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

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PLAYING FIELDS OF GOLD

MurrayFor years, sport in the summer months was an annual (or bi-annual) exercise in national humiliation for either England or the UK as a whole. How many Ashes defeats? How many Wimbledon whimpers? And how many deflating exits from either the World Cup or the European Championships? Most of us were raised in the shadows of legends and were taught that once upon a time we used to be the best at sports we invented, before the colonies and other countries we exported those sports to at the end of the Imperial era gradually overtook us and turned the teacher/pupil relationship upside down. A decline on the playing fields we’d laid out in the first place appeared to mirror a decline in our overall global standing, as though one was inexorably related to the other, and the past was somewhere we’d always been world champions. For endless decades, the last Brit to have won the men’s singles crown in SW19 had been before the Second World War; the name Fred Perry was once an ubiquitous yardstick TV viewers grew tired of being referenced year-after-year, yet it seemed he’d always be mentioned to remind us of our collective ineptitude at a game we become obsessed with for a solitary fortnight whenever June bleeds into July.

The England cricket team had the tables turned on it by the Aussies quite early, losing its first Test match to the uppity Antipodeans as far back as 1882; this prompted the infamous mock obituary that proclaimed ‘the death of English cricket’ following the defeat at the Oval, and gave birth to the Ashes series. The England football team managed to sustain the illusion a little longer, until overconfidence was punctured by two severe lessons in the early 1950s – a 1-0 loss to the amateurs of the USA at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and the 6-3 thrashing by Hungary at Wembley in 1953 (which was England’s first defeat on home soil by Continental opposition since 1066). The latter result coming in the wake of the morale-boosting conquest of Everest served as a telling reminder that our spell on top of the world wasn’t destined to last long.

Of course, the England football team recovered and eventually did the business in 1966; but thereafter it was a slow slide back into international ignominy – the 3-2 loss to the West Germans in the 1970 World Cup after being 2-0 up; being outclassed by an even better German side 3-1 at Wembley in the 1972 European Championships; and then the ultimate humiliation, failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Poland in 1973, a result that cost Sir Alf his job. To make matters worse, that World Cup was to be held in West Germany, and even worse (from an English perspective) the Scots had qualified. Yet, the whole country having to drape itself in tartan then became the new narrative of national failure. Despite having an abundance of talent at its disposal in terms of players who had lifted every club trophy north and south of the border (as well as in Europe), the Scotland teams we had little choice but to support in 1974 and 1978 heaped further humiliation on the nation, failing to get past the group stage on both occasions and producing some memorably embarrassing score-lines in the process.

My childhood exposure to summer sport on a national level was one characterised by bewilderment and questions. I wondered why England never qualified for the World Cup, why only British women occasionally won Wimbledon (though even that ended with Virginia Wade in 1977), and why the Aussies always won the Ashes. It was probably a good life lesson, actually, to realise that you can’t always get what you want – even if it would’ve been nice to have got it every once in a while. Any tiny sign that we might have sired a world-beater was grabbed with gusto. Although the tally of Great British gold medals at the first few Olympic Games I saw was pretty pitiful (never exceeding more than 5 from Munich in 1972 and plunging to a nadir of just the one at Atlanta in 1996), it probably helped propel the elite athletes who did get their hands on gold to levels of fame they’d otherwise have evaded – even if it also contributed towards the risible comedy cult of Eddie ‘The Eagle’, who was celebrated for being crap and accelerated the tedious ‘Plucky Brit’ narrative.

In sports not associated with the summer months we seemed to do better. We were always good at Formula One, for example, with the likes of Jackie Stewart and James Hunt crowned world champions during my formative years; and in boxing we appeared to have several champs in different weights, even if the one everybody wanted – the heavyweight – remained impervious to our efforts, despite the likes of Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and Frank Bruno all having a shot. We were no better come the time of year when strawberries & cream were the delicacy of choice. After Roger Taylor reached three Wimbledon semis between 1967 and 1973, there then followed an interminably lengthy period in which futile hopes rested with the likes of John Lloyd or Jeremy Bates, both of whom the viewer knew would wilt when confronted by a genuine world-beater – and they always did. And then Tim Henman appeared out of nowhere.

