Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Jet Stream

Britain’s summer of sport continues a heavy legged squelch through sodden conditions. Those dreams of shiny hot days of sport formed back in a baking May have rusted under jet stream driven downpours.

The test series between the Windies and England was a poorly attended damp squib, the one-day series more so. Racing has never seen so many fixtures abandoned in the main turf season. The British Grand Prix was played out in front of empty seats because petrolheads couldn’t get to flooded car parks. The build-up to Thursday Open at Lytham St Anne’s has dominated by observations on wind and climatic conditions. Andy Murray briefly lifted our spirits under a Centre Court roof that was pulled back and forth with the regularity of the shelf on a penny falls machine.

However, the tarnishing qualities of excessive rainfall are only partly responsible for the unsettled mood hanging over sport just now.

This week’s disturbing revelations in a Westminster Magistrates Court show the extent of the dark place in which football resides. Rarely has the meaning and nuance of such vitriolic abuse been analysed as microscopically as it was in the John Terry racism case. The shoddy, degrading, offensive nature of football has been exposed in the full glare of publicity. Simon Hattenstone’s article paints a depressing picture of long-standing ignorance, ineptitude and intransigence about recognising and dealing with corrosive racism.

The mood I’m in right now, it would take plenty of evidence to convince me that the game isn’t rotten to its very core at every level. Racism and general offensiveness are not the only problems. Add in a fanbase with a bent towards regular violence (most recently played out in the grandstand of Newbury racecourse on Saturday); allegations of bungs, corruption and bribery at the very top of the world governing body (awarding the 2018 World Cup to Qatar makes my nostrils itch with the smell of burning money) which cascades through tiers of the domestic game; right through to aggression, interference and intimidation on the part of fathers at their sons’ Sunday morning football and a picture emerges of a game in crisis. We lurch towards another over-hyped Premier League season with the prospect of players diving, cheating and pressurising officials; managers coaching them to do so; ignorant tribal fans sending death threats (and in some cases letter bombs) willy nilly to players, managers, board members or officials; owners running down and over-committing clubs for personal profit or ego-mania; and the media telling us this is the greatest game in the world.

Glebe Park 
‘Miserable bastard’, you scowl. Maybe. Though I have found some bright spots. I was cheered to see Scottish football club owners refusing to be intimidating by the SPL’s threats of financial ruin and instead banishing newco Rangers to Scottish League 3. Quite right. The management and resource atrocities committed at the former club should not be swept away so easily. Take your medicine and enjoy the view from the corporate box at Glebe Park. Brechin City will be a welcoming host. And a few capacity crowds at the lower league clubs wouldn’t be the worst thing for the sustainability of Scottish football.

Accentuating the positive, I loved watching Spain’s authoritative defence of the European Championships, sweeping away slights about a boring passing game with a gorgeous demolition of a pretty useful Italy outfit.

For all my bellyaching about football, I do want to reserve a modicum of unvented spleen for the Olympics, too. I accept that Jacques Rogge has done a lot to clean up the IOC since the monumental Salt Lake City bribery scandal, but so much controversy lingers on – witness the 27 Olympic officials and agents who were caught selling tickets for London 2012 on the black market last month.

The rampant commercialism and image protection around the modern Games sticks in my craw: this “heavily branded corporate monster, devouring a city in which it is staged before moving on to the next” (Owen Gibson). Stories about police having to empty their crisps into unmarked plastic bags and a children’s guard-of-honour being requested to wear adidas trainers are designed to wind me up in the same way that the reports of EU technocrats demanding straight bananas and the renaming of Cornish pasties are aimed directly at the bile of Little Englanders. And I rise to it every time. Probably because I loath being manipulated by corporate sponsorship more than I loath being manipulated by the press. But I accept that some of this is necessary to deliver an event that will not bankrupt the Country. I just wish we could have lower ticket prices, more contracts for local companies and less kow-towing to big business. And less of the brand police tormenting independent bakers, for God’s sake!

I remain, though, a fan of the Olympics. As a family we have tickets for swimming finals, football semi-finals and handball group matches. I’m really looking forward to them. I can’t wait to be part of it. I will become immersed in the action, developing an instant expertise in the tactics of BMX racing, modern pentathlon and taekwondo that will allow me to scream advice and encouragement to any British competitors with an outside chance of making the rostrum. I’ll pay hawk-like attention to the medals table as if it is a 6f sprint (as long as we beat the Germans, eh?), and I’ll be bottom-lip-quivery when Mark Cavendish flies down The Mall on Sunday 28th to bag Britain’s first gold. (Surely it has to be?)

And what of horse racing in this sodden Summer? We’ve seen the emergence of a top quality three year old in Camelot and the confirmation of two great champions in Frankel and Black Caviar. On the down-side there has been the carnage of water-logged courses and too many good races run on bad ground. But the tarnishing quality of controversy has been seen here too. At Worcester last week, a number of high profile jumps trainers caused the walk-over of a race by withdrawing their horses in a concerted action to protest at the low levels of prize money on offer. I happen to think that the bookies and the courses have it too much their own way and prize money in this country is woeful in comparison with, frankly, anywhere else. But this is not such a simple debate. The Guardian’s racing journo Greg Wood lit a fire under the protest by calling into question the motivations of these trainers, arguing that they were the “already minted demanding more”. The full arguments are here and are worth reading.

So as I look forward to the Olympics, to The Open, to England taking on the South Africans for top test team status and to a second half of an increasingly intriguing flat season, I note that the jet stream is heading back north, where it belongs, heralding the chance of a break in the rainclouds. Golden light shining on a healthy dollop of spectacular sport will do wonders for my gloomy outlook. Though I fear it will take more than a few rays of the sun’s glare to buff up football’s tawdry image.

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