Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Peaking


Turn your back for a week and it all happens. Whilst I’ve been successfully dodging showers in the Peak District in between a couple of great weekends in God’s Own County, sport has been spilling over into front page news again.

As we were driving up the A1(M) somewhere near Doncaster last Saturday, the Pietersen text and twitter tales were still rumbling on. This man is a headline grabber par excellence. At the time, I was willing Jonny Bairstow towards his maiden test ton. My phone, with its cricket app jammed open, was slipping out of my sweaty palms and I was explaining to Mrs A about Jonny’s father, David and his tragic suicide, and just how much this hundred might mean to the family and to the general cricket loving population. I watched Bairstow senior play on many occasions. I can still recall the shock of hearing about his death in 1998. I was on a Tenerifan holiday enjoying 90 degrees of heat that did nothing to melt the chill that swept through me.

After some uncertain efforts earlier in the Summer against the Windies, Jonny Bairstow had acquired a misplaced reputation for unease against bouncers. Recalled here to replace Pietersen, he faced the inevitable chin music reception hosted by Stein, Morkel and co. Geoff Boycott’s was commenting on TMS that Friday evening. His voice was cracked with emotion as he tried hard to stay level-headed about Bairstow’s chances. “He’s a fine lad. He’s got quality. His Dad was one of my best mates and then he did that silly, silly thing…”.

Bairstow was proving critics wrong left, right and centre under the heaviest of pressure and the most searching examination. But he could not bear my urgings from the inside a Zafira some 200 miles away. He fell for a superb 95. Not the Lord’s 100 and naming on the honours board that sentiment demanded, but nevertheless an innings of sufficient class, resolution and style to guarantee a run in the team. Pietersen, on the other hand remains a supreme talent but with character flaws deeper than the Marianas Trench. Betraying the trust of your captain and teammates to the opposition is about as bad as it gets. Cricket isn’t football quite yet. 

We pulled off the A1(M) and grabbed lunch in a Little Chef. It was like stepping back in time. I’d forgotten how bad these places were. Plastic chairs, slow service, crap food. Daughter No 1 commented that our hapless waitress looked like Peter Kay. So we ordered garlic bread and cheese cake, just to be on the safe side.

After visiting my Dad and brother where we watched England struggle to a small innings lead, we headed over to Scarborough for a couple of nights. This resort on the surface seems as popular as ever, even though the reality is one of slow decline. Too many run down buildings, hotels and shops that hark back to a high water mark of Edwardian splendour. It’s a story typical of many traditional seaside resorts.


But the sweep of South Bay remains magnificent, especially that evening when low golden sunshine reflected back an oily sea and picked out the Norman castle commanding the headland and over to the lighthouse beyond the harbour wall. A scene largely unchanged throughout the town’s glory years. And being touched by tradition, we met up with the folks for a family meal. A spanking hot Thai medley in a restaurant by the cricket ground.

As England laboured against a solid South African top order the next day, we met up with the extended family for lunch at Claughton on the old Scarborough to Whitby road. The Queen came to Claughton this Spring on her Jubilee tour. She had a drink in the village pub. I hope she and had a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord. Splendid stuff. And then we visited Ravenscar where one of the finest views of the north east coast is to be discovered. The Raven Hall hotel was once envisaged as the centrepiece of a new Victorian resort high on this spare cliff top. Roads were laid out, drains installed, a brick works built. But nobody came. Only a handful of plots were sold. Over by the remains of the station platform it is possible to pick out the pattern of streets that would have formed the nucleus of the town. The development company finally went bust in 1908. The station closed in the 1950’s. And now there are a few houses, a tea shop, and a hotel with that view. But don’t you just love the ambition of those Victorians?

Atkinson Clan (courtesy of Uncle Roland)
Ravenscar
I had to depart back home at this point for a job interview the next day. Yes, in the middle of my holiday. Long story, don’t feel you have to ask. Inevitably the train was late getting me back to Berko. But it meant that I got my presentation finished and I was clued up and sharp for the interview. However, that delay was nothing compared to the one the next morning. A derailment at Bletchley meant there were no trains heading into the Smoke at all. No chance of meeting my scheduled appointment. I even taxied over to Chesham in the hope of a Metropolitan Line tube to town. But it was all too late. My prospective employers rang to say, effectively, “Don’t bother”. Who could blame them? I was wretched and enraged. Julie and Callum were joining us in the Peaks and I was still scaldingly touchy when they graciously came to pick me up. I’m sorry to say I rather selfishly unloaded. Julie’s ears were bleeding by the time I navigated us off the wrong roundabout junction in Chesterfield when that large Audi 4x4 narrowly missed slamming into the near-side door. I noted that the driver’s eyebrows were even more knitted than mine at that point and he was mouthing a few expletives I hadn’t yet used. I was starting the feel better…

England had made a decent fist of overhauling the Proteas’ demanding target of 346. Bairstow had ignited a fire with his 54 from 47 balls, alongside Trott who made a stout 63. Prior, Broad and Swann had then taken up the cudgels. Prior was superb, rattling the opposition for a good few minutes after tea, with Swann heaving some magnificent sixes over long leg. But his demise sparked the rapid end of the game. I’d rather see England go down in flames in this particular situation. A draw would have meant nothing. They had been well beaten by a very strong team who deserve their newly acquired No1 Test Team ranking. England have lost ground ince last year. The Pietersen saga cannot have helped.

Once at our well-appointed pine lodge, nestling in a park 600 feet above Matlock, I recovered some equilibrium. Mrs A was already there and the girls had busily allocated bedrooms, bathrooms and sports equipment. Yes, this was to be an activity break. So in between bouts of crazy golf, insane table-tennis and tomfool hot tubbery, I managed to get some study in for the Ebor meeting. My only wins came on International Day. I’ve followed Thought Worthy to distraction this season, having been convinced that his close 2nd to Imperial Monarch back in the Derby trial through ankle-deep Sandown mud was worth more than the form book had so far showed. He ran with credit in the Derby, and there was less than a length between him, Noble Mission and Thomas Chippendale next time out. Those three were re-opposing here in the Great Voltigeur. Main Sequence brought the best form, but the 9-1 still looked like a value play in this tight renewal of the Great Voltigeur. Without bold front-running tactics from Buick, the sectionals seem to suggest (for those that buy into them) that Thought Worthy would have been lucky to hold on with a more even pace. I’ll take that. Dermot Weld’s Olympiad rounded off a good day for me in the 2m handicap. 

Of course the headline grabber at York was Frankel. We are now running out of superlatives. Racing two furlongs further than in any of his other outings was absolutely no hindrance. He has too much pace. The Arc in October, another two furlongs up in trip, is not beyond the pale if rumblings in the market are to be believed. But that's a very precarious position to take. Timeform awarded him the highest timefigure of the 21st century. Everyone else called him simply the best horse of all time. It was tremendous to see Sir Henry Cecil make it to the track for the first time since Royal Ascot. He paid considered and thoughtful respects to the northern racegoers.

The rest of the week was energetically expended down dale, up hill, across tennis court, in swimming pool and astride Norton superbikes (in the games room). 

Two Dales
The Roaches 
Heights of Abraham
I also had plenty of time to pick out a string of losers in the remaining days of the Ebor meeting. So only a smidgeon of profit on the week. I missed some of the racing, but Dubai Prince, Rosdhu Queen and Blaine impressed me. And surely The Fugue will win again.

We returned to Yorkshire at the weekend and celebrated my Dad’s 75th birthday with a meal at The White Swan, surely one of the finest pubs in North Yorkshire. Though there are many with strong claims. (I feel a blog post coming on…).  And we also got out to Bempton Cliffs for a walk down to Flamborough and back in beautiful crystal clear air revealing a horizon so sharp you could cut your finger on it.
Bempton
Flamborough
During the weekend I’d had chance to digest the third piece of headline-grabbing sports news: the fall from grace of Lance Armstrong. This has been a long time coming. Allegations of drug misuse have dogged him for years. Critics have alluded to the use of his LiveStrong charity and furious fundraising as smokescreens and diversions. Finally the persistence and tenacity of the US Doping Agency caught up with him. Armstrong declined to defend in court the allegations of persistent EPO abuse. Not quite an admission of guilt, but enough to see him immediately stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. Somehow the denouement came about very quickly. It wasn’t so long ago that Daughter No 2 used Lance Armstrong as an example of a sporting hero because of the way he beat cancer and then went on to compete at the highest level. That much is still true. Armstrong’s legacy is a complicated beast. For instance, Bradley Wiggins, the most strident of anti-drugs competitors, has remarked that Armstrong massively broadened the appeal of road racing and brought thousands out to watch the races. But of course, none of that justifies cheating.