Despite looking and sounding like a member of the Shadow Cabinet from the years when the Tories were cast out into Opposition, and despite attracting the kind of unhinged granny fan-base that camps outside London hospitals for days when a royal birth is imminent, on court Henman exceeded every expectation bar one. Four Wimbledon semis between 1998 and 2002 was undoubtedly impressive considering what had preceded him, yet he just couldn’t cross that line into the final. What Britain needed at Wimbledon was the kind of figure that had given English cricket a kick up the arse in the 80s, Ian Botham. The immortal Ashes turnaround of 1981 made ‘Beefy’ an old-fashioned ‘Boys Own’ national hero, with Botham not only socking it to the Aussies but the stuffy old MCC fossils as well; his off-the-field antics also played their part in his legend, and it was a long time before English cricket again came close to the heights it had scaled with its best all-rounder leading the charge. It was hard to imagine an Englishman bringing that to the refined arena of Wimbledon, so perhaps it took a Scot to do it.

A contrast with gentleman Henman’s Home Counties niceness, Andy Murray’s rages at himself when a shot went astray was a joy to behold as a Brit. Here was a player with fire in his belly and a will to win none of us had ever seen before. His progress up the world rankings was rapid, reaching his first Grand Slam final in 2008 (the US Open) and the first of three consecutive Wimbledon semis the following year. In 2012, he went one better and became the first post-war male Brit to reach the singles final, though couldn’t make it past the immovable object of Roger Federer; however, that same year he did achieve a unique double of the US Open and Olympic gold. A year later, the British hoodoo was smashed when Murray won Wimbledon, beating the mighty Novak Djokovic in straight sets; a second Wimbledon win followed in 2016, with Murray’s glorious battles becoming intrinsic to the Great British Summer for a good few years in the 2010s.

The 2012 Olympics in London was a pretty qualified success for this country on many levels, not least the amount of medals won (including 29 gold) that placed us third on the final board; investment in British athletics from the Olympic low of 1996 onwards had paid off. The England cricket team’s memorably dramatic 2019 World Cup win (reminiscent of that edge-of-the-seat Ashes triumph in 2005), when placed alongside the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and Murray’s achievements, could put forward the argument that the 2010s were British summer sport’s golden age. The one area in which we continued to struggle on the global stage was football. Anyone who witnessed the atrocious capitulation to the minnows of Iceland at the 2016 Euros cannot fail to be impressed at the transformation overseen by Gareth Southgate’s management since then. A World Cup semi in 2018 and now one step closer to completing something my generation (the first with no memory of 1966) has had to live without longer than any other. And all we have to do is beat Italy…

© The Editor

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ALL GIRLS TOGETHER

Bernard BresslawAlthough it’s always been intrinsic to the Great British Summer, it’s nonetheless still going to take time getting used to the return of Wimbledon next week after two years’ away. Politicians and media types may well be doing their utmost to convince us things are all-but normal again, but those of us at street level know this is bullshit. The resumption of annual events in the sporting calendar is, I suppose, a good way of projecting the illusion of normality, though it’ll be interesting to survey the composition of Centre Court a fortnight from now to see how many empty seats there are and how many of those filled are filled by punters looking like they’re poised to perform a surgical operation; that’s not normal, and let’s not pretend otherwise. Anyway, after a cancelled 2020, a regular viewer of the drama at the All-England Club such as yours truly will have to reacquaint himself with the stars of the sport now that many of the names that have dominated tennis for the last couple of decades have either hung up their racquets or are nearing game, set & match for good.

Having experienced something of a Golden Age over the last 20 years, the men’s game seems to be in something of an uncertain interregnum at the moment, with no real eye-catching challengers to the ageing triumvirate of titans who aren’t yet being edged off the court in the way they surely should be by now. In the past, when the chaps seemed to be going through the motions, I often turned to the women’s game; it was far more entertaining to tune into the girls during the deadly dull Pete Sampras era, though I’d be hard-pressed to name more than three or four top women players at the moment. Perhaps it’s time to relax the rules a little, to place tennis in line with other sports that have decided possession of a vagina is no longer a prerequisite to compete in women’s events; if one’s testosterone level is low enough, you’re in, luv. An apparently average weightlifter who goes by the name of Laurel Hubbard struggled to shine when competing against his fellow fellers – until he decided to declare himself a lady in 2012 and his/her career suddenly took off; Hubbard has now been selected to represent New Zealand in the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics.

