. Don’t be surprised to see him moving on at the end of the season.

The real grievance I have with this incident is not really with the fact that Vettel broke team orders in order to win but that team orders are allowed in the first place. Nothing good ever comes from them and I think that they should be banned, as they were from 2002-2010. If one driver has driven a better race than their team-mate and is clearly going to catch them soon then they should be allowed to race and battle for position. The drivers aren’t stupid, they should know what’s fair racing and what could cause an accident, so should be allowed to race each other. A fantastic example of this was at the same Turkish GP where Webber and Vettel collided – the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button found themselves first and second respectively after the incident. Both were discreetly told to maintain position but Button felt he was quicker and fought his way past. Hamilton reacted superbly and got back in front a couple of corners later – it was a tense but wonderful spectacle, two drivers desperate to win yet respecting each other hugely. This should be how drivers should try and win races – if you’re quicker than anyone else and have looked after your car better then you deserve to win!

Another driver on the receiving end of stupid team orders in Malaysia was Nico Rosberg of Mercedes – he had driven a superb race, managing his tyres and fuel level perfectly and was directly behind team-mate Hamilton (in only his second race with the team) who had turned his engine down to try and find enough fuel to finish. Rosberg was clearly quicker and begged his engineer to let him past yet this request was denied and he had to settle for fourth rather than the final podium spot. He was being punished for driving a better race, something Hamilton came out and admitted later on.

Why can’t F1 personnel just accept that sometimes one driver deserves to win based on their race pace and tactics? The sport is becoming too egotistical and success-orientated – certain people need to be taught that us humans can make mistakes and no-one is perfect. If you have got the strategy wrong, then accept it and let the quicker car past, don’t deny them what they deserve because you don’t want your image denting!

Sing it Louder, Sing it Clearer…

Watching the San Marino football team clutching their chests with ‘pride’ (I hate that action, it doesn’t mean anything) but not singing during their national anthem before their game against England on Friday made me think – do they actually know the words? Having further researched their country’s anthem I have found that there are actually no official lyrics! Who ever heard of that, a national anthem without lyrics? But it doesn’t stop there – it doesn’t even have a name, it is just simply called ‘Inno Nationale’ (National Anthem)! Composed by Sammarinese violinist Federico Consolo in 1894, it is loved by the natives of the small state but largely unknown throughout the wider world. But at least it is quite easy on the ear and not too long…

Building up to a big international game such as a football World Cup Qualifier or rejoicing in the success of an athlete at the Olympic Games allows us to experience national songs we may never have heard before, but many of them are so long and tedious that we get bored after a handful of seconds. For example, the Greece national anthem is 158 stanzas long. However, it is mercifully never played in its entirety at any of the aforementioned events. But what is the point of writing something so long? National pride is one thing, but that is seriously over the top! Still, I don’t think many Greeks will want to recite this song any time in the near future… Uruguay should take their lead from the southern European nations though – their anthem is 5 minutes long, including an introduction of nearly 60 seconds in length! However, the most bizarre part has to be the opening line – it translates as ‘Orientals, the Fatherland or the Grave.’ Obviously this could mean something completely innocent but to me that seems to suggest that, rather than rejoicing in the ‘glory’ of their own nation, they are telling the Eastern Asians to either emigrate or die! I knew there were differences in how southern Americans see other races but I didn’t know it stemmed from their national song!

One of the great idiosyncrasies about national anthems is that many haven’t been written by members of their own country! 44 nations have had their anthems written by foreign composers, the most famous example being the Germany’s ‘Deutschlandlied’; Haydn, the famous Austrian, composed this. How someone can write a song praising a country that they don’t belong to is beyond me; I know I certainly couldn’t do it. One of the most ironic compositions must come from Mohammad Salim Flayfel and his brother Ahmad – they were Lebanese nationals who wrote the national anthem of Syria when relationships between the countries were… Well, let’s say rather tense in the mid-20th century! Another great disappointment for me is that unknowns and composers who have never really been heard of outside their respective countries have created many anthems. Haydn and Mozart (disputed composer of Austria’s ‘Land der Berge, Land am Strome) are the exceptions and this could explain why these national anthems are so much more recognisable than others. Either that or I have watched too much Formula 1 over the years, a sport dominated over time by German drivers and currently by an Austrian-owned car in Red Bull.

Sport is a great tool in exposing us to this fantastic element of the world, but also has the potential to ruin it. All this clutching of the chest and crying before a game, for me, is just an act. I have no problem with athletes crying when they are listening to them after a victory, but before a game… Really? These sportsmen and women don’t actually care about national pride; they just want to win over supporters watching them at home by pretending they care. It’s just role-play, terrible role-play at that, and I find it highly disrespectful. You can tell those who really care about their country because they are the ones who just stand their and sing, zoning out of everything else completely. That, for me, is true national spirit. Chris Robshaw was a fantastic example during the 6 Nations, belting his heart out at the beginning of every game without any of the other shenanigans. I wish more sports stars could take his lead and cut out all the rubbish that goes with it. I’m not saying people who don’t sing should, everyone should have the choice whether they want to or not, but if you’re going to do it then it must be done in a tactful and respectable manner.

Being totally biased I think the British national anthem is the greatest – it is short, to the point and reflects how great our monarchy is. I must admit, though, I am also a great fan of ‘Ireland’s Call,’ a specially composed anthem for the Irish national rugby union team. Because representatives of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland play for the team this anthem had to be composed to reduce any friction amongst both players and fans. While still not popular with a lot of natives it is gradually catching on but, from a neutral’s perspective, it’s fantastic. It is powerful, evocative (watching it being sung by members of Ireland’s team such as Donnach O’Callaghan often gives me goosebumps) and extremely nationalistic, it is everything a national anthem should be. Whether you like it or not, you have to admit it’s better than some out there!

2013 RBS 6 Nations – my review of a frustrating tournament

After the first week of the RBS 6 Nations I wrote a blog criticising the experts who, I thought, had got their predictions for the tournament completely wrong. It turns out I didn’t do much better!

I predicted England would win the Championship ahead of Wales, although I did state it wouldn’t be a Grand Slam. Little did I know that this was still a theoretical possibility going into last night’s big decider. But England did what we as a nation do best and threw away victory with an uncharacteristically poor performance after what had been a solid, if uninspiring, tournament. Tackles were missed, rucks were not contested, the lineout was poor and England just seemed flustered with ball in hand – it was painful to watch. You may be asking yourself why this sudden turnaround in performance happened, but did it? England were poor against Italy last time out too, scraping a narrow victory against a side they should have comfortably beaten. The truth is, though, that England choked in this game – they let the pressure get to them and these young, inexperienced players just couldn’t cope. They made basic mistakes, dropping the ball (as Manu Tuilagi did early on after running a fantastic line that could have seen him go under the posts) and passing into no-man’s land, as Owen Farrell was culpable of a few times, and this meant that as long as the Welsh remained calm then they would secure victory, and that they did.

Up to this point in the tournament England’s performances had been gradually decreasing in terms of effectiveness. They were awesome against Scotland and performed well against Ireland. The first signs of their defences creaking came against France but they replied wonderfully in the second half, before a real dogfight saw them scrape past Italy. This, however, gave the fans hope as the great teams are normally the ones who can still win when they aren’t performing well. England were doing just this – key players weren’t performing as they should have been yet they were still unbeaten going into the final game. This would have filled the players with some confidence, but perhaps too much. Were England too complacent last night? That, I’m afraid, we’ll probably never know.

You cannot take anything away from the Welsh, though, as they were absolutely awesome. They got their tactics right, spotting that England weren’t committing to rucks and deciding the pick-and-drive was the best way forward. The monumental pressure they placed on the English led to the mistakes that allowed them to score and I think 30-3 may be a result that actually flatters England as the Welsh could have scored four or five tries. The whole of the Welsh team was superb – the front three were brutal, Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans were reliable in the lineouts and Sam Warburton, Jason Tipuric and Toby Falatau were monsters, battering the English defence time after time. Mike Phillips and Jamie Biggar were sensible and composed, linking up beautifully with centres Jamie Roberts and Jonathon Davies on many occasions. George North was denied the chance of a try by a superb tap-tackle from Mike Brown, but fellow winger Alex Cuthbert went over twice after some great play by his forwards. Finally, Leigh Halfpenny was Mr Dependable, looking secure under the high ball and kicking supremely. For me he is the player of the tournament, his one-man beating of Scotland (where he scored 23 of 28 points) being the stand-out performance, and he must be the first choice full-back for the upcoming Lions tour. In fact, all 15 of these Welsh players could easily make that team to tour Australia – they look a complete side, a unit with no weak links and I think they have the potential to cause the Southern Hemisphere sides some real problems in the next few months and years.

I may have been right about Wales but I could not have been more wrong about Scotland. After England beat them in the first week I thought they would be securing the Wooden Spoon but their scintillating victory against Italy just one week later proved just how well their great rivals had actually played. Under Scott Johnson the Scots have really changed turned their performances around – their defence is now much more secure than ever and their backs are exciting, with the electric pace of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland mixing nicely with the tenacity and level-headedness of Greg Laidlaw and Duncan Weir. The future is looking much better for the Scots and the third place finish in this year’s championship is highly deserved, if a little unexpected.

Italy should also be very proud of their efforts with well-earned victories against the French and the Irish. However, they have an ageing team and, while there are some bright talents coming through, one wonders how much longer the likes of Sergio Parisse, Gonzalo Canale and Andrea Masi will be around for. However there will be no greater loss to any international side in the world right now than Brian O’Driscoll will be to Ireland – he is their greatest ever player and has been the spearhead of their team since 1999. He will be a huge loss to a side that is currently going through a period of transition – the old guard, including O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, are moving aside and paving the way for the likes of Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall to come through. In truth, Ireland were poor during the 6 Nations, but there are two reasons for this. The first is this transition, with many players in the squad not having reached 10 caps and some making their international debuts. The lack of experience meant some players didn’t perform at their best, the old rabbit-in-the-headlights scenario, but they have undoubted quality and will one day be wreaking havoc on the international scene. The second is injuries – so many key players, such as O’Connell and Jonny Sexton, missed the majority of the tournament while other players picked up lengthy injuries, with winger Simon Zebo having surgery on ankle ligaments and being ruled out for 10 weeks, while Eoin Reddan broke his leg in the penultimate match. This really disrupted the Irish plans and led to flanker Ian Henderson being brought on to play on the wing for a spell against Italy! Some say it’s bad luck, other say it’s because the Irish are too scared to tackle, but once all these players have returned and the other gain a bit more experience Ireland will once again be a dominant force in international rugby.

Which leaves us with France – in a tournament bereft of entertaining rugby we have to thank them for making us laugh so much! Players being forced to play in positions they don’t like, the most ridiculous selection policy and a captain who looked like he wanted to cry every 5 minutes; they really were the only contenders for the wooden spoon. The cheer that the French coach Phillipe Saint-Andre received as he brought on Freddie Michalak for Francois Trinh-Duc against England was one of the loudest of the whole tournament – Trinh-Duc is one of the half-backs in the world and yet he barely played, with the selectors favouring the biggest flop in international rugby. France really were a joke and they need to ask themselves some serious questions. How on earth did they play so well in the autumn against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa?

On the whole, the 2013 RBS 6 Nations was not one that will be remembered for it’s free-flowing attacking rugby – instead the fans will remember how Wales rose from the ashes to conquer all, how the French made themselves look stupid and how infuriated they got watching scrum after scrum collapsing. Let’s hope that this tournament has not only signalled the rise of the Scots and the Italians as a dominant force but also led to officials to change the rules of what is now the most pointless aspect of rugby union.

‘Don’t panic, don’t panic!’ (written on Sunday morning)

2012 couldn’t have gone much better for British track cycling could it? Seven gold medals at the Olympics alongside a silver and a bronze showed how dominant Team GB were at the London Olympics and that gold medal haul could have been even greater if it wasn’t for a couple of dubious decisions against former ‘Queen of the Track’ Victoria Pendleton. But, coming in to this week’s World Championships in Minsk, at least half of those medallists weren’t going to put in an appearance. It was seen as the first step in the cycle towards Rio, but has it been successful?

Early results indicated that things were looking good for Britain – youngster Kian Emadi-Coffin finished an impressive fourth in the men’s 1km time trial, while there was a bronze medal for debutants Becky James and Victoria Williamson in the women’s team sprint, the event Pendleton and Jess Varnish were controversially disqualified from in London. With such youngsters performing so well on their competitive debuts in senior international competitions it really shows just how great a position GB cycling is in at the moment. There was, however, one slight disappointment from the first day and that was that the men’s team pursuit squad could only manage silver after being outclassed by the Australians, who were without the great Jack Bobridge amongst others, in the final. While a silver medal is a fantastic achievement, the way in which they were totally dominated was a concern, especially since they won both Olympic and World titles in the event in 2012 and had Stephen Burke and Ed Clancy, members of both victories last year, still in the side. Burke’s misery was further compounded next day when he could only manage 17th place in the individual pursuit – was this a suggestion that the old guard were, perhaps, on their way out…

By the end of day 2 it was clear that GB cycling had a new heroine in the form of Becky James. By the end of the second day she had added another bronze to her collection in the 500m time trial, losing narrowly to Hong Kong’s Lee Wai Sze, winner of keirin bronze at London 2012, and Miriam Welter of Germany who claimed silver in the event at last year’s championships. But her victory in the women’s sprint was what really caught the attention of everyone. Her total and utter dominance of all her opponents right throughout was astonishing from someone as inexperienced as her, but in the final she was something else. She lost the first race by the narrowest of margins – millimetres if you really want to know – to the highly decorated Kristina Vogel of Germany, but showed incredible mental toughness to overturn this deficit and power her way to her first World Championship gold. And with a place in the keirin semi-finals already the 21 year-old from Abergavenney in Wales, with the speed, toughness and looks to match Victoria Pendleton, could be about to write another great chapter into the history of women’s cycling.

But there is one experienced female competitor hoping this won’t happen quite yet… Laura Trott, the double Olympic champion, has been kept relatively quiet throughout the championships so far by James. However she already has one gold medal to her name from her only event so far, the women’s team pursuit, and looks set for a medal later today in the women’s omnium, the heptathlon of cycling. It’s amazing how the focus has quickly shifted from her to James, but I don’t think that will cause her too much distress. Indeed, her performances so far at these Championships seem to suggest that it has had no affect whatsoever.

So, while the week has been extremely encouraging for our women the men have had a mixed time of it in Belarus. Jason Kenny has epitomised this, scraping through to the keirin final by the skin of his teeth courtesy of some luck before leaving everyone for dead in the final to win gold. However, he failed to make it past the quarter-finals of the men’s sprint, the event in which he normally excels at and won in London, and was part of the men’s team sprint squad that could only manage sixth place. Simon Yates, though, superbly and unexpectedly won the gold in the points race, his first ever medal at a senior championships, but apart from that it has been a very mixed week for the men. It does seem as though Britain’s young male competitors aren’t quite at the standard of the women.

With one day at these championships to go and four gold medals left, of which Britain have a fantastic chance of winning two, it seems as though GB should stay at the top of the medal table. Currently they have 4 golds, two more than anyone else, a 7 medals overall, equalled only by Australia. When the riders were announced for these World Championships the outsiders questioned why so many big stars weren’t going to be there – did we not care about winning anything other than Olympic titles anymore? But now it is clear for everyone to see that, yes, it could be easy to send all our big names there to win medals but what help is that in building towards Rio and, firstly, the Commonwealth Games next year. Fortunately this group of talented youngsters seem to have taken on the words of Clive Dunn and have proved that they are the ones for the future. Bring on 2016!

A quick forewarning that there will be no blog next week. Apologies for this, but personally things will be pretty hectic for the next couple of weeks and I will have no time to write another entry!

Time to Wake Up and Accept the Obvious

So, anybody else been following the Women’s Cricket World Cup recently? How about the female version of the Six Nations? And did any of you follow England’s netball stars during their series whitewash of world number 1s Australia last month? I’m guessing for the large majority of you the answer is no to all three options…

We are supposed to be living in a society where men and women are treated as equals, yet when it comes to sport we still seem to be stuck in the early 20th century, where women playing sport was… well, just wrong. But personally I really cannot understand why women don’t get the coverage they deserve – some may argue that their games just aren’t as interesting to watch as men, but that is absolute rubbish. West Indies’ star batsman (yes, it is acceptable to call female batters this) Stefanie Taylor struck 171 off just 137 balls, with eighteen 4s and two 6s, for her nation against Sri Lanka in the group stages of the current World Cup. This was the third highest individual score for a woman in One Day Internationals and equal 27th when the men are combined too. This means she has a higher ODI score than world famous players such as Brian Lara (169), Brendan McCullum (166) and Ricky Ponting (164). How can you say after an inning like that that there is no excitement in women’s sport? True, it could be argued that this was a one-off, but then again only a naive person would do that. In the 2013 Women’s 6 Nations there has already been huge excitement with two games being won by the smallest of margins and England demolishing Scotland 76-0, including twelve tries. Now try telling me that is boring…

Some say this ‘lack of excitement’ is because women just aren’t as physical so cannot bowl as fast, hit as far or tackle as hard as their male counterparts. While it is true that is the case currently, surely that means they will just find other ways of winning. The likes of Katherine Brunt, England’s best seam bowler of the current era, and Anya Shrubsole, who took 13 wickets in just 5 matches at the World Cup, may not necessarily bang the ball into the deck as hard or as fast as Freddie Flintoff or Steve Harmison but they are so clever in the way they bowl, getting a large number of their wickets through drawing the batsmen into traps. The women’s skill level is arguably even higher in cricketing terms than their male counterparts, yet they don’t get any sort of recognition for it. And while watching men pile into each other just to gain a few yards in rugby union can be highly entertaining, it can also get quite boring if it happens too much, as was the case in both Wales-France and England-Ireland last weekend. The women play such free flowing rugby, with the wingers utilising their electric pace much more than Chris Ashton, Simon Zebo et al. Just because they aren’t as strong as men doesn’t in anyway make them any less interesting to watch.

And anyone who claims that women cannot be physical clearly haven’t ever watched a game of international netball. Even though I have only had access to highlights of England’s fantastic victory over our greatest sporting rivals it is clear to see that these women can play dirty if they want; pushing, pulling, tripping, scratching – it was all there! But the most violent display that the sporting world has ever seen must surely have come from American Elizabeth Lambert in 2009. Her university banned her from playing football indefinitely after punching, kicking, elbowing and even yanking an opponent’s hair so hard she fell to the floor in the space of just 90 minutes. That performance makes Juventus defender Stephan Lichtsteiner’s man-handling of Celtic’s Gary Hooper in midweek almost tame.

But if you still have yet to be convinced by my argument so far, then all you need to do is look at the British heroes that came out of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Jessica Ennis, Ellie Simmonds, Katherine Grainger and Hannah Cockroft are all now household names alongside Ben Ainslie, David Weir, Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy. It was our women who played a huge part in 25 of Britain’s 65 medals at London 2012 and if they had the same number of event as the men then the gap would be even further reduced. Let’s hope that, as well as changing British society and sport as a whole, the greatest Games (from a very biased point of view) ever can change our perspective of women’s sport too.

But for this to happen women need to be given the coverage they deserve. The netball was only available to view on Sky Sports, with BBC providing radio coverage too, while there has been absolutely no TV coverage of the cricket World Cup – the only way to change the perspective of the public is to show them just how enthralling female sport is. Surely it’s better than just showing repeats of shows that really aren’t creditworthy of the great organisations that the BBC, ITV and others are? We need to get our heads out of the male chauvinistic and downright appalling state that sporting coverage seems to be stuck in and open our eyes to the great entertainment in front of us that is begging to be viewed.