I’m back home now. Shaking the Peak dust from my leisure wear and ready to engage nose with grindstone. Just one more back-page-transcending sports event to report on. The Paralympic Torch comes through Berkhamsted late tonight in its 24 hour relay from Stoke Mandeville to the Olympic Stadium. We are looking forward to cheering it through. 


Monday, 13 August 2012

Top Ten Olympic moments

The Games are over and I’m doing cold turkey. To keep the adrenaline surging, here are my favourite mainstream and off-beat highlights.

1. FlyMo
This is an entirely predictable choice to head the list. But unashamedly so. Mo Farah, the brilliant Somaliland Londoner joined a small band of truly great British runners on an emotional final night of athletics when he brought home the 5,000m gold to add to his memorable 10,000m victory the week before.

On that first Super Saturday we had been in the Olympic Park and were still tripping on exhilaration by the time we got home to watch Mo’s race. Something about being exposed to the highly charged atmosphere of the Games had turned Mrs A into a distance running tactical genius. After only a couple of laps, she was belting out considered advice to Farah about his track position and pace. “What are you doing back there? Get up amongst them!” It clearly worked.

For the 5,000m final, we were at Granny’s. There is obviously something in the genes, because unbelievably, she too is a top level race analyst. From the gun, it was “Go on Mo, you need to be nearer. That’s no good, don’t let them get away. Are you really trying?” For my part, I was the doubting thomas. Confidence dented by his lacklustre qualification and convinced this was too big an ask, I spent the final 600 metres predicting doom. “They’re lining up behind him! He can’t hang on! He can’t shake them off” But his control was extraordinary. His confidence unshakeable. His pace judgement imperious. Mo wound the speed up by small increments and would not let anyone pass. At 200 out he turned both taps on and kept finding more. Only Gabremeskel from Ethiopia looked like a threat in the home straight. And then only briefly.

This was an awesome display. Brendan Foster gushed that it was the greatest single moment in British athletic history. I initially baulked at that. And then I thought, well, what else would be up there? Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute barrier, maybe? But that wasn’t in the Olympics. Coe and Ovett’s mid-80’s middle distance medal domination? Arguably they are devalued by being achieved in boycotted games. Thomson, Lewis and Ennis in multi-disciplinary Golds? Yes, but they weren’t single moments. So in fact I’m happy to go along with Brendan on that.

Later, in the aftermath of a brilliantly a stage-managed medal ceremony climax, Farah could be seen doing The Bolt and Usain was Mo-Bot-ing like a natural. An informal touch of mutual respect.

Mural on a wall in Brick lane
2. Angry Ben Ainslie
This is not so much what he won, but how he won it. Off his game and languishing somewhere clostrophobic in the Finn pack, three-time Gold medallist Ben Ainslie found some motivation at the expense of two of his competitors and channelled it ruthlessly to land a fourth. From the moment the series leader, Jonas Hogh-Christenson conspired with Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma mid race to allege a buoy infringement on the part of Ainslie, the Gold medal was in the bag. Ainslie immediately took a penalty turn – the standard price of such an infringement – rather than appeal after the race. He said of the incident, "They've made a big mistake. They've made me angry and you don't want to make me angry."

After his penalty turn, Ainslie fought back brilliantly, catching up 70 metres on the final downwind leg to overhaul Hogh-Christensen before crossing the finishing line and exploding in anger, pointing and shouting at the Dane.
He was still livid by the time he made it back to shore. He explained that he decided not to risk a protest post-race since he would have been outnumbered and might have been disqualified from the race.

The next day, the Briton hit back with a first and a third to narrow the gap to leader Jonas Hogh-Christensen to three points. In the Gold medal race two days later, Ainslie targeted his man and made sure he finished in front. Job done.

The clip of Ainslie’s outburst was shown on Gabby Logan’s evening highlights programme. John McEnroe and Michael Johnson, snuggled up on the couch that night, were both impressed. “Wow!” said Johnson. “That guy can talk trash!” said Mac, an expert in the field. I’ll never forget the steely look in Ainslie’s eyes. Wonderful stuff.

3. Bert le Clos
Chad le Clos did what had been unthinkable only a few weeks earlier and beat the great Michael Phelps in a dramatic final of the 200m butterfly. That was pretty remarkable. But this engaging, humble and respectful Olympian was completely upstaged by his father, Bert who was captured on camera in the midst of the packed banks of seating, gesticulating wildly, mouthing congratulations and waving flags.


Mark Foster was immediately dispatched to drag the exultant Bert le Clos to an interview with Clare Balding. He was brilliant. Talking whilst watching images of his pride and joy walking around the pool after the race, Bert kept shouting "unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable!", and "Look at him, he's beautiful, I love you". He noticeably jumped back and paused when he saw images of himself looking a touch on the large side on the BBC monitors. “Look at me”, he said holding his belly, “I’m sorry…” And then to Clare, “Is this going out live!”

Wonderful scenes. Bert went on, at a million miles an hour in clipped, hoarse Afrikaans tones, "I have never been so happy in my life … It's like I have died and gone to heaven. Whatever happens in my life from now on, it is plain sailing."

Inspire a generation? Well the swimming has certainly had an impact on Mrs A. Her breast stroke at the regular 7.30am Aquaspace session has come on a bomb. She’s adapted what she’s seen in the pool to develop a new breathing technique and is currently half way round Guernsey. In bite sized chunks, of course. Thank you Bert le Clos.

4. Judo medals
There was a brilliant piece in the paper that described a women’s judo bout as “to the uninitiated it is two very drunk women having a fight in a storm on the deck of a ferry.” But for Gemma Gibbons, judo looked like everything for a few brief moments. Following her victory over Tcheumeo of France, the report carries on, “a tearful Gibbons falls to her knees, points the sky and mouths ‘I love you, Mum’. A Disney director would cross out the scene on account of it being too corny”. But this is real life. And not a dry eye in the house. For the judokas who only appear on the big stage once every four years, this is genuine sentiment.

Bronze for British judo journeywoman Karina Bryant was in some ways even sweeter. There are stories circulating that only two months ago she was asking strangers for cash so she could buy a car to get to training. Bryant is four-time European champion but has never won an Olympic medal. Her participation here was threatened by a neck injury that requires surgery, but she chose to fight through it. At the fourth time of asking and at the mature age of 33, in front of her own passionate crowd, fighting an opponent 4 stone heavier, coming back from two-scores down, she claimed an emotional bronze. Karina was absolutely overcome with unbridled joy and pride. This was her last chance of Olympic recognition. She got it and it was fully earned.

5. The Republic of Yorkshire
How could I ignore the sensational story of Yorkshire’s stunning Olympic performance? God’s Own County bobbed along at a high water mark of 7th in the Medals Table as the Games entered their 2nd week and finished with a cool dozen gongs. Reports of tykes out-medalling Australia had Ian Thorpe making those eyes at Gabby Logan and mouthing “Eh up” and “Nah then”.

And it’s not all exported talent or tenuous linkage either. Jess Ennis still turns out for her local Sheffield club and scares the living daylights out of opponents as she jumps out of the bus for a regular season meet at the likes of Worksop and Retford. The awesome Brownlee brothers are based in West Yorkshire and train up and down Pennine slopes made of the same granite that forged their limbs. The story of their race can only grow more remarkable with time. Jonny had incurred a 15 second penalty for a cycling infringement. Alistair and he hatched a plan to go out severely hard in the final 10k to stretch out the field so that Jonny could complete his penalty and still have enough of a time buffer to land a medal. Alistair won and Jonny was third. The Guardian called it ‘Tear-jerking brilliance’.

I’m not entirely sure where all the other Yorkie medals have come from. There are some cyclists and rowers for sure. I like to think that the sphere of excellence is widespread. Who knows, maybe dressage Gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin can claim some Yorkshire heritage. I wouldn’t be surprised if her middle name is Arkengarthdale or some such...

6. Equestrianeous
Sticking with the gee-gees, here’s a big shout out to those barking mad showjumping course designers. What are they on? With every new competition, we were treated to increasingly outrageous symbols of Britain represented as jumping obstacles. Big Ben, the Cutty Sark, the Millennium Wheel… naval flags representing letters of the alphabet to spell out LONDON 2012. I kid you not. I even saw Stonehenge at one point, which brought
shades of Spinal Tap firmly to mind. “Break Like The Wind, Zara”.

And what are those letters around the dressage arena all about? According to the International Equestrian Federation, they just "appeared" for the first time in the 1920 Olympics held in Belgium. No-one has been able to find out the origins.