Let’s be honest – it would have to be one of the English-speaking nations to have taken this unprecedented step; after all, only the Anglosphere appears to have bought into this bullshit. Watching the opening moments of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament, what a relief it was to be spared a visual lecture when the Italy and Turkey teams responded to the referee’s whistle by kicking off the game rather than striking a pose implying they were about to ask for each other’s hands in marriage. The mother tongue of Planet Woke is English – sad but true. When the FA proclaimed in no uncertain words that anyone booing the taking of the knee was racist, the participating teams from mainland Europe must have rolled their eyes along with the majority of football fans in this country. The first England fixture at Wembley saw the usual misguided virtue-signalling entered into, yet the fact the Croatia players didn’t follow suit made England’s insistence on slavishly sticking to the pose look even more stupid. And fans booed, of course. Maybe they’d just come to watch some sport as opposed to a party political broadcast.

Anyway, the presence of a ‘Transgender’ athlete in Tokyo will be, I guess, viewed as another victory for the Identitarian crusade as the politicisation of sport continues unimpeded. It’s interesting that the first sport affected by this issue to fall under the global spotlight is one notorious for the less…er…feminine attributes of its participants. Those of us old enough to have memories of Iron Curtain countries participating in Olympic events, when the likes of the GDR entered female athletes so pumped-up with performance-enhancing chemicals that many of them were more masculine than the athletes competing in the male event, won’t be surprised that weightlifting has led the way in the bending of biological qualification. Apparently, the IOC guidelines specify that surgery is not necessary as long as a transgender athlete’s testosterone levels remain below 10 nanomoles per litre for a full year; this doesn’t appear to take into account the standard female levels of testosterone average between 0.3 and 2.4 nanomoles per litre, suggesting there is immediately an advantage for male competitors competing against female ones. And that’s not even mentioning all those aspects of physical male development from puberty, those of height, weight, muscle and bone density – which non-surgery transgender types still carry – that make a man (whether or not he decides he’s now a woman) a far stronger individual than any natural-born woman.

There are many sports whose sex-segregation has always seemed to me like a hangover from another era, ones I often feel should be open for men and women to compete against each other on a level playing field – golf, for example; or snooker; or darts; maybe even Formula One. None of these are exclusively dependent on physical strength, a quality that will always give a man advantage over a woman. If female jockeys can compete against their male counterparts – and win, as was demonstrated at this year’s historic Grand National – I don’t really see why the sexes should be divided in any of the specific sports mentioned. In the more athletic events that emphasise the physical prowess of the participants, however – and the headline-grabbing ones at the Olympic Games tend to be these – women’s sport is in danger of being reduced to a laughing stock. By all accounts, the moving of the goalposts in track & field at high-school level in the US has resulted in a predictable success rate for boys identifying as girls; the actual girls are naturally a bit miffed by this, seeing potential paths to Olympic glory being suddenly blocked by blokes. So much for Girl Power.

New Zealand’s transgender hero (heroine?) Laurel Hubbard is 43-years-old; I suspect he/her wouldn’t have got anywhere near selection for Tokyo in his/her former guise, yet the fact a competitor in their early 40s has got there at the expense of a genuine female weightlifter in her 20s highlights the farcical nature of allowing past-it men to take this backdoor route to the Olympics and depriving women in their prime of the opportunity in the process. Does that seem like a fair example of the Olympian ideal, let alone a triumph for feminism? Of course, weightlifting being an individual – as opposed to team – event means we have yet to see the extreme ludicrousness of this trend, though it’s only a matter of time. I can’t help thinking of the Python sketch in which John Cleese plays a brain-dead, knuckle-head boxer whose big fight comes against a little girl in pigtails (played by Connie Booth); the fight itself basically consists of Cleese repeatedly flooring his hapless opponent with one simple punch over and over again.

When tennis legend Martina Navratilova spoke out against what was happening, she was exposed to the full force of trans-activist trolldom, which just goes to show even someone who arguably did more to raise the level of athletic excellence in women’s sport than anyone before or since – and did a hell of a lot to forward the cause of gay people in sport, lest we forget – is not immune to being shouted down and silenced. A separate transgender category in sport would seem a fair compromise, though would this enable Laurel Hubbard to grab gold? Any TV sports presenter or commentator confronted by the sight of the New Zealander strutting his/her stuff with the weights in Tokyo will probably feel as though they’re commentating on a state funeral, over-mindful of not saying the wrong thing or making light of the sight for fear of being delivered their P45 the following day. So they will have to pretend this is just, like, normal – as will the team covering Wimbledon when greeted by half-empty stands peppered with masked punters sat in isolation from one another. As Jimmy Greaves used to say, it’s a funny old game.

© The Editor

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HACKED OFFSKI

palsWhen Arsenal are awarded a disputed penalty, Arsene Wenger never sees the contentious incident that provoked it; on the other hand, when a penalty is awarded against Arsenal, Wenger has a meticulous recall of the foul that led to the spot-kick, as though he’d been inches away from the tackle. Similarly, Donald Trump swore the FBI were unmistakably accurate when they added to the Clinton email saga just days before the US electorate went to the polls – ‘Bigger than Watergate’, you may recall; now that the CIA have confirmed Russians hacked into confidential Democrat files that they then leaked to the media in order to assist the President Elect’s passage to the White House, Trump won’t have any of it.

What real impact intervention by hackers might have had on the US Presidential campaign is hard to tell this near to events in October and November. In many respects, Hillary Clinton didn’t need hackers to bugger things up for her; she was more than capable of doing so on her own, whereas Trump seemed able to get away with saying whatever he liked, however obnoxious and reprehensible, and it only added to his popularity ratings. He can therefore greet the CIA announcement with scepticism and dismiss those who are worried about the ease with which America’s perceived enemies can access private information. Even notable Republican John McCain went on US TV to declare his belief in the CIA’s findings, though Obama’s 2008 opponent is practically a Socialist next to some of the party’s leading loons that Trump has recruited, so his opinion doesn’t count.

According to the CIA, the Russian hackers also targeted the Republican Party, though declined to pass on whatever they found out to WikiLeaks; I suppose one might conclude it would be handy for Moscow to have something on them for safe keeping. But it was evident from the off that Trump would be Putin’s preferred candidate for the Presidency, so if the revelations of the CIA are indeed true, perhaps there’s more to this than simply sour grapes on the part of the Democrats. That said, the priority for America right now should be less about the blame game and more about upgrading their software.

Bearing in mind the increasing sophistication of hackers that forever seem to be one step ahead of the systems in place to prevent them doing their job, it would be no great surprise if the CIA’s findings are genuine. Trump and Putin have never hidden their macho admiration for each other and yet one cannot help but feel that the Al Capone of the Kremlin, with his KGB/Stasi background, looks at his American counterpart and sees a pliable idiot who only requires a little ego-massaging to make him favourable to Moscow. There are understandable concerns that this will be the case when the two men eventually meet in person as world leaders, so the timing of the CIA’s conclusions re the hackers is as fortuitous as the timing of the FBI’s conclusions re Hillary Clinton’s emails.

These revelations come hot on the heels of last week’s condemnations of Russia’s institutionalised doping regime in sporting circles, specifically the Olympic Games. I’ve no doubt Russia does engage in dubious medical practices where their athletes are concerned; the Soviet Bloc as a whole was notorious for it, and there’s no reason to suppose practices changed when the Iron Curtain was dismantled twenty-five years ago. But the allegations against British athletes that emerged via documents leaked online several months ago, presumably from Russian hackers again, revealed that many of our great Olympians are apparently at it as well – though their tracks were covered by the fact that most of them are stricken with asthma, believe it or not, which makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Again, fortuitous timing switches the spotlight East once more.

The propaganda war between Russia and the West is, as it was during the Cold War, a game of extreme exaggeration on both sides with a grain of truth always present; and the one-upmanship of acquiring a defector retains its point-scoring prestige. A Nureyev or Philby figure was a prized weapon back in the day, and with Russian athlete Yuliya Stepanova blowing the whistle on the State doping programme of her homeland – a brave move necessitating her flight from the country to a clandestine location somewhere in Western Europe – ‘our’ side holds the current moral pawn.

It suits the West’s narrative on Russia (not to mention deflecting attention away from European and American sporting doping) to focus solely on its wrongdoing in a tournament that long ago shed its amateur ethos and pretences to fair play, just as it equally suits that narrative to condemn its involvement in Syria, even when we and the Americans are effective sponsors of what the Saudis are doing in Yemen. Trump labelled Castro a ‘ruthless dictator’ upon the death of the former Cuban leader, yet the human rights abuses attributed to Fidel’s regime are far exceeded by the crimes against humanity committed by some overseas allies of the West. But, of course, the bad guys are the ones who wear the black hats, and it is those with the white ones who select which heads will be donning this season’s ebony headgear.

© The Editor

SPORT FOR ALL

vlcsnap-2016-08-06-15h19m40s6The Silly Season has not always been the exclusive province of Fleet Street. British television’s summer schedules traditionally adhere to the theory that the viewers whose ratings contributions can be relied upon in the autumn and winter months are busy enjoying themselves outdoors; whether grilling severed segments of animal carcasses at barbeques or gridlocked in traffic jams en route to holiday destinations, watching the telly is supposedly low on the list of activities. The mainstