FINAL SCORE

Football RadioSure, it’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of something. The BBC’s decision to drop the classified football results from the long-running ‘Sports Report’ sounds like one of those crass decisions made by a new controller of the station in question (5 Live) who’s keen to make his mark and shake things up a bit. It’s a familiar pattern on BBC radio, like when the Radio 4 UK Theme was axed back in 2006. Commissioned in 1978 to open the station every morning after the handover from the World Service, the medley of traditional English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish melodies heralded the dawn of the day’s broadcasting and quickly became as much of a wireless institution as the theme tune to ‘The Archers’ or the sound of ‘Sailing By’ announcing the arrival of the Shipping Forecast. The man who wielded the axe for the UK Theme was the then-controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer; many were suspicious this was an action motivated by embarrassment within the ivory corridors of Broadcasting House that such a popular piece of music didn’t reflect the way the BBC likes to think of the nation, though Damazer claimed what he described as ‘a pacy news briefing’ was what listeners wanted first thing on a morning. Well, perhaps it was what the BBC overlords felt they ought to want first thing on a morning. After all, they know what’s best for us.

At a time when theme tunes introduced virtually all radio shows, the debut of ‘Sports Report’ in January 1948 naturally came with its own sonic calling card. ‘Out of the Blue’ was in the same vein as other jaunty themes to be found on the BBC Light Programme during this era, such as ‘Music While You Work’ or ‘Top of the Form’; it fitted perfectly into its times, yet along with the aforementioned theme from ‘The Archers’ and ‘Sailing By’ – as well as the theme to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – it’s one of the few to survive into the 21st century. ‘Out of the Blue’ has long since passed the stage of being regarded as old-fashioned, and its anachronistic sound is now recognised as the aural equivalent of a vintage item of clothing, cherished precisely because it is so antiquated and out of step with the here and now. In a sense, such a tune becomes timeless if it sticks around long enough; had it been replaced in the 80s or 90s, those replacement tunes would now sound more dated and old-fashioned than ‘Out of the Blue’ ever will.

The theme to ‘Sports Report’ is one of those pieces of music so bound up with the time and day of its transmission that it becomes inseparable from it, so utterly woven is it into the fabric of the Saturday teatime experience. Indeed, it’s as impossible to imagine hearing it on any other day as it would be to listen to a Christmas song in the middle of July. But it’s not simply ‘Out of the Blue’ itself that has been regarded as a time signal for millions of listeners for more than 70 years; what have always traditionally followed it are the classified football results. Remarkably, this weekly roll-call of winners and losers has only ever been recited by three different voices for the entire run of ‘Sports Report’. John Webster held the post from 1948 to 1974; James Alexander Gordon was the reader from 1974 to 2013; and Charlotte Green succeeded him, occupying the hot seat until the decision to drop the results was suddenly announced. The man in the middle of this trio with golden vocal chords is the one most of us grew up with. James Alexander Gordon’s famous delivery, in which his intonation would rise and fall to indicate whether the home team had won, drawn or lost before revealing how many goals they’d scored or conceded, was a hallmark of listening to the classifieds for almost 40 years, and one that left the listener eager to hear every result, not just the one involving their own team.

Even with the advent of ‘Grandstand’ on TV and its super-fast ‘tele-printer’ bringing the results to the viewer in the comfort of their living room, the classified football results on the radio were still a vital source of information for the supporters, especially those on the long journey home from an away game. If one were lucky enough to be making that journey home by car after a cold, wet fixture in some drab provincial town, the sound of the afternoon’s results being read by James Alexander Gordon would be as soothing to the occupants of the vehicle as a roaring fire would be to the fair-weather fan who stayed at home. I suppose it is this warm association that has given the results on the radio such an affectionate place in their hearts of football followers for decades, and why their abrupt removal has been met with the same kind of anger that the axing of the Radio 4 UK Theme provoked in 2006. A couple of years ago, a book I wrote about the 1970 FA Cup Final – ‘No Place for Boys’ – contained a passage on the subject of how significant the reading of the classified results on ‘Sports Report’ has continued to be, and I reproduce it here to spell it out…

For generations of football fans, even those who can now access every result via their Smartphones seconds after the final whistles have been blown, tuning in is still key to the experience of following the sport in Britain. If football is a religion, then the ritual of catching ‘Sports Report’ late on a Saturday afternoon is one of its holiest ceremonies. In a curious way, hearing all those score-lines coming in from across the country is one of the rare moments when that country actually feels like the otherwise-mythical One Nation, with millions of its citizens sharing the same sensations at the same time – all the way from Elgin City FC down to Plymouth Argyle. And whichever end of the country you’re at, all you need is a radio and you’re part of it.

The reason the BBC has given for dropping the classified football results from ‘Sports Report’ is that live commentary on the Premier League fixture at 5.30pm means the programme has been shortened and there’s no room for the results in the mix anymore. Sounds a bit like ‘the pacy news briefing’ excuse Mark Damazer used. This particular excuse was also expanded upon in a rather predictable way, citing the availability of other, faster means of accessing the day’s results than the traditional practice of waiting to hear them at 5.00. This misses the point entirely. Just as far more landlubbers tune into the Shipping Forecast than fishermen – who could access all the shipping news they need in a superior form to ye olde Long Wave via satellite tracking systems – the fanatical Sky Sports subscriber who rarely takes his eyes from the screen as scores are flooding in throughout the afternoon is not the target; many listeners who couldn’t care less about the sport switch on simply to hear the names being recited. In the flesh, Crewe Alexandra or Queen of the South are no more exotic locations on the map than Cromarty or German Bight, but when their names are joined together for the recital, they acquire a uniquely poetic resonance that renders them almost romantic. And there’s not a lot of romance about in 2022.

Expecting anyone at the BBC today to remotely understand their listeners is a tall order; dropping the classified football results is merely another example of not only how out-of-touch the Beeb is with its audience, but how it continues to view it with condescending contempt. When the ground beneath the feet is as insecure and unstable as it is at uncertain and often unnerving times like these, people tend to be naturally drawn to the few remaining signposts they feel they can rely on to reassure them all is not lost. During that first bewildering lockdown, millions retreated into the safe womb of nostalgic telly, music and pastimes, desperately seeking something that could take their minds off the horrors of the present day. We may be through the worst now, but the scars of that unsettling time run deep and variations on the Project Fear formula are keeping many in a state of emergency. The yearning for the kind of security that is connected to less stressful and more innocent times remains potent. The classified football results were a fixed point at a fixed time on a fixed day, and had been since most of our parents were in short pants. Taking them away now is not a great idea.

© The Editor

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RUSSIAN ROULETTE

ElenaMedia types who weren’t even there have spent several months now banging on about how Britain is going ‘back to the 70s’ simply because they assume today’s perilous economic climate is somehow comparable to that of a decade they only know through endlessly recycled clichés of candlelit households, picket lines, and pavements piled high with rubbish. Ironically, however, whilst the hysterical heads on our news channels were promoting the cost-of-living crisis as the embodiment of this narrative, the summer’s premier sporting contest came close to experiencing a moment genuinely reminiscent of a 70s incident that almost caused its cancellation 49 years ago. Like Wimbledon 2022, Wimbledon 1973 saw a British man reach the semi-final of the singles’ tournament, yet the achievements of both Cameron Norrie and Roger Taylor were overshadowed by events off-court.

In 1973, the Open Era was still a relatively new innovation and the leading tennis players of the period were feeling liberated by the sudden change in their circumstances – especially financially. Take a player like Rod Laver, still the only man in the history of the sport to twice hold all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year; the fact he achieved this in 1962 but then not again until 1969 highlights how from 1963 to 1968 Laver was unable to compete in such tournaments, as their Olympian ideal stated one had to be an amateur to take part; once you turned pro and tried to make a living from your talent, you were effectively exiled from the competitive game thereafter. A long-overdue change to the rules in the late 60s restored the world’s greatest tennis players to the Grand Slam stage, including Laver; but who knows how many more titles he could have added to his 198 (which remains a record) had he not lost five years in the middle of his career. By 1972, buoyed by the lucrative Open Era, the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals had given players some independent clout and this was something they demonstrated the following year when they flexed their muscles against the International Lawn Tennis Federation, the global governing body of the game.

The first opportunity for players to take a stance came when Nikola Pilić, Yugoslavia’s No.1, was suspended by his own national lawn tennis association on the grounds he had bowed out of a Davis Cup tie played by his nation; the suspension spanned nine months and was supported by the ILTF; it was eventually reduced to a month, but that month encompassed the Wimbledon fortnight. The ATP responded to the ban by stating that if it wasn’t lifted they’d pull their players out of the tournament in support; what followed next were weeks of legal wrangling which eventually ended in an ATP boycott of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. 13 of the intended 16 seeds pulled out, with only the likes of the 1972 Wimbledon runner-up Ilie Năstase and Britain’s Roger Taylor defying the boycott amongst the more established players; up-and-coming youngsters such as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors took advantage to progress in the absence of the bigger names (including defending champ Stan Smith), and the title was won by Czech Jan Kodeš, whose presence representing an Eastern Bloc country probably meant he had no option but to compete.

49 years later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provoked several measures by the world of sport; the ATP – not quite as anti-establishment as in its original incarnation half-a-century earlier – responded with the token gesture of relocating the St Petersburg Open to Kazakhstan at the beginning of the conflict, but didn’t enforce a ban of Russian or Belarusian players from tournaments, unlike other sporting bodies, such as FIFA, UEFA and the IOC. When Wimbledon came around, however, a ban was imposed. The ATP’s rather petulant reaction, one that perhaps emphasised how far it had come since its formation 50 years before, was to remove world ranking points from Wimbledon. Prestigious competitions such as the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup upheld the same ban of players from Russia and Belarus, yet both the French and US Open declined to follow suit; in the case of the former, it decided to go with the unsatisfactory compromise of having players from the guilty countries participate as ‘neutral players without national flags’. The decision of the All England Club was applauded by several Ukrainian players, though the ATP sided with the now-ITF this time round. Defending Wimbledon men’s champion (and a man who retained his crown yet again yesterday) Novak Djokovic criticised the ban, though as someone who has already suffered at the hands of a political incursion into sport via his experience at the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, perhaps it’s understandable he wants to keep politics out of tennis. At one point, it seemed as though the tournament was threatened with a rerun of 1973, though in the end it didn’t quite work out as planned for the All England Club.

One might say Wimbledon’s ban has backfired – and the moral conundrum of holding sportsmen and women responsible for the actions of the nations whose flags they perform under is a contentious one; it denied the competition the men’s world No.1 Daniil Medvedev, for one thing; but if the non-appearance of Russia’s former Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova (who sensationally defeated Serena Williams as a 17-year-old in 2004) at the past champions’ parade was a notable casualty of the ban, it was perhaps viewed as less of an awkward absentee than usual BBC pundit Boris Becker, who no doubt tried to catch what he could of the tournament whilst sewing mailbags on D Wing. No, the implications of the ban became more embarrassing for the All England Club as a girl born and raised in Moscow progressed through the tournament and ended up making it all the way to the ladies’ final; up against Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian No.1 and the first North African woman to make the final, Elena Rybakina was not exactly the winner the burghers of Wimbledon were hoping for. Jabeur winning the opening set of the final eased a few furrowed brows; but Rybakina dug deep and struck back for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

There was no doubt Ons Jabeur was the woman the All England Club and the BBC were keeping their fingers crossed for, but Rybakina spoilt the party and maintained the impressive trail she’d blazed throughout the tournament, none more so than when crushing in-form 2019 champ Simona Halep in the semi-final, 6-3, 6-3. After the pre-tournament headlines had been so focused on the enforced absence of Russian and Belarusian players – a decision that was entirely in line with the UK’s support of Ukraine, lest we forget – perhaps the ultimate embarrassment for Wimbledon came when the Duchess of Cambridge in her capacity as patron of the All England Club had little choice but to present the Venus Rosewater Dish to a player destined to be used as a propaganda weapon by Moscow, regardless of how much distance Rybakina has attempted to place between herself and her homeland’s government. At the same time, she remains rather evasive on whether Moscow is still where she lives.

To be fair to Rybakina, her defection to Kazakhstan dates back to 2018 rather than being a convenient switching of flags to evade an international boycott; she’s not guilty of the kind of canny relocation that South African cricketers routinely engaged in during that nation’s lengthy stint as a sporting pariah during Apartheid. She only really represented the country of her birth at junior level; when she turned pro and embarked upon the women’s circuit full-time aged 19, it was the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation that offered her financial support and far superior coaching facilities than that which were being provided back home. She changed her nationality and has therefore competed under the Kazakhstan flag for the past five years; the fact remains, however, that the women’s winner of Wimbledon in a year when Russian players were exiled from the competition was a born-and-bred Muscovite. Maybe there’s a point to be made somewhere in there – a match-point, perhaps.

© The Editor

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IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS

Katie TaylorViewing a recent documentary series on Muhammad Ali via the BBC iPlayer, I was reminded how boxing bouts were once central to the lives of even those for whom a sporting event is usually a TV schedule-disrupting irritant. Ali’s appeal transcended the hardcore pugilistic following, as the huge ratings his fights attracted proved; his trilogy of battles with Joe Frazier between 1971 and 1975 and the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman were grandstand occasions that the majority of the globe tuned in to watch; Ali’s irresistible force of personality undoubtedly did more than any other boxer to make boxing one of the world’s most popular spectator sports, and arguably saved it from extinction when many American States were contemplating banning it from their borders on the grounds of the brutality that his balletic grace helped redefine. Since his heyday, however, the sport has largely retreated back from the frontline of terrestrial television prime-time, kidnapped by the pay-per-view marketplace and removed from the free-to-air arena; the average person today would probably struggle to name a current world champion, let alone whichever woman holds the equivalent female titles.

If boxing itself has diminished in importance for those members of the public that would once settle down to watch Ali in the same way they’d nowadays tune in to some vacuous TV talent show, the women’s version of the sport seems to only be of interest to the already-converted – though this is fairly routine where television audiences are concerned. The BBC’s insistence on referring to the world’s oldest club football contest as the men’s FA Cup Final emphasises the investment the Corporation has made in the women’s game, yet the latter remains a minority interest, regardless of the disproportionate coverage it receives from our national broadcaster. Women’s boxing, on the other hand, is exclusively in the hands of the subscription services that half-inched boxing around 20 years ago, and as a consequence its stars are heroines to the devoted and largely unknown to the masses.

Listening to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ for the first time in quite some time this morning, I was introduced to Katie Taylor, an Irish female boxer I learnt is the current undisputed world lightweight champion; a sportswoman evidently well-schooled in sports still regarded as the prime domain of men – she used to be a footballer – Taylor solidified her status a couple of weeks ago by defeating Puerto Rican-born Amanda Serrano at the ancestral home of boxing, New York’s Madison Square Garden. Just as staging the Ireland Vs Italy fixture of the 1994 World Cup in NYC was a guaranteed stadium-filler considering the potential audience of Irish and Italian-Americans the Big Apple could call upon, Katie Taylor sealing her reputation as one of the greatest female pugilists on the planet in the same city was a masterstroke in ensuring pre-fight interest in a sport few beyond the dedicated pay much attention to.

You might not know it due to the factors already mentioned, but history was made at Madison Square Garden when Taylor fought Serrano, for it was the first time the prestigious venue had made a women’s bout the main event. The BBC’s Steve Bunce was a ringside witness to this watershed moment in women’s boxing and reviewed the spectacle with unbridled verve on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, enthusing the event was the first time two women had earned a million bucks each for a fight. Taylor was defending her lightweight crown she owns – as of 2019 she is one of only eight boxers (male or female) to be the simultaneous holder of all four major world titles – and her opponent was perhaps the sole fighter capable of offering her a serious challenge. From everything I could gather, this is a sporting rivalry on a par with many others that have pulled in the punters over the years – indeed, 19,187 spectators packed the staidum on the night, underlining the fact that this occasion captured unprecedented attention, as did the 1.5 million watching online at the same time. Thousands of Katie Taylor’s countrymen and women had flown in from the Emerald Isle to be present at the fight and no doubt all the Irish-American communities embedded in the USA’s urban enclaves sent plenty representatives to cheer ‘their girl’ on. Similarly, the fact Amanda Serrano was raised in Brooklyn meant she could regard Madison Square Garden as a home venue; it seems no more apt location could have been chosen.

Such was the level of hype surrounding the fight, even the Empire State Building was illuminated by the colours of the Irish and Puerto Rican flags respectively on the night; and it’s perhaps telling that a sport starved of the characters it could call upon in Ali’s heyday has been revitalised by two women when the men have summarily failed to prompt the same kind of reaction in recent years. By all accounts, the fight itself was worthy of the hyperbole, with Taylor retaining her titles via a split decision points verdict at the end of ten titanic rounds; Steve Bunce on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ described the tenth and final round as possibly being ‘one of the greatest rounds ever to be fought in the Garden…I have never, in 35 years at ringside, seen such scenes – emotion and chaos. It was breathless stuff. At the final bell, they fell into each other’s arms, bloody and exhausted, cut and bruised and smiling.’ Bunce calls Katie Taylor the greatest female boxer of all time, and listening to his enthusiastic description of the fight and of the two fighters made me wish I’d seen it – or even been aware of it before it actually happened.

Watching the aforementioned Ali series evoked the excitement his fights used to embody back in the day – great television events enjoyed by the whole viewing population rather than merely those prepared to pay extra for the privilege of tuning in. Making any sport available to the causal viewer as well as the one devoted enough to fork out for a subscription fee is essential in transforming its practitioners into household names, and maybe I’d have already have heard of Katie Taylor had her fight been in the hands of terrestrial broadcasters, or even if terrestrial broadcasters had never lost the rights to screen big fights in the first place. As it is, the decision of the boxing authorities – as with the cricket authorities – to throw their lot in with the satellite money-men a couple of decades ago removed the sport from my eye-line and my interest in it evaporated. To be honest, I wouldn’t even know if ITV or the BBC had shown the Taylor-Serrano fight, so detached am I now from boxing. The fact I was drawn to watch a series on a boxer unlike any other is more a testament to Ali’s enduring position as a pop cultural giant as opposed to a mere participant in a sport I’d long since drifted away from.

I suppose one significant factor in the publicity afforded the Taylor-Serrano rivalry is that two natural-born women have put one overlooked women’s sport on the map for all the right reasons. These days, when women’s sports usually grab the headlines it tends to be for all the wrong reasons. The farcical situation whereby underachieving male cyclists, weightlifters and swimmers proclaim themselves to be women and are then given a free pass into the female arena – only to utilise their physical advantage and suddenly reinvent themselves as world champions – has reduced many women’s sports to a laughing stock. And whenever genuine sportswomen raise voices to protest against the unfairness – even an unarguably supreme female athlete such as Martina Navratilova – they are shouted down by the fanatical trans-harpies and subjected to levels of abuse and harassment that bear more than a passing resemblance to the old-school misogyny their endeavours had helped eradicate. For now, however, at least the ring is free from the insidious virus of Identity Politics – only for now, though.

© The Editor

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THE WRONG BORIS

Boris BeckerIn many respects, a fall from grace is a good career move for the contemporary celebrity. Depending on the nature of the fall, it can often provide the recipient with a lucrative second career as a ‘survivor’, hiring a ghost-writer to pen the requisite misery memoir and enjoying a string of redemptive, Diana-like television and press interviews to elicit public sympathy and plug said volume in the process. Going off the rails with an intoxicating cocktail of drink and drugs is always a nice little earner once rehab has been endured and the begging for forgiveness begins in earnest; a short prison sentence ala Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken also helps. Eventually, there’s always the possibility all will be forgotten and the previous career can be tentatively revived as long as the celebrity in question exudes a degree of humility and a willingness to atone for their former sins.

However, if the fall had a sexual element to it that is deemed beyond the pale, there’s less of a possibility that the public’s affection can be regained. It’s hard to imagine, say, either Gary Glitter or Bill Cosby ever returning to the prominent positions they once enjoyed in the pop cultural firmament; and it’s only because Johnny Depp’s ex has been exposed as a manipulative, psychopathic domestic abuser bent on ruining his career that one of the most consistently successful movie stars of the last 30 years will probably avoid the terminal exile of the Hollywood blacklist. Depp is perhaps one of the few current male celebrities to have fallen foul of an especially vindictive playing of the sexist card whose future redemption is, in all likelihood, secure.

There’s always a build ‘em up/knock ‘em down factor present in this country when it comes to the fall from grace of a former hero, particularly a sporting one; we first saw it with George Best half-a-century ago, and a little later with Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne – and whilst Best’s fall became intrinsic to his compelling life story, providing it with colourful off-the-field anecdotes that considerably enhanced the narrative, the jury remains out on whether Gazza will eventually find a posthumous resurrection. What of the sporting celebrity whose crimes are financial ones, though? What indeed of a three-time Wimbledon champion who became an overnight household name as a 17-year-old way back in 1985 and subsequently found himself making more money than he knew what to do with? Despite his apparent crimes being hard to distinguish from those of numerous City wheelers and dealers – and politicians, come to that – who have been rewarded with knighthoods, no one gave a flying f*** about them; they did about Boris Becker.

