Both The Mail and The Independent led with pretty much the same headline, comparing Wayne Rooney’s world with that of what they described as ‘the real world’. Credit to them both. Jonathan Brown for The Independent summed the story up thus;

‘..the opulence of Wayne’s world and his historic record-breaking deal stands in stark contrast to the other news that rocked the city this week. It is now estimated that 40,000 people in the Greater Manchester area will lose their jobs as a result of chancellor George Osborne’s plan to cut £83bn from public spending to fight the deficit.

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Olympic Legacy: Going, Going, Gone

I’ve been trying to think if there are any positives to the thirteen years of Labour Party government. The negatives are all too obvious. I suppose there was Sure Start, which bravely attempted to break the cycle of deprivation and low aspiration. Then there was devolution which, as Europe becomes inevitably more of a centralised authority, was a definite step in the democratic direction. The minimum wage, paltry as it is, and feebly enforced as it, again was a tiny but significant step in the direction away from workplace exploitation.

And rarely acknowledged, but socially useful all the same, was the Labour administration’s efforts to resurrect school sport via, amongst other things, the school- sport partnerships. Along with sport colleges and community coaching programmes, Britain took a few brave steps towards its European partners in terms of school and community sports provision. Well, it’s all gone now!

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The Agnostic Mr Barnes.

In a cleverly crafted piece on the rise and fall of sporting empires, institutions and individuals, Simon Barnes, writing in The Times 22/10/10 shows why he is light years ahead of the rest of the journalistic pack, with only fellow Times correspondent, Matt Syed, able to match him for depth and dimension. True, The Guardian has excellent investigative journalists with the likes of David Conn and Owen Gibson, but neither seem to have that ability to touch on the soft human underbelly of sport in the way that Barnes regularly achieves. Yes, sport has become a big nasty industry with all that goes with it; yes it is the new opiate of the masses; and yes it is extremely extravagant in the face of local and global poverty. But sport is still more than that. It has something of the essential human condition that so many sports journalists seem to miss. Not so Mr Barnes.

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The Three Trillion Dollar War, Joseph Stiglitz, Penguin, London, 2008

Ever wondered where all the money goes? Ever wondered why even in the richest countries in the world, Americans and the Brits struggle to get their schools funded, their health care sorted and their leisure facilities up-dated? It’s been the same old story over the decades and next week we are told things in the UK are going to get a whole lot worse.

Ok, we know that a few billion are regularly siphoned off in city bonuses and quite a few more billion are sloshing around in the off shore bank accounts of a handful of obscenely rich entrepreneurs, industry barons, currency speculators and general city spivs. We will never forget that great little one-liner; ‘behind every great fortune lies a great crime.’ The truth of that little saying grows louder by the day. But, in the general scheme of things, this stuff is small change. The really big money, it seems, is tied up in the military- industrial complex, where the sums are ultimately measured in trillions rather than millions and billions. So next time you’re out trying to raise a few quid to keep your local sports centre open, just take the time to read Joseph Stiglitz’s, ‘The Three Trillion Dollar War’ and you will get a blunt reminder of where the big money, our public money, is going.

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The Geopolitics of the Ryder Cup

Have you ever been bemused by the incongruity of the European Champions League draw or, for that matter, any of the draws for contemporary European football? Kazakhstan is there and so is Azerbaijan and Armenia. Many of the republics of the former Soviet Union are included. Georgia is there as are the Baltic Republics. Israel gets itself an invite as does Turkey. By any stretch of the geographical imagination, this is truly an expanded Europe. In fact, a more accurate name for these sporting fixtures might be the Eurasia Cup. Don’t misunderstand me, I am more than happy to see this expanded ‘Europe’ battling it out on the playing fields, but I do marvel at how audacious Uefa has become in unilaterally redefining the European continent.

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The Commonwealth Games: Hail the Indian Sub-Continent

Approximately one in five of the human race live in what is generally referred to as the Indian sub-continent, a geographical area that includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and of course India itself. Within this geographical region there have been civilizations since the dawn of human history, many of which have been at the cutting edge of our collective understanding of mathematics, science and the arts. Consider these few lines;

‘Scientific inquiry flourished alongside religious mysticism. The highest intellectual achievement of the subcontinent was in mathematics. By 200 BC detailed geometry was making possible the calculations for arcs and segments of chords. Romano-Greek science made its influence felt in southern India, but mathematics went beyond Ptolemy’s method of reckoning in terms of chords and circles to reckoning in sines, thereby initiating the study of trigonometry. This was followed by the perfection of the decimal system, the solution of certain indeterminate equations, an accurate calculation of the value of pi by Aryabhata and, by the 7th century AD at the latest, the use of zero, something unknown to the Greeks and Romans.’ (A Peoples History of the World, Chris Harman, Verso, London, 2008) P52

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The Selfish Gene Revisited

Frans de Waal, a leading primatology professor, gave a thought-provoking synopsis of his latest research ( The Age of Empathy: Nature’s lesson for a Kinder Society) in the Sunday Observer 19/9/10. This research once again throws doubt on the prevailing wisdom that sport, and life generally, are primarily governed by our animalistic, competitive human natures. De Waal gets straight to the point in his articulate summation when asked by Robin McKie about the importance of empathy in the evolution of Homo Sapians;

‘It (empathy) has been extremely important. It holds our societies together and drives us to care for the sick and the elderly for example. It also allows us to get on in cities. Chimpanzees – which can be very tolerant of others – would simply not put up with being surrounded by strangers of their own species and would start killing one another. Humans do not do this. They put up with masses of strangers around them. In that sense we are very strange: we can tolerate others in huge numbers.’

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What better place to start in order to get a handle on the ever expanding bubble that is the English Premier League than Ha-Joon Chang’s smart little indictment of ‘free-market capitalism’. This book is tailor-made for understanding just why the EPL might be heading for one almighty implosion. Portsmouth FC might very well be just the tip of the iceberg. If ever there was an industry that had all the hallmarks of the free-market model, it is the EPL, complete with unsustainable mountains of debt, extreme light touch regulation bordering on zero regulation, and a business model that puts immediate profit gratification well ahead of any long term R&D and investment in the future.

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In My Dreams I Dance, Anne Wafula Strike, Harper True, London, 2010

In a welcome relief to my usual cynical sporting blog, it is great to be able to report on a greatly uplifting human sporting tale. Anne Wafula, in her book, ‘In My Dreams I Dance’, paints a beautiful autobiographical picture of her life from a healthy young Kenyan baby struck down with polio, through to her amazing achievements in both Kenyan and later British Paralympics wheelchair racing. The tale is simply written, though much that is inspiring in the human condition shines through. The battle against disability prejudice, particularly in Africa, is cleverly contrasted both with all that is hopeful and communal in the African village, and also all that is efficient but soulless and individualistic in our European cities and towns. Here is a book that is destined for the school curriculum where issues of race, disability and what it is to be human can be easily accessed by school children of all ages. As an ambassador for the rights and possibilities of people with disabilities, this book will have few equals.

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Women Hold Up Half the Sky

 ‘Women hold up half the sky’, said Mao Tse-tung many decades ago. It’s one of my favourite and more memorably slogans from my utopian and somewhat infantile student days, but the slogan still has  resonance, and is a poignant reminder of just how patriarchal and misogynistic our world still is. Recently, a host of disparate events, some with a sporting backdrop, have come to the fore, and taken together, they paint a very grim picture of the current status of women on planet Earth. Metaphorically, and numerically of course, women do hold up half the sky, but in real earthly terms women are still labouring to free themselves from the fetters of feudal bondage. That may seem extreme but consider the following.

 

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Mother Russia Woos FIFA

Two very contradictory articles appeared in The Guardian 10/9/10 concerning Russia and its future prospects. The first was a Guardian Editorial 10/9/10 outlining both the grim economic prospects of post-Soviet Russia and also the autocratic nature of its power structures. On the economic front the editorial reads;

 

‘Russia itself is languishing. Its economy contracted by nearly 8% last year, its worst annual economic performance since 1994, and – despite being so dependent on the  stuff – it is producing less oil now than the Soviet Union did in the 1970’s. Russia’s economy has shrunk twice in the last decade, and deindustrialisation is making itself felt in Russia’s mono-cities – those reliant on a single industry.’

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Cricket Reflects Life.

Cricket, like sport generally, is but a reflection of life itself. Nothing particularly profound or original in that. Everything we see in sport, be it the highly professional, highly commercialised, highly globalised version, or the stuff at the other end of the spectrum, the local school or club match with nothing but pride and a cheap shiny trophy at stake, reflects what’s all around us. How could it be otherwise? Nothing exists in a vacuum and sport is no exception.  

 

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The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 2006

Attracted by the title as much as anything, I started reading Dawkins latest offering, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’. I liked the title because it seemed to be a direct salvo at FIFA and the IOC, who grandiosely like to call their respective tournaments the very same thing. Having recently suffered through the FIFA World Cup Final in South Africa, where Holland played ninety minutes of what Johan Cruyff described as, ‘anti-football’, I sure as hell knew I was not witnessing the greatest show on Earth.

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The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson, Bloomsbury, London, 2010

I first came across Jacobson the writer at his launch of his ‘Mighty Walzer’, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in 1950’s Manchester with hard-bat table tennis as a constant backdrop to a young life emerging from the Jewish Diaspora of that city. I remember it as a cracking tale which definitely deserves a second reading and an accompanying review for this blog. At the launch  of the book, in the basement of his then publishers,  Random House, a number of table tennis tables were set up (that’s where I came into things) so that the publishing agents could indulge themselves in  copious quantise of free booze and a game or two of ping. I managed to get a game in against Jacobson but the result was somewhat academic given that he was three parts gone. Thanks to Jacobson novel, readers now have a window into the wonderful world of 1950’s hard-bat ping pong that would otherwise, in this age of highly technologically designed equipment, be in grave danger of disappearing from the collective consciousness.

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The Great Game, The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn

It’s not what you think. ‘The Great Game’ here does not refer to the glorious English Premier League nor the Champions League nor FIFA’s World Cup, nor any other activity that might generally fit under the universal sporting umbrella. No, here the term refers to that bloody game of sport between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia in the nineteenth century for control of Afghanistan, a battle that has now spanned three centuries and shows no sign of exhaustion. The motive for such warlike activity in the 19th century was principally to secure control of India, the jewel in the British Imperial crown. Today the motive might more accurately be described as securing strategic control of the vast mineral reserves in that area, though this has been cleverly obscured by much talk of a never-ending war on terror. 

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Marina Hyde takes off the gloves: Olympic Notes No 2

Praise be to the sporting gods. It is not only Matthew Syed and myself who have had a gut-full of Olympic hype. Marina Hyde writing in the back pages of The Guardian 26/08/10  gets right down to her bare knuckles and lays one fair and square on the nose of the IOC, while landing a sharp kick to the FIFA groin whiles she’s at it. I send her my hearty congratulations. Just cast your eyes over her opening salvo to get a taste of what she has in store.

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