Greenwich has been a fantastic venue for the horsey events. It was one of the more controversial choices, but in fact the cross-country course winding through the park with views over the Thames was stunning. The arena set against the backdrop of the Royal Naval College provided some appropriate gravitas, too. I’m less convinced that Horse Guards Parade did the same for beach volleyball, though maybe that wasn’t the point...

7. Sitting down v standing up
The Aussies have this jibe that we are only good at sitting down events. Well, it appears that this year, there’s not too much substance to that cheap allegation. By Saturday morning, the penultimate day of competition, we had won 30 medals on bikes, in boats, on horses and the like, whilst 28 had been earned in athletics, gymnastics, swimming and other biped events. But add to that a bunch of subsequent Golds and Silvers in running, boxing and pentathlon and I’d say it is honours almost even. What’s wrong with a sitting down medal anyway?

8. Stephen Kiprotich
Kiprotich is a 23-year-old from Kapchorwa in Uganda. He is from subsistence farming stock. Before Saturday, he was a big outsider for the concluding athletics event. The race was dominated by heavyweights from Kenya and Ethiopia. And yet he managed to beat off the challenge of race favorite Wilson Kipsang and two-time world champion Abel Kirui to become his nation's first gold medalist since 1972. "I was unknown before today. Now I am known," he said. "I can say I am very happy to win a medal for my country. I love my people." He received his Gold medal in the midst of a full-production closing ceremony that otherwise paid scant regard to sporting endeavour.

9. Redgrave the Mentor
It was obvious from the early heats on the water on that Steve Redgrave was fulfilling a dual role at Eton Dornay. His principal role was expert analyser to John Inverdale’s rowing anchor. But the long embraces (not just with the women either), gushed thanks and words of respect showed Redgrave as a mentor, informal coach and all round inspiration to this generation of rowers. This was spelt out by Katherine Grainger who described the value of support and advice for, and belief in the nearly-boats of the women crews from someone who had absolutely been-there-and-done it. The implication is that Redgrave has played a role in the emergence of Copeland, Hosking, Stanning, Glover and the others. And when Sir Chris Hoy surpassed Steve’s GB record haul of Olympic medals, there was the man himself to offer up the first congratulations. Hoy had barely had chance to peel himself off his machine. Taje a bow, Sir Steve. A true ambassador.

10. Wiggo
Fresh from a sublime victory in Le Tour barely 10 days earlier, and also from a typically unselfish attempt to set Cavendish up for the Road Race Gold on the first day of the Games, Bradley Wiggins’ time trial Gold is one of my very favourite moments. As a spectacle, the time trial can’t compete with the white heat of the velodrome. But in coming home 42 seconds clear of reigning world champion, Tony Martin of Germany, Wiggins delivered Britain’s first Gold and an emphatic statement of his stature in the sport. He would not celebrate until the final man had crossed the line and was prowling around on his bike whilst Martin was slumped against some railings. I like my heroes to be down to earth and approachable. On the podium in the Champs Elysee he turned away from the dignitaries to wave acknowledgement to the supporters. When handed the microphone he said “Right, we're just going to draw the raffle numbers." Here he celebrated his fourth Olympic gold medal by going out and getting drunk - and tweeting updates as he did so.

So many moments, it’s hard to choose. A couple of near misses:
  • My mate Bryn who had tickets for the rowing on the 2nd Saturday morning and tickets for the same Super Saturday in the Olympic Stadium. He returned there last Saturday to see Mo and the 4x100 World Record. In all he saw 5 GB Golds and one GB silver. A Paralympic Silver medalist from Barcelona in 1992, he is only excluded from the main list because I am insanely jealous.

  • Hungarian Modern Pentathlete Adam Marosi who has a tattoo of AC/DC’s Angus Young on his calf. Cool.

  • The Olympic Legacy. The signs are good. There is a massive feelgood factor in the wake of the Games, we are hearing of investment decisions about school sports funding and many venues will be re-used. But feelgood factors don’t last forever and there is only a small window of opportunity to capitalise on this. And regeneration hasn’t reached all parts of the East End yet.

London E1, a javelin's throw from the Olympic Park
 So the jury is still out on legacy. But wow, what a Games. Fantastic, uplifting, emotional, well organized and optimistic. A sharp poke in the eye to the naysayers and doomsmiths.

And so on to Rio…