I well remember following Boris Becker’s astonishing run at Wimbledon in 1985. With all eyes focused on the usual anticipated finalists of the time such as defending champ John McEnroe, long-time battler Jimmy Connors, and world No.1 Ivan Lendl, the un-seeded adolescent steadily worked his way through each round and gradually began to attract attention as the favourites fell by the wayside, opening up the possibility the teenage sensation could make it further than anyone dared to imagine. He powered his way into a Semi-Final showdown with the No.5 seed, Anders Järryd and beat the Swede in four sets. Suddenly, a tournament in which the usual suspects were, for once, nowhere to be seen had sprung into life and Becker found himself facing No.8 seed Kevin Curren in the Final, a player ten years his senior. Nobody had seen anything quite like this in SW19 before. Becker won it, sealing his place in history as the youngest-ever Wimbledon champ and the first un-seeded player ever to triumph on Centre Court. It remains one of the great sporting moments, and it gifted Becker with an enduring popularity amongst those who follow tennis that seemed destined to last.

However, Becker, who enjoyed a good decade at the top of the tennis tree, is now facing the prospect of two-and-a-half years behind bars after being found guilty of hiding assets in the wake of his bankruptcy in 2017. Past Wimbledon champs such as McEnroe may have aroused the ire of the staid All England Club due to their behaviour on court, but Becker was the consummate pro whenever he strolled out to play and his unprecedented success as a teenage prodigy earned him the ongoing affection of the premier tennis tournament’s annual audience.

Even after hanging up his racquet for good, his post-playing career as commentator, pundit and occasional coach kept him in the public eye as a likeable character on the circuit and he never gave the club whose distinctive purple and green colours he wore for his final court appearance cause for concern in associating himself with the august institution. That Boris Becker should have swapped one kind of court for another has been a fall from grace that exposed him as guilty of either – depending on how one looks at it – financial naivety or a cynical evasion of a legal obligation.

54-year-old Boris Becker was declared bankrupt five years ago, in the wake of an unpaid loan exceeding £3 million on a property he owned in Spain. Having claimed the bulk of the fortune earned during his playing career – totalling around £38 million – disappeared into the black hole of an expensive divorce from his first wife as well as child maintenance payments to his four kids, Becker was suspected of concealing assets that should have been surrendered when bankruptcy beckoned. Found guilty of shifting hundreds of thousands of pounds around that he failed to own up to, Becker evidently had pretty bad financial advice or imagined he was cleverer than the team investigating his clumsy concealment.

Becker’s ‘crimes’ were valued at £2.5 million by the prosecution, and the facts that emerged were as follows: He didn’t declare a property he owned in Germany nor a £1.053 million house his mother resides in; he hid a euro bank loan of somewhere in the region of £700,000 (plus the interest) as well shares amounting to £75,000 in a tech company, and relocated upwards of £390,000 into the accounts of others.

Failure to disclose property and concealing debt under the Insolvency Act is treated as a serious crime with a potential prison sentence of seven years, though when Becker arrived at Southwark Crown Court to be sentenced last Friday, he was additionally ticked-off by Judge Deborah Taylor, who admonished Becker for his absence of humility. ‘I take into account what has been described as your fall from grace,’ she said. ‘You have lost your career and reputation and all of your property as a result of your bankruptcy.’ This acknowledgment of Becker’s embarrassing downfall was then followed by a less sympathetic summary of his behaviour. ‘You have not shown remorse, acceptance of your guilt and have sought to distance yourself from your offending and your bankruptcy,’ the Judge said. ‘I accept the humiliation you’ve felt, but you’ve shown no humility.’

Although it’s expected that Boris Becker will probably only serve around half his sentence in the clink, he’ll still have to serve it; as Mick Jagger once recalled when looking back at his own (admittedly brief) prison sentence back in 1967, he may have only spent the solitary night in Brixton, but the swift conditional discharge he received was unknown to him when the cell door slammed in his face and the grim reality of his situation hit him as the lights went out. Becker will have more than one opportunity to ruminate on the grim reality of his own situation over the next year or so. He might not be looking forward to decades of incarceration stretching out before him, but for someone who has lived the life of a jet-setting international celebrity ever since he was a teenager, perhaps the one item his appetite may belatedly acquire a taste for on the inside could be humble pie.

© The Editor

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OPEN DOOR

Old WomanIt wasn’t so long ago – barely a year – that the British people were barred from allowing more than six people into their abodes. They couldn’t visit ailing family members in hospitals or care homes; they could only attend funerals in small, specified numbers – and heavy-handed Jobsworths were on hand to gleefully ensure there was no physical contact between the grievers; they couldn’t gather in the open to mark Remembrance Sunday; they couldn’t celebrate Christmas together; they couldn’t hold a vigil for a murdered woman in an outdoor environment without the police treating them like violent protestors; they couldn’t stage a demonstration unless their cause was one approved by the authorities – climate change or BLM, yes/anti-lockdown or anti-vax, no; they couldn’t even worship in churches whose doors were bolted. Small businesses went to the wall, crippled by both enforced closure and then uneconomic restrictions when tentatively reopening (if they’d managed to survive).

The damaging legacy of the past couple of years remains blatantly evident in the rising unemployment figures and the breathtaking level of national debt, not to mention the amount of folk continuing to wear masks in safe environments such as on the street or in the privacy of their own bloody cars, their brains fried by the pandemic propaganda of Project Fear. One wonders if they mask-up on the loo, in the bath or in bed. Probably. Yet, while it would be natural to imagine the unsurprising and hypocritical revelations of what those lying bastards who imposed such rules on the populace were getting up to behind closed doors at the height of the pandemic had served as a wake-up call on how conned the people were, so deep is the psychological damage done by lockdown and its affiliated curbs on civil liberties that the illogical neurosis of millions remains something that will probably take years to heal.

So, how strange that the same people who had to conduct conversations with family and friends from ridiculous distances – and out of doors, at that – are now being battered anew with fresh emotional blackmail that encourages them to open their previously hermetically-sealed homes to complete strangers, as though 2020 and ’21 never happened. Memories of the Syrian ‘children’ with their remarkably advanced examples of male grooming have been smoothly erased as the request for impromptu landlords goes out again. Of course, the awful humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine naturally stirs deep feelings in anyone who has a heart; for some, this provokes a desire to tackle the forces of oppression head-on by signing-up for an International Brigades-like foreign legion of fighters to repel the Russian invasion; for others, it’s marked via a boycott of Russian goods or cultural exports; and for others again, it manifests itself as a craving to offer a safe roof over the heads of those faced with no option but to flee their own homes thousands of miles away. Yesterday, the British Government announced it would offer UK homeowners £350 a month to take in Ukrainian refugees, with Housing Secretary Michael Gove unveiling the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

After so many recent exposés of precisely how untrustworthy and slippery our elected leaders are, people can be forgiven for greeting this announcement with cynicism and discerning something more than motives emanating from the goodness of politicians’ hearts; one now finds it difficult to take any such move at face value and not detect an ulterior motive. In the case of the current administration – and, it has to be said, its predecessors over the last couple of decades – this kind of response to an appalling situation cannot entirely eradicate the lax attitude towards the dirty money fuelling the Russian war machine which has been a hallmark of British governments for a long time. The amount of desirable British properties in the hands of offshore shell companies engaged in money laundering both in the UK and its more luxurious overseas territories has been mirrored in the close ties forged between British politicians and institutions and those Russians who have taken advantage of the so-called ‘golden visa’ scheme. Perish the thought, but could certain members of the Government and the Conservative Party be covering their own corrupt backs by utilising the same emotional blackmail tactics employed during Covid to persuade the people to open hearts and doors to Ukrainian refugees as they themselves gloss over their cosiness with representatives of the regime responsible for the crisis?

Just how deeply governing bodies with pound signs for pupils have allowed countries with dubious reputations to become embedded in the fabric of British life was highlighted when Chelsea played Newcastle Utd at Stamford Bridge on Sunday; the home fans chanted the name of the now-toxic Putin bitch Roman Abramovich, whereas the away fans cheered their own suddenly-wealthy club’s Saudi owners, emanating as they do from a regime that executed a staggering 81 individuals the day before the match in a ruthless display of despotic inhumanity. What a glorious advert for the beautiful game, one that no token knee-taking will ease the grubby stain of. Football fans desperate for success will seemingly overlook the source of the financial fuel filling their trophy cabinets, though they’ve hardly been set a good example by their social ‘betters’. The filthy lucre floating around the national sport at the highest level is one more noticeable consequence of the golden visa rule introduced by a Labour Government in the wake of Peter Mandelson quaffing champers on the yacht of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one that has allowed Russia to get its feet under the establishment table with very little in the way of opposition.

According to stats in the most recent issue of Private Eye, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, 406 wealthy Russians have bought their way into Britain via the required £2 million, with a mere 20 refusals; following the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, 92 golden visas have been issued, with just six refusals; eight were even issued at the back end of last year, a time when Vlad’s intentions re Ukraine were well-known. At times, the Russian infiltration of British politics and all its interconnected entrails are reminiscent of the way in which Nigel Kneale’s 1950s TV series ‘Quatermass’ featured collaborators with the alien invaders in the upper echelons of British society as a knowing nod to the pre-war ruling class’s flirtation with fascism. The abrupt about-turn on oligarchs by this government as everyone with Russian skeletons in their closet seeks to distance themselves from Uncle Vlad’s activities is something that understandably provokes cynicism, though being offered cash incentives to house those who have suffered most from these activities seems another cynical move by an administration that inspires little else but cynicism.

Local councils who have spent the past two years pleading poverty, cutting public services to the bone and yet simultaneously feathering their own personal nests are also having a tempting carrot dangled in their direction re refugees. One cannot help but wonder if they will spend the money wisely. Considering how well GPs’ surgeries have managed to avoid doing their jobs and yet have continued to bleat about being overwhelmed during the coronavirus, how will a sudden influx of immigrants with obvious ailments affect the dereliction of duties the medical profession has achieved since Lockdown Mk I? It goes without saying that those whose needs are attended to on Harley Street won’t be affected, though the calamitous disappearance of the cheap household labour that Brexit brought about may at least be solved.

Materially comfortable individuals with the spare rooms to welcome refugees should be in a position to carry out their intentions without their kindness necessitating a financial reward, and those whose sadness with the situation in Ukraine doesn’t stretch that far shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for choosing not to do so, despite the lure of being paid in a scheme that will undoubtedly be open to abuse. One can’t blame many for being reluctant to invite strangers into their homes when they were faced with heavy fines and possible prison sentences for extending a similar invitation to people they actually know not so long ago. Funny old world innit.

© The Editor

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OUT IN THE COLD

VladWhen a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.

A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.

Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.

The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.

Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.

Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.

Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.

© The Editor

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ANYONE FOR TENNIS?

vlcsnap-2022-01-10-17h41m14s299On the surface, it’s difficult to discern what the Australian Government sought to gain from manufacturing a farcical soap opera starring the greatest tennis player of the past decade, a man who has been crowned Aussie Open champion nine times already (more than any other player in history) and has won it on the last three occasions it’s been staged. If the idea was to continue the doomed ‘Zero Covid’ policy by making an example of an international household name just to show no one is exempt from some of the strictest restrictions on the planet, it’s been something of a PR disaster – especially when one considers Novak Djokovic wasn’t exactly alone as an unvaccinated athlete whose entrance to Camp Oz was approved for the tournament. This fact suggests he didn’t receive any of the ‘special treatment’ that has been cited as a reason for the opposition to his participation, though having his visa revoked and all the legal shenanigans that have followed emits the scent of a prized scapegoat.

The un-vaccinated have been portrayed as Public Enemy Number One by Australia as much as any other country with a leader prepared to weaponise the pandemic for political gain. Monsieur Macron is a good example, forever engaged in discriminating against the un-vaxxed, and a man who will don a mask when sat alone for a Zoom conference whilst not considering such precautions necessary when hanging out in-person with other world leaders. And Aussie PM Scott Morrison has seen his popularity plummet over the last few months as the harsh policies of the past couple of years have proven unsuccessful in stemming the tide of each successive variant. As Sydney and Melbourne (the world’s longest locked-down city) tentatively reopen, a change of tack by Aussie politicians has seen a resigned acceptance emerge that everyone will succumb to the Omicron variant at some point, and no amount of lockdowns will alter that inevitability. What does that say about the sacrifices the Australian people have been faced with little choice but to accept?

Whereas the UK lockdowns were intended to slow the spread in order to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, the Australian approach seemed to be a misguided attempt to stop the coronavirus altogether; no matter how long it took, they’d keep everyone behind closed doors until the nasty virus had gone away. Apparently, new kid on the block Omicron has been responsible for a swift upsurge in Aussie cases – more in the past couple of weeks than in the past couple of years – despite all the extreme policies in place since the spring of 2020; yet, Novak Djokovic, a man whose antibodies are presumably strong having already recovered from a bout of Covid in December, has been targeted as embodying everything evil about those portrayed as responsible for the wave of latest cases, the un-vaxxed. Australia’s Northern Territories have responded by locking the scum down whilst simultaneously allowing the merely double-vaxxed (who are more than capable of spreading the latest variant) to go about their business.

With Scott Morrison faced with having to call elections come the spring, it’s evident he requires something to justify the policies he’s pursued with such vigour, regardless of how the evidence implies they’ve ultimately failed. Smearing Novak Djokovic appeared to be the gift he was looking for, what with the current Aussie Open champ being so arrogant as to turn up ready to play jab-free. Battling deportation due to officials concluding he didn’t meet the criteria for vaccine exemption to enter the country, Djokovic has now successfully appealed against the decision to cancel his visa in the Federal Court of Australia. Under guard at a Melbourne hotel since last Thursday, he argued he had done all that was required of him to enter Australia and the judge agreed, ordering that his quarantine end ASAP. Djokovic claimed he had been grilled for six hours by immigration officials, sleep-deprived at his hotel, and placed under persistent pressure to submit to their decision that he pull out of the tournament, which begins in just seven days’ time. Djokovic felt he possessed proof that contradicted the authorities’ conviction he didn’t qualify for exemption, afterwards explaining ‘I had been recently infected with Covid in December 2021 and on this basis I was entitled to medical exemption in accordance with Australian government rules and guidance. I further explained that my medical exemption had been granted by the Independent Medical Review Panel’.

Djokovic added he had received a letter from the Chief Medical Officer of Tennis Australia which said he had medical exemption on the grounds of his recent recovery from the coronavirus; and medical authorities in Australia have recently ruled that a temporary exemption from vaccination can be issued to anyone who’s been infected within six months, something Djokovic has proved he is eligible for. It seems pretty clear that the Aussie authorities were determined to prevent Djokovic from participating in the Open, yet the Serb refused to play ball. His successful appeal isn’t the end of the story, however, as the Home Affairs Minister still has the powers to overrule the judge, able to cancel his visa all over again. The Government’s lawyer at the appeal hearing said that the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs (now, there’s a job title) ‘will consider whether to exercise a personal power of cancellation’.

In theory, Djokovic could be banned from Australia for up to three years, though how much such a decision would boost Scott Morrison’s re-election prospects remains debatable; it’d certainly damage the country’s international reputation even further. With the Ashes having successfully been staged – and benefitted from a piss-poor England performance – does Australia really want to reduce an equally prestigious sporting occasion to a farce by deporting the defending champion on such spurious grounds? In the wake of the Aussie Government response to the appeal hearing, Djokovic’s brother Djordje has argued the authorities will be even more determined to deport the player following their humiliating defeat, quoted as saying ‘they want to capture and lock up Novak again’. Considering the efforts so far made to prevent Djokovic’s participation at the Open, it’s difficult to believe the authorities will simply call it a day following the judge’s decision. To throw the towel in now would surely amount to an admission of failure not only in this particular case, but it tackling the coronavirus altogether.

According to stats, 92% of Aussies over-16 have been double-jabbed, though only 14% have had the booster; that stat has nothing to do with a Serbian tennis player and far more to do with the unsuccessful policies of politicians. Even in the Mother Country, more than half of the patients admitted to hospital here with Covid symptoms are vaccinated, despite the un-vaxxed continuing to carry the can; and when such a respected public figure as ‘Sir’ Tony Blair refers to them as ‘idiots’, queues are at vaccination centres are hardly likely to be boosted as a consequence. Confronted by the failure of lockdowns, social distancing, social bubbles and Covid passports as workable methods to keep an airborne virus at bay, the unvaccinated remain perfect scapegoats for struggling politicians, though one wonders if the Aussies have overreached themselves and sabotaged an event that, like the Ashes, could at least present a positive image to the rest of the world that life down under is finally beginning to recover.

© The Editor

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NOW YOU SEE HER, NOW YOU DON’T

Peng ShuaiIt must be great being China; I mean, you can literally get away with anything and nobody’s going to stop you. Perhaps only Vladimir Putin alone also knows how good that feels. Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough – only, no one will and no one does. You create a deadly virus, you somehow let it slip out of the lab and spread across the globe, and then – as a totalitarian state – you devise an inhumane method of placing your citizens under constant surveillance and/or house-arrest and every free, democratic nation around the world follows your lead. What’s not to like? And now China has flexed its muscles even further on the international stage by removing one of its leading sportswomen from public view, just like that – because it can. Why, all she did was make online sexual assault allegations against a former vice-premier.

35-year-old Peng Shuai, one-time women’s doubles world number one and a Wimbledon winner in that category alongside Hsieh Su-wei in 2013, has effectively vanished following the allegations made on the Weibo social media site. They were made against Zhang Gaoli, alleging the senior CCP official tried to force her into having sex after playing tennis at his home. The allegations, which have subsequently been removed from the site, appeared on 2 November; and Shuai hasn’t been seen since – unless one believes the email (credited to her) that was released last week in which ‘she’ retracts the allegations and claims she’s not missing but is merely keeping out of the public eye by relaxing at home, a claim supported by some unconvincing photos that accompanied the missive. A few days later, Chinese state media released a clip apparently featuring the reclusive star having an evening out at a restaurant, which is certainly a new twist on the traditional hostage video.

So, the official line from the CCP is that there is no story, Peng Shuai is not missing, and serious allegations against one of the party’s highest-ranking figures are not worthy of comment. Across-the-board denial has been the response whenever questions have been asked by outsiders, with a blanket ban in effect on Chinese media outlets. ‘I have not heard of the issue you raised,’ said China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin. ‘This is not a diplomatic question.’ His response has been deleted from the Chinese Government’s official website, so it therefore never happened. A similar bout of feigned ignorance afflicted the pages of the CCP’s Global Times. ‘As a person who is familiar with the Chinese system,’ wrote editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, ‘I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.’ ‘The thing people talked about’ – interesting wording; no surprise about the wording, however, when one considers this story doesn’t exist in the Chinese media landscape.

The Women’s Tennis Association is not exactly satisfied with these excuses for explanations, threatening to withdraw from the Chinese tournaments that constitute a money-spinning section of next season’s tour unless Shuai resurfaces soon; the WTA’s male equivalent – along with some of its most notable members – has also voiced concerns as to her whereabouts after airing the allegations. Both the UN and the White House have issued statements condemning the situation, whilst over here there have been calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics – probably unlikely, but China does like to contradict the critical narrative via grand gestures that paint it in a positive light, like its spectacular staging of the Olympic Games in Beijing back in 2008. Any such boycott could potentially damage the global brand, though it’ll most likely end up little more than a dent on account of the few who I imagine will follow through on their threat.

After all, how many of the virtuous footballers taking the knee and wrapping themselves around the rainbow flag will extend their stunning and brave solidarity with the oppressed people of the planet into the next World Cup, where they’ll be guaranteed a global platform? In case you’ve forgotten, FIFA received enough weighty brown packages under the table during the bidding process to award the competition to that renowned haven for LGBTXYZ (and women’s) rights, Qatar – y’know the Middle Eastern kingdom whereby effective slave labour has been busily building the required stadia whilst the authorities have been sweeping a fair few insignificant workforce fatalities under the carpet. Hmm, difficult dilemma facing yer average international footballer, that one.

Maybe it’s just easier indulging in your vacuous gesture before kick-off at every game in the Premier League rather than risking losing your place in the national side should you question the narrative. Moreover, why take the chance of your face being removed from all the products you sponsor when they’re being sold in some of the world’s most profitable marketplaces – ones that unfortunately happen to be the kind of places that have no respect whatsoever for the personal freedoms you’re so keen to promote unless doing so threatens your own luxury livelihood? At least you’re being seen doing the accepted ‘right thing’ week in-week out and that’s enough – even if it makes not the slightest bit of difference to a serf baking beneath the Qatari sun as he installs another executive box for FIFA officials.

Sport being such a huge generator of huge wealth for its highest-paid practitioners is always the sting in the tail of a sportsman or woman acquiring a conscience, where blind eyes are turned to genuine suffering if it jeopardises the career to raise the subject. Some do have the balls to go out on a limb and make a stance, but most prefer to merely make the token gestures and not offend the goose laying their golden eggs. On a positive note in this particular case, some of the leading names in tennis have at least nailed their colours to the mast where Peng Shuai is concerned – everyone from Billie Jean King to Novak Djokovic; but we shall have to wait and see what happens next if she fails to appear in public again. Not that Shuai is the first notable athlete to disappear from view, mind.

Ugandan hurdler John Akii-Bua won his country’s first ever gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, yet was discovered in a Kenyan refugee camp eight years later; despite receiving a hero’s welcome following his Olympic success, the collapse of Idi Amin’s regime in 1979 forced him to flee Uganda, and it took the intervention of his shoe manufacturer Puma to intervene upon his discovery before he was released to work for the firm in Germany. Ironically, considering his nation was ruled by such a bonkers and dangerous despot at the time of his triumph, Akii-Bua received the patronage of Amin and his disappearance, for once, wasn’t down to Mr President. If only the same could be said for Peng Shuai.

An interesting non-critical voice has come from the International Olympic Committee, though perhaps it’s no great surprise considering it could give FIFA a run for its money in the honesty stakes. An IOC statement said they had ‘seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.’ There you go. But Peng Shuai remains out of sight for the moment and the serious sexual assault allegations have yet to be investigated. It’ll be interesting to see how far China tries to take this or if it has actually underestimated the international response it has provoked and the whole business has been a step too far for a country that has grown used to doing whatever the hell it wants without having to face any real consequences.

© The Editor

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A SPORTING CHARACTER

GreavsieI can’t say I’ve noticed policemen are getting younger, though the fact they’re certainly fatter than they used to be is perhaps the contemporary pointer to a generation gap between them and me. If anything, the passing of years seems more accurately measured by the passing of childhood characters that once personified the physical benefits of the sporting life and are now either withered old men diminished by dementia or have already sunk six feet under. Barely a week goes by without one former cover star of ‘Shoot’ magazine in the 1970s being revealed as struggling in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; recently, the likes of Denis Law and Gordon McQueen have joined the lengthening ranks of former footballers who illuminated the game during my formative years and are now feeling the belated after-effects of all those seasons heading heavy balls into the back of the net decades ago. But even more unsettling than the sad, shambling squad of ex-players reduced to shrunken shadows of their past healthy selves is the expanding roll-call of footballers to have had their boots hung up by the Grim Reaper of late. The latest casualty of an alarming list is someone whose time as one of English football’s all-time great goal-scorers predates my memory, yet whose unexpected second shot at fame turned him into a household name all over again.

Every once in a while a prodigious footballing talent emerges whose skills appear to belie their tender years; the teenage sensation appearing out of the blue and unleashed on an unsuspecting opposition like some secret weapon launched without warning is a recurring story in the sport and in 1957 its representative was 17-year-old striker Jimmy Greaves. The press wasn’t averse to generating hype even back then, and the success of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ inspired the less-well remembered ‘Drake’s Ducklings’, a tag coined to described the young players under the management of Ted Drake at Chelsea. Greaves made the biggest impact of all the Ducklings, scoring on his debut (as he did at every club he turned out for) and ending his first season as Chelsea’s top scorer. When a generation of English football’s bright young things were cut down in their prime by the Munich air crash of 1958, Greaves then became the focus of the future, though he was plying his trade in a team unworthy of his talents and at a time when the fruits of his labours were limited by a maximum wage and the status of virtual serfdom where football’s governing body was concerned.

The exodus of top British footballers to the riches of Italy’s Serie A at the end of the 1950s was robbing the Football League of its brightest stars, so it was perhaps inevitable something had to give. The abolition of the maximum wage was lengthy and hard-fought, but by the time Fulham and England captain Johnny Haynes became Britain’s first £100-a-week player in 1961, Jimmy Greaves had already been sold to A.C. Milan. It was an unhappy move for Greavsie and he played barely a dozen games for the Italians before Milan accepted a bid from double winners Tottenham Hotspur to bring him back home. The sudden improvement of a top footballer’s financial lot in England also affected transfer fees, though Spurs manager Bill Nicholson spared Greaves from the burden of being the country’s first £100,000 player by signing him for the unusual fee of £99,999.

Bill Nicholson needn’t have worried that the big bucks spent to sign Greaves might affect the player’s performance. Greavsie carried on at Spurs where he’d left off at Chelsea, but playing in a far superior side; he ended his first season at White Hart Lane by lifting the FA Cup and his second saw Spurs become the first British team to win a European trophy by beating Atlético Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final. He scored in both Finals. By this time, Greavsie was well-established at international level as England’s first choice striker and his tally of 35 goals in an England shirt, reached in 1964, set a new record; he played in all four games England took part in at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and with his domestic goal-scoring remaining amongst the best in the League, his was one of the first names on Alf Ramsey’s team-sheet for the 1966 World Cup. Indeed, he played up front in all three of England’s group games at Wembley and understandably imagined it was his destiny to win the competition on home soil, a crowning glory written in the stars. Alas, an injury ruled Greavsie out of the Quarter Final, and his replacement Geoff Hurst kept the job thereafter; although Greaves was fit for the Final, Ramsey decided to stick with the same side and as this was an era before substitutes, Jimmy Greaves played no part on the pitch, forced to sit and watch from the sidelines with no prospect of participating.

Greaves himself often denied his descent into alcoholism was a consequence of the immense personal disappointment he felt at being denied his destiny in 1966; but by the time he joined West Ham in 1970, his enthusiasm for the game seemed to be waning as his fondness for alcohol appeared to be on the rise. Temptation was hardly hard to come by, however. Off the field of play there was a long-standing, hard-drinking culture within English football, and it was only really with the advent of the Premier League in the 1990s – and the new strict fitness regimes introduced via the influx of Continental coaches – that excessive boozing gradually began to be frowned upon. The rise and fall of George Best is routinely highlighted as football’s cautionary tale when it comes to alcohol, though Best’s pop star profile kept him in the public eye even when he prematurely retired. After Jimmy Greaves quit in 1971 and quickly slid from post-match boozer to professional pisshead, he vanished from sight for several years, only occasionally surfacing to turn out for non-league teams in the mid-to-late 70s before finally slipping out of the game.

Unlike George Best – who never really conquered the bottle – Jimmy Greaves did eventually succeed where Best couldn’t and overcame his demons in a remarkable fashion. By the beginning of the 1980s, Greavsie had become permanently sober and this was the point at which his second career began to take off. After impressing viewers as a pundit on ATV’s regional soccer show on a Sunday afternoon, he was recruited to the ITV team for the station’s coverage of the 1982 World Cup, introducing the whole nation to a sharp-witted middle-aged man at odds with the sad drunken has-been who’d periodically popped-up in the Sunday papers throughout the previous decade. In today’s media landscape of post-modern punditry, where a light-hearted and jokey approach to discussing the game is commonplace, it’s easy to forget how stiff and formal football presentation on television often was at the time Greavsie gatecrashed it in 1982. It could be argued he singlehandedly changed the way in which punditry was presented as an ingredient of the formula, and when he began to appear alongside ex-player Ian St John in the ‘On the Ball’ segment of ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ every Saturday lunchtime, the spark between the two prompted a spin-off.

For seven years, ‘Saint and Greavsie’ was a lynchpin in terrestrial TV’s football schedule, though it’s telling the ending of the series coincided with the arrival of the Premier League and Sky coverage. Perhaps it did seem a bit tired by then, and Greavsie himself was regularly ribbed on the far hipper likes of ‘Fantasy Football League’ from the mid-90s onwards. Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jimmy Greaves remained one of football’s true success stories from an era when there were few – if any – safety nets for players who’d fallen on hard times; he clawed his way back without the aid of any high-profile programme or campaign backed by the virtuous signalling of the FA, and a generation who’d never known him as a player came to know him as an entertainer. A funny old life when all’s said and done, but an admirable victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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SPORT FOR NOT-QUITE ALL

2020 MascotsI suppose it’s somewhat characteristic that when the BBC is onto a winner it has a habit of buggering it up. The 2012 Olympics in London saw the coming of age of the ‘Red Button’ system, enabling viewers to receive a more comprehensive coverage of events than they’d ever previously enjoyed. Not being an especially eager follower of most Olympic disciplines, I nevertheless found myself sucked-in by the hype and ended up on the edge of my seat watching – of all things – bloody show-jumping. I hadn’t even been aware of the sport since the childhood days of Harvey Smith and his two fingers, but wall-to-wall TV events like the Olympics often shine a spotlight on pursuits that receive little attention the rest of the time – just think of when curling became a national talking point during the 2002 Winter Olympics as a Scots-dominated side captured women’s gold for Great Britain. My experience in 2012 is one routinely repeated across the country whenever an occasion of this magnitude has television’s red carpet rolled out; a similar thing tends to happen during the World Cup – people who never normally take notice of football suddenly become hooked for a fortnight.

My earliest Olympic memory is of Olga Korbut in 1972; that particular tournament in Munich is the first grandiose televised sporting event I can remember, unable at the time to fathom why Dickie Davies was on the telly every day for what felt like forever (yes, ITV also covered it back then); but it’s interesting that the gruesome developments leading Munich 1972 to book its unenviable place in history are ones of which I have no memory at all – I suspect my parents were exercising a little shrewd censorship where Black September were concerned. Anyway, 40 years later, advances in TV technology took control of coverage out of schedulers’ (and parents’) hands and gave viewers the opportunity to choose what they wanted to watch; the BBC Red Button came into its own at this time and proved to be an ingenious addition to the viewing experience. And, as is customary, the Beeb then capitalised on this novel approach to the spectacle by announcing in 2019 that the text service providing complementary on-screen info on the coverage would cease due to financial cuts.

I guess the same financial cuts were to blame for ruthlessly pruning the World Service, for selling-off the legendary Maida Vale studios, and for transforming BBC4 from the most innovative and interesting BBC television platform of them all to a virtual Beeb equivalent of a repeat channel like UK Gold. Interestingly, however, such cuts (and the rapidly diminishing cash-cow of the licence fee) don’t prevent the Corporation from magically finding an annual salary of £265,000 for former ‘Loose Women’ presenter June Sarpong to act as an ‘equality tsar’, whereby Ms Sarpong works a three-day week and has access to a £100 million budget to promote ‘diversity and inclusivity’ across the BBC (albeit not at management level). Fancy that! Despite not impinging on the Corporation’s fanatical drive for transmitting Woke indoctrination courses under the guise of impartial news and drama productions, these selfsame cuts are also cited as the reason why coverage of Tokyo 2021 has turned out to be far-from comprehensive so far.

Although I myself have yet to be seduced by the postponed Olympiad in the Far East, by all accounts terrestrial viewers are hardly overjoyed by the less-than-comprehensive coverage of live events to date. What the BBC audience wasn’t really warned of in advance was the fact that the IOC flogged most of its European TV rights for the event to US pay-per-view company Discovery. This £920m package means a full Olympic schedule of the kind British viewers were served-up in 2012 and 2016 is now only accessible via Eurosport channels or a streaming service called Discovery+, which will cost the viewer £6.99 a month on top of the TV licence. This deal was sealed in 2016, though it’s understandable that most had forgotten about it five years on (if they even heard about it at the time); not until the overhyped pre-Olympics build-up did viewers then tune in expecting more of the same, only to find a stripped-down service that the BBC is blaming on a threadbare budget that prevented it from outbidding Discovery for the full broadcast rights.

What terrestrial TV has ended up with is a compromise not unlike the one the Beeb has struck with the Premier League; in that case, live coverage of games is the province of subscription channels whilst the highlights package remains reserved for BBC1 and its Saturday night ‘Match of the Day’ institution. But that’s for a full eight-month football season; the Olympics, by contrast, span barely a couple of weeks and only take place every four (or five) years. Without the luxury of farming-out the less sexy sports to the Red Button, there has to be extensive live (and preferably exciting) coverage to warrant the takeover of BBC1 for the duration, especially when sporting events doing so usually provoke the ire of non-sporty types who resent their favourite shows disappearing from the schedules.

Apparently, the IOC’s arrangement with Discovery has a caveat that makes limited live coverage available to free-to-air broadcasters, something that was mainly inserted to prevent what was already a far more vulnerable tournament than usual from suffering a downturn in global TV audiences. However, this means that, unlike the last two Olympics (when the Red Button service enabled viewers to pick and choose which individual sports they fancied and could watch the complete event at their leisure), this time round the BBC is allowed to screen no more than two live events simultaneously – one on BBC1 and the other via the Red Button; the interactive, multi-choice Olympics of 2012 and 2016 are not an option in 2021 unless you’re prepared to pay extra, and this scenario for me defeats the object of the exercise as a televisual spectacle. The whole point of the Olympics on TV is that the causal viewer can stumble upon an unlikely sport – such as show-jumping or curling – and become addicted to the outcome without any premeditated expectations; it’s one of the things that justifies the OTT coverage. Without that, what’s the point? Otherwise, you may as well just broadcast the glamour track & field disciplines live and sod the rest.

Ever since the advent of Sky Sports 30 years ago and the dangling of lucrative carrots before football, cricket and boxing governing bodies, pay-per-view sport on TV has been a fact of life terrestrial broadcasters have had to live and compete with. But even having the so-called ‘crown jewels’ of free-to-air events such as the Grand National, Wimbledon and the FA Cup Final ring-fenced by Parliamentary legislation hasn’t prevented the money-driven agenda of the IOC – the same one that determines who hosts the Olympics – from infiltrating its TV coverage; FIFA is much the same, which is why a wholly unsuitable country with an appalling human rights record such as Qatar will be hosting the next World Cup in the middle of Europe’s domestic football season. This year’s delayed Olympiad is the first time such an agenda has shaped its accessibility to TV viewers, and it leaves the BBC in particular looking more like some second-rate, old-school ITV regional franchise holder like Border Television or TSW than the planet’s premier broadcaster with an international reputation stretching back almost a full century.

‘The BBC is no longer able to offer live-streams of every sport during the Olympics due to the terms of the licensing arrangements laid down by the rights holder, Discovery,’ reads the official Beeb statement following criticism of the Corporation’s coverage so far. The broadcasting wing of the IOC has also declared it will make changes when it comes to those sports that draw a sizeable male audience for perhaps not necessarily the discipline itself, i.e. the likes of beach volleyball and gymnastics. The IOC says it will clamp down on ‘sexualised images’ of female athletes during broadcasts, though whether this includes the meat-and-two veg of ‘female’ weightlifters being visible beneath the lycra remains to be seen. Either way, these Olympics look like being the most pared-down since 1948 – not so much post-Covid as make-do-and-mend.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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