Whispering Death: The Life and Times of Michael Holding by Michael Holding with Tony Cozier

I enjoy watching cricket, so when looking for books from the West Indies for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that a few cricketers must have written books. But I had previously resisted that temptation; because it seemed like an unimaginative choice and, let’s face it, because sporting memoirs tend to be pretty dull.

But in a moment of weakness I ordered Michael Holding’s autobiography from 1993. Holding is one of my favourite cricket broadcasters these days: he seems like a thoroughly nice man, he talks well about cricket, and his rumbling Jamaican accent is one of the great voices in broadcasting. And Tony Cozier, who is a great radio commentator, is a good person to have as a ghostwriter.

Sadly, this book is indeed fairly dull. It’s not a bad book — in fact it’s probably better than average for a sportsman’s memoir — but it’s not one of the rare examples that transcends the genre. There are all kinds of ways one of these books could stand out: it could be funny, or psychologically insightful, or gossipy and indiscreet. But instead this is just a solid, professional bit of writing. Perhaps some of the opinions expressed were controversial at the time, by the mild standards of sporting controversy; but it’s no Ball Four.

In the last chapter, he mentions in an offhand comments that he has three children by three different women, only one of whom had been his wife; and you suddenly get a sense of all the things he hasn’t been telling you. Not that I particularly need to know about his love life, but it’s part of a broader professional discretion. And ‘discreet’ is not the most exciting quality in a memoir.

Michael Holding is from Jamaica, but Whispering Death is my book for Barbados, where Tony Cozier is from. Mainly because there are lots of good choices for books from Jamaica and not so many from Barbados.

The Olympics is a delightful oasis of non-corporate sport

I’m not being sarcastic; well, not entirely.

We’ve had months of angry coverage about the heavy-handed brand management put in place to appease the corporate sponsors of the Olympics: how ATMs at Olympic venues will only accept Visa, and McDonalds have an exclusive right to sell chips in the Olympic Park, and the torch relay is accompanied by a rolling advertisement for Coca-Cola, and you may be turned away from the events if you arrive wearing a T-shirt with a rival corporate logo.

So it’s worth pointing out that one reason they are so heavy-handed about asserting their branding rights is that there is no advertising in the venues themselves. When the sport finally starts, the athletes will not be competing in front of a backdrop of hundreds of corporate logos: just a lot of pink and blue London 2012 branding.

Which is a stark contrast to, say, Premier League football, where the players wear shirts with the team sponsor’s logo printed much bigger than the club badge, and the entire pitch is ringed by an enormous continuous pulsating distracting animated advertising billboard. Or Test cricket, which has advertisements spray-painted on the outfield, and all along the boundary rope, and the boundary boards, and the stumps, and the players’ bats, and the back of the umpires’ shirts, and the scoreboards, and where a 150-year-old cricket ground pisses on its own history by calling itself the Kia Oval.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that, if they were allowed to plaster the Olympic stadium with their own logos, so they knew they would be seen by the hundreds of millions of people watching on TV, the sponsors would relax their iron grip over every other aspect of Olympic branding. I’m sure they would like to have their cake and eat it. And it doesn’t justify the heavy-handed, joyless way their branding rights have been enforced.

But at least we should take a little pleasure in the fact that the winner’s podium is not going to have a Coke logo on it. The medal ribbons are not going to be Samsung-branded. There is not going to be a gigantic Procter & Gamble logo spray painted on the grass where the javelins land. Because if the Olympics was a normal modern sporting event, all that stuff would be true.

» ‘Olympic Torch Relay Day 64 Green Lanes 010‘ is © David Holt and used under a CC by-sa licence. The post-match interview is from an Indian Premier League cricket match. ‘Post match interview with AB De Villiers‘ is © Royal Challengers Bangalore and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Half a cheer for Formula One

I’ll say one thing for Bernie Ecclestone: he may be a greedy, ruthless, vindictive, amoral little shit and a panderer to tyrants; but as far as I know, he’s never come out with any self-serving pablum about how Formula One brings the world together in peace and harmony, and thus promotes understanding and brotherhood amongst all mankind.

Unlike FIFA and the IOC.

Which doesn’t make him any less of a foul-smelling turd, but at least he isn’t a hypocrite about it.

Olympic tickets: achieved!

I worked out what I wanted in advance, was waiting ready at 6am when sales opened, had my order in within minutes and got to the point where it was trying to process my payment… and the website basically died under weight of traffic. But after forty minutes of trying I managed to get the order in; and I learned today that I got tickets for beach volleyball and weightlifting, but didn’t get the basketball tickets I applied for at the same time.

Not getting the basketball means I’m not going to anything in the Olympic Park itself, which is a pity; but I was keen to see the beach volleyball, because of where it’s being held: Horse Guards Parade. Which is the parade ground behind Whitehall where they do the Trooping the Colour. You can actually see it from one of the windows of 10 Downing Street.

Weightlifting wasn’t my first choice; in fact, in a very literal sense it was my 12th choice, since I applied for nine sessions the first time round. But when I’ve seen it on telly it always seems naturally dramatic, and it’s cool to see people pushing the human body to its limits. It is, and I mean this in a good way, a bit of a freakshow.

» Park Yoon Hee of South Korea attempts a lift in the women’s over 63kg weightlifting finals of the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Photo: SPH-SYOGOC/Chia Ti Yan. Used under a by-nc licence.

My [non-existent] Olympic tickets

Well, I finally got confirmation yesterday that out of the nine events I applied for for next year’s London Olympics, I received a total of zero tickets. Which is fucking irritating.

For those who don’t know, it was a ballot system: instead of being first come first served, there was a period of a few weeks when you could decide what to apply for, specifying particular sessions and price ranges, and anything that was oversubscribed was allocated at random.

And now, those of us who were unlucky in the ballot get first dibs on the remaining tickets, which go on sale next Friday. So I went to the website to check availability, and the first sport I checked was tennis; completely sold out. And not just the glamour events, like the men’s semi-finals; all sessions, all prices. All the swimming tickets are gone. And all the gymnastics, the diving, the track cycling, the BMX, the badminton, the equestrian events. There are a few sessions which still have tickets at the table tennis, archery, beach volleyball, rowing, fencing, but those are going to be immediately swamped when tickets go on sale again, I’m sure. There’s even a few tickets left for athletics, but then it is an 76,000 seater venue and they are for morning sessions when it’s all early rounds.

So it’s quite frustrating. I always said I just wanted to go and see something at the Olympics, to be part of the experience while it was in London… but it looks like I really might end up going to see something like greco-roman wrestling, or handball.

If an event is massively popular, a lot of people are going to miss out. Which sucks, but you can’t sell more tickets than there are seats. However: these games had better be played to packed venues, or I will be So. Pissed. Off. If it turns out that masses of tickets allocated to corporate bloody entertainment and the fucking sponsors end up going unused… grraah. I will go round to Lord Coe’s house and personally give him a stern talking too.

Anticipating the Champion’s League final

It’s rather refreshing to approach the Champion’s League final, or any game, with Manchester United as distinct underdogs. I started supporting United in the first place because I was pulled in by the glamour of the big European nights, when English clubs were still feeling their way back into the competition after the Heysel ban. They would go to famous stadiums like the San Siro and the Camp Nou and it all seemed incredibly glamorous and intimidating, and it seemed like a big deal to be in the quarterfinals or the semis.

Whereas for the last few years, the top English clubs have gone away to big clubs in Italy and Germany with everyone expecting them to win, and we’ve had far too many all-English ties for the big games. Manchester United v. Chelsea might well be a good game, but it’s not exactly European. I want to see players and teams that I don’t see every week on Match of the Day.

And while Barcelona are hardly an unknown quantity — I’ve probably seen more of Barça this year than quite a few teams in the Premiership — they are definitely foreign, they’re definitely glamorous, and they’re definitely scarily good. I think United can beat them, but they might need a slice of luck to do it.

Anyone But England by Mike Marqusee

Subtitle: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket. Mike Marqusee is American, although he has lived in the UK since 1971.

I guess it shouldn’t be taken for granted that an outsider will have a clearer view of cricket than someone brought up with it; it would hardly be surprising if an American who became a cricket fan was seduced by the tradition and history of it, the whole nostalgic, self-serving image cricket tends to have of itself. Paul Getty being the classic example.

But Marqusee is a left-winger who first started watching cricket during the West Indies tour of England in 1976, a series when the race and class tensions surrounding cricket were made more explicit than usual.

And so he is clearly angered, rather than attracted, by the gentility and clubbability and the bacon‑and‑egg ties. In fact, given that all that stuff is such a huge part of English cricket culture, it’s amazing that he became such a clearly devoted fan of the sport.

The result is a very pointed examination of the sins and hypocrisies of English cricket. They picked this brilliant quote for the front cover, from Test Match Special commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins:

‘A very intelligent book, very cleverly written, with a lot that provokes thought. But I am uneasy about the way he has a go at just about everything that cricketers hold sacred’

I mean, what right-thinking person wouldn’t want to pick it up after reading that?

So it’s comparable to Derek Birley’s excellent A Social History of English Cricket in the way it provides a counterbalance to the game’s self-image; but with the focus mainly on the modern game and with rather more needle to it.

It makes uncomfortable reading at times for an English cricket fan. All those incidents which at the time seem like minor sideshows to the game itself: when you read about them all at once one after another, it starts to look pretty ugly.

I’m not sure that English cricket administrators and journalists are uniquely bad, mind you; I daresay if you subjected Australia or the West Indies or India to the same kind of inquisitorial examination, they would have their own different failings and embarrassments. But that’s a pretty weak defence.

I was reading the third edition, from 2004; one measure of my enjoyment is that when I finished I was left thinking, hmm, I wonder what Marqusee would have said about the things that have happened since: like England’s 2005 Ashes win. Or the IPL. Or Allen Stanford. So yeah, I recommend this book.

The Running Man by Gilbert Tuhabonye

I bought The Running Man* as my book from Burundi for the Read The World challenge. I can’t say I was particularly looking forward to reading it, though, because the blurb on the cover — How the voice in my heart helped me survive genocide and realise my Olympic dream — just sounds a bit TV movie of the week. Clearly there’s an interesting story there, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that it will be a well-told story.

I’ve read enough boring sporting autobiographies that I approach the genre with scepticism. Admittedly, it should be pretty hard to make genocide boring, but then you might think the same about playing in the World Cup, and plenty of footballers have managed that.

But I was pleasantly surprised. It is interesting and engagingly written (with the help of ghost writer Gary Brozek); and not just the more dramatic stuff, but about growing up in rural Burundi. It’s not a literary masterpiece, and I don’t think it offers any startling insights into either genocide or elite middle-distance running, but it’s a good story simply and well told.

The blurb is slightly misleading, in that Tuhabonye never actually competed in the Olympics, although he came attended an Olympic development training camp in Atlanta prior to the 1996 games and came very close to qualifying. On the other hand, if the Olympic part is slightly overplayed, the genocide bit is even more remarkable than you might imagine; he was the only survivor of a particularly brutal massacre and the details of his experience are just staggering.

* US title: This Voice in My Heart: A Runner’s Memoir of Genocide, Faith, and Forgiveness. I assume it’s the same book otherwise despite the different emphasis, although I suppose they may have toned down the religious content for the UK edition.

» The photo of Gilbert Tuhabonye meeting Chuck Norris is from his own website. Because, well, why not.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Apparently Eduardo Galeano’s book sales spiked in the US last year when Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Which probably gives you a fairly accurate impression of the kind of writer Galeano is: a left wing journalist/historian with a particular anti-imperialist, anti-American emphasis. I decided to read some Galeano for the Read The World challenge — he’s Uruguayan — and considered reading one of his more political works; I could certainly stand to know more about the history and politics of Latin America. And they all get very high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon; hardly a foolproof test, but a reassuring suggestion that they’ll at least be quite readable. In the end, though, I took the soft option and bought his book on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. And I enjoyed it; enough to make me think of buying some more of his work.

It’s a string of hundreds of little vignettes, pen portraits, anecdotes, and mini-essays, each with it’s own heading, sometimes two or three pages long but often just a couple of paragraphs. Some are about broader subjects, like crowd violence or tactics or the commercialisation of the game; others about a particular player or game or even a single memorable goal. They’re arranged in chronological order, so they form a sort of idiosyncratic history of the game according to Eduardo Galeano.

It’s a distinctly Latin American perspective, which is probably a valuable corrective to the Anglo-centric bias of most of the football writing that I read. It does mean that some players get left out who would certainly make it into an English equivalent of this book: George Best, Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, David Beckham. It’s a compliment to his writing that I found myself wanting to know what he would have said about them. And indeed about players who are too recent to make the cut; the book was originally published in 1998 and updated in 2003, so there’s no Ronaldinho, no Messi, no Christiano Ronaldo, no account of the current amazing Spain team.

Generally I think the book loses a bit of impetus towards the later years anyway; the earlier stuff is best. Partially I think that’s because there’s a fascination with the pre-history of football before everything was captured on film; it’s not a sport which lends itself to statistics, so reading about early football is like reading about ancient Greek painters: it doesn’t matter how detailed the descriptions are, there’s still a void at the centre of it all. It probably also has something to do with being Uruguayan; Uruguay won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but it has been downhill since then. So for Eduardo Galeano, born in 1940, it has been a lifetime of their glory days being behind them. Something the English are increasingly able to relate to.

He’s also not a fan of the modern game:

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a bat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.

Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organised not for play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight  of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with every one of his opinions, but it was thoroughly enjoyable book; beautifully written, and with just enough politics in it to cut through all the football nostalgia.

England vs Algeria: my diagnosis

England are suffering from the world’s biggest collective case of the yips.* It seems like the only explanation for how much worse these players become when they pull on an England shirt.

Sigh.

* Well, not quite the biggest: that must be the one that afflicts the All Blacks every four years at the Rugby World Cup.

England vs USA: my diagnosis

My overall feeling was that there just wasn’t a critical mass of players in that team whose game lends itself to composed possession football. Gerrard and Lampard can’t do it on their own.

So for example, I’m a big fan of Aaron Lennon, and I think he could be an important player for England at this tournament, but he’s not someone who you would immediately associate with patient, methodical build-up play. The same goes for SWP.

I thought the best period of control England had in the friendlies was in the second half of (I think) the Japan game, when Gerrard, Lampard and Joe Cole were all on together; the more of those kinds of players you have on the pitch, the more likely it is that there will be a pass available, the more likely you are to maintain possession.

Not that they have to be midfielders, of course: I think England missed Rio Ferdinand, not for his defending, but for his willingness to carry the ball out of defence and link up with the midfield. And of course Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson can help; so can the forwards, particularly Rooney. But I think the midfield was a problem. Given how well Rooney played alone up front for his club last season, I would have been tempted to play a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 with Joe Cole taking Heskey’s place. Or just to play Joe Cole on the left wing.

The good news is that Gareth Barry should be back for the next game, which will help.

World Cup food blogging: USA

Well, that was a bit depressing: not so much because of the result, but the tendency to revert to long balls hoofed up the front, the lack of involvement of England’s wingers, the lack of controlled possession in midfield… all the usual England failings, in fact. Not to mention the further undermining of confidence in England’s goalkeepers. Ho hum.

However, World Cup food blogging must carry on. And so, my USA-themed food: cornbread and creole fried shrimp. The cornbread recipe I used was this one. Partially because it’s a British recipe, so I can weigh my ingredients rather than all that measuring quantities by the cup that American recipes do. And partially because it suggests substituting yoghurt for buttermilk, which is what I was planning to do anyway. I cut down the quantity of chillies slightly and cooked it in a pre-heated cast iron frying pan, though. It turned out rather nice, I must say:

The shrimp was a bit of an improvised recipe; I covered the prawns in a homemade creole-type seasoning mix — chopped thyme, dried oregano, paprika, crushed garlic, a dribble of pepper sauce, black pepper — and left for a couple of hours (the duration of the Nigeria-Argentina game, in fact).

Then I basically did the standard flour-egg-breadcrumb thing except with a mixture of cornmeal and cornstarch instead of breadcrumbs, and deep-fried them. Came out looking quite impressive:

But actually, although it tasted OK, the coating was a bit coarse and not very crispy. I don’t do a lot of deep-frying, so I don’t really know why… oil not hot enough? I think if I tried to do a cornmeal based coating again, I would use a wet batter rather than dry cornmeal coating. You live and learn.

I’d definitely do the cornbread again, though. Yummy.

So, roll on Algeria!

Football advertising

As all the sportswear manufacturers unveil their big ad campaigns in the run-up to the World Cup, the one which has been the biggest hit is Nike’s epic Write the Future.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly impressive, if only for the sheer amount of money thrown at the screen. And while it’s conceptually and narratively a bit chaotic, it has some amusing moments and striking images. But it’s all about fame and glory and money and glamour and even more fame. It is the self-importance of football writ large. I miss the days when ads used to make football look, you know, entertaining. Even fun.

So I prefer this one, for Puma:

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

So, the World Cup is almost upon us, and inevitably our attention has been narrowed in on the nervy minutiae of squad selections and injury worries and tactical arguments. So before the action starts, can I just take a moment to say how fucking marvellous it is to see the World Cup being hosted in Africa.

I do understand that there are commercial and practical reasons why the USA and Japan both got to host the tournament before an African nation, but it’s not particularly edifying to watch a desparate FIFA trying to break America like some bloated, bombastic Robbie Williams.

How much nicer it is to see the World Cup finally go to the third great heartland of football, somewhere where the locals will be hugely excited to have it. And having seen the ICC manage to host a cricket tournament in the West Indies without any Caribbean atmosphere, let’s hope that the clammy corporate hand of FIFA doesn’t manage to drain all the Africanness out of the experience.

Criced!

That’s ‘cricket’ in Welsh, since the first Ashes test is being held in Cardiff. Assuming the rain holds off long enough for them to play, that is: it’s certainly not very promising in London, but of course it hardly ever rains in Wales.

Come on, England.

Yay for Twenty20 cricket.

I’ve really been enjoying the Twenty20 World Cup, and the more I see of twenty-over cricket and the more it matures as a game, the the more I think it’s a brilliant invention.

Someone has finally invented a form of the game where every ball is interesting. Before it started, the assumption was that T20 would be all about sixes; but it’s equally true that it’s all about dot balls. I mean really, a form of cricket where a dot ball is an exciting event: it’s a fucking miracle.

And I love the fact that it legitimises six-hitting. Even Test-cricket purists love to see big sixes. But really, in Test cricket, it’s a self-indulgent shot; the shot of a show-off. You can argue, perhaps, that it’s a valuable weapon in the psychological battle between bowler and batsman; and there are a few situations, like hastening a declaration or when a batsman is running out of partners, where it makes more sense; but the honest truth is that usually the extra two runs are just not worth the risk.*

In 20 over cricket, though, where run rates are so important, it is an entirely reasonable calculated risk. Even in Twenty20 there’s a risk of overvaluing sixes; it’s noticeable that the most successful batsman of the tournament, Tillekeratne Dilshan, is not a big six-hitter, and has racked up most of his runs as fours. But it is certainly a legitimate shot, and as a supporter you can just enjoy the spectacle, without that queasy sense that it’s all about to go pear-shaped.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the different pleasures of Test cricket. Admittedly, it can be the most tedious game in the world. But at its best, the slowness of Test cricket is its great strength. It’s the gradual ratcheting up of tension, the shifting balance of bat and ball, the psychological endurance needed for a long innings. At its best it doesn’t just produce exciting moments, it produces engrossing passages of play that develop over an hour or an afternoon — which is why it never works that well as highlights. It’s seeing the batsman playing and missing over and over, the ball whistling past off stump, that creates the atmosphere for the release of tension when the batsmen hits a beautiful straight drive for four — or the bowler sends the off stump cartwheeling.

But if we are going to have a short form of the game, then let’s get rid of the fifty over game, which is neither one thing or the other, and so often drifts towards a result which is entirely predictable with twenty overs to go.

And incidentally, if there were ever two countries who were in need of a bit of light relief to distract them from the more dismal realities of their domestic politics, it would be Pakistan and Sri Lanka. So let’s hope for a great final.

* Kevin Pietersen has played the same number of tests, 52, as Don Bradman; Bradman scored six sixes, KP has scored 48. Bradman converted 70% of his 50s into centuries and 29% into double or triple centuries. KP has converted 53% of his 50s into 100s, which is actually pretty good, but only scored one double hundred. Admittedly, comparing anyone to Bradman is a bit harsh. But still.

» The photo, Brooding sky @ the cricket, is © Mark Elkins and used under a CC by-nc licence. I suppose it’s a bit odd to illustrate the post with a shot of the groundstaff preparing the pitch instead of the actual play, but I liked the shot.

How to reform the FA Cup

My solution to the periodic handwringing about how to make the FA Cup more popular again, and as a bonus, to reform the UEFA Cup as well.

It’s simple: make the UEFA Cup an extension of the FA Cup. The genius of the FA Cup is that the format maximises the chance of shock results. No group stage, no seeding, no ties played over two legs with the away goals rule: just straight knockout competition, winner takes all. It has a similar conceptual purity to the league; in the league, every team plays every other team home and away and you tally up the points. In the FA Cup, you just put all the names into a hat to decide who plays who, and the winner gets to stay in the competition. And whereas the league is set up to decide which is the best team in the country in the fairest, most objective way possible, the FA Cup is just the opposite: it maximises the impact of luck. And that’s a good thing. It provides a counterpoint to the league.

Now there are practical reasons why we can’t have a proper European league running in parallel to the domestic leagues, but the Champion’s League does its best to provide something similar: with a seeded group stage and ties played over two games, it maximises the chances that the big names get through to the later stages. Cynically, you might say that’s because the big names pull the big TV audiences; but it does also mean that whoever wins the competition has a good claim to being the best team in Europe.

What Europe needs to complement this ‘league’ is a proper cup competition: the four semifinalists from every national cup competition in Europe being entered into an unseeded cup which is straightforward knockout football from beginning to end. And if Barcelona gets drawn against Manchester United in the first round, well, that’s the luck of the draw. And if Juventus get knocked out in the first round after a flukey goal and a lung-busting defensive performance by a team in the Polish second division: that’s part of the fun.

Of course for this to work, you would need all the top teams to take part. They’d have to play both in the Champion’s League and the new-format UEFA Cup. And that gives you scheduling problems. But if you could find a way to do it — you could exempt teams in the UEFA Cup from having to play in the League Cup, for a start — it would be such a fab competition. Are you listening, Michel Platini?

Hot News!

Forget the elections about to be held in the Canada/Mexico area, forget the way the Dow Jones and the FTSE are chasing each other up and down like a pair of territorial squirrels who both want the same tree trunk, something really newsworthy is happening.

Argentina have apparently picked a new manager for their national football team, and it is the one, the only: Diego Maradona.

Employing a man with minimal management experience, who is a drug cheat, a cheat cheat, a political radical, a cocaine user, someone whose weight problem lead to him having a gastric bypass: what could possibly go wrong?

It’s as though they saw Newcastle United pick Kevin Keegan as manager and thought ‘Call that soap opera? Hell, we can do better than that.’

[Seriously, though, watch the video: it’s four and a half minutes of pure joy. Even when he’s scoring against England.]

Final Olympic round-up

Well, I thought the London 2012 segment of the closing ceremony was… OK.

The whole bus stop routine was underwhelming, and the presence of David Beckham seemed a bit random, but the moment when the bus opened up like a flower was a striking image, as was Leona Lewis raising up into the air with her frilly dress trailing down behind her. And while Led Zep isn’t my kind of music — or indeed remotely contemporary, by pop standards — it did just about manage to cut through the slightly oppressive grandiosity of the Chinese ceremony. So I’ll give it a solid 6½/10. For the London opening ceremony they need to bring that up to at least 8½, but for the time being I can live with that.

Usain Bolt on Flickr, used under a CC by-sa licence.

My sporting highlight of the games was Usain Bolt. No points for originality there. I know I said the other day that the sprint events were overrated, but for once they really lived up the hype. Watching someone beat the field by such a large margin and apparently so easily was almost surreal. It just shouldn’t be possible to do that.

I suppose I ought to name-check Michael Phelps, although as all his races were on in the middle of the night, I never really engaged with his story in the same way. Is he now The Greatest Olympian Ever? Well, I suppose he might be. It’s not that he won 8 medals in Beijing: sure, that’s incredible, but I still think the greatest individual achievement at a single Games was Emil Zátopek winning the 5000m, 10000m and marathon in 1952. But if you add the five golds from Athens, Phelps has completely dominated the swimming at two Olympics now, and that might be enough to secure his place as The Greatest. Apparently he’s planning to compete in 2012: if he could come to London and win another three or four golds, that really would put him in a class of his own.

Speaking of Zatopek: OMG, the Ethiopians in the long-distance running. To have Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele both manage the 5000/10000 double was amazing. And particularly the women’s 10k and the men’s 5k; to see them sprint so easily away from the rest of the field at the end of a very fast-run race was almost as impressive in its way as Usain Bolt in the sprints. Bekele ran the last mile in under four minutes; I know the four-minute mile isn’t a big deal any more to a professional athlete, but to run one at the end of a fast 5000m… lawks.

And there’s Britain coming in fourth place on the medals table. Fourth! In Atlanta we came 36th. So three cheers for Christine Ohuruogu, Rebecca Adlington, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Rebecca Romero, Nicole Cooke, and all the other medal winners whose names don’t spring to mind.

» photo credit: Beijing Olympics: Usain Bolt Breaks The World Record (Men’s 100 Meters) by Richard Giles, used under a Creative Commons by-sa licence.

A thought on the Olympics

While I wait anxiously to see whether London’s contribution to the closing ceremony is horribly naff, here’s a thought: since the Games are so huge and expensive to host, perhaps the future would be to split them up between lots of different places. Embrace the technology of global communication. That way, countries that could never afford to host the whole thing could bid to host just one sport.

For two weeks, there would always be some Olympic sport going on somewhere in the world; you’d be watching the boxing from Cairo, and then the broadcaster might cut to the sailing in Biarritz, or the swimming in Miami, or the cycling in Kuala Lumpur, or the gymnastics in Prague.

You’d lose something — that sense of the attention of the World all being focussed in on one spot — but it would turn it into a truly global event. And that might be quite special as well.

More Olympiana

Watching someone put on a burst of pace at the end of a fast 10000m is one of the best sights in sport. Amazing stuff from Tirunesh Dibaba.

And so much more exciting to watch than the sprinters.

The Olympic sport I’d like to see

I was thinking about whether Michael Phelps is the ‘greatest Olympian of all time’, and the relative value of medals in different events. For example, the fact that it’s even possible to enter eight events at the same Games means that Phelps has a medal-collecting advantage over, say, a boxer. And the 52 gold medals available in rowing (fourteen events, but multiple people in each boat) seems a lot for a sport with such limited global participation: those events are surely less competitive than, say, the athletics.

So how to go about levelling the field? Well, you could start by cutting events; certainly from the rowing, and probably the fencing (currently 10 events), canoeing (16), judo (14), shooting (15) and wrestling (18). But you still might need to introduce new events to the more competitive sports. In athletics, there’s clearly room for a 50m race, a 300m, a 600m, maybe 2000m and 8000m; we could revive the standing long-jump and high-jump; and learning from the swimmers, there must be room for 4x200m and 4x800m relays. If we got really desperate, we could take an idea from the boxers and weightlifters: have weight classes for the throwing events. The featherweight javelin: it’s an idea whose time has come.

But the sport which is clearly most underrepresented in Olympic medals is the most popular sport of them all: soccer. At the moment there are only two events — men and women — so with 18 players in each squad, that’s a maximum of 36 gold medals, less than are currently awarded in the rowing. So we need some new events. Obviously you’d start with an indoor/five-a-side tournament: what FIFA calls futsal; beach soccer also seems like a plausible idea. Wikipedia reveals the existence of a baffling-sounding Norwegian variant called Synchronised Football. And a penalty shootout tournament might be interesting, too.

But the one which has got me most excited is: keepy-uppy. It is, after all, like a slightly blokier version of rhythmic gymnastics. And the possibilities are endless: there’s the classic version, with the player performing a routine and being marked for the difficulty and style of his tricks. You could have doubles keepy-uppy, with two players keeping the ball in the air between them. There’s endurance keepy-uppy, although as the world record is over 19 hours, that would be a hell of an event to stage. There’s the keepy-uppy 100m sprint. And of course the magic of synchronised keepy-uppy.

I am joking about most this, but actually I would love to see keepy-uppy (or, if you prefer, freestyle football) as an Olympic event. It would be fabulous. And it might actually be a good idea to introduce futsal, but as a replacement for normal soccer: that way football could still have a presence at the Olympics without just duplicating the World Cup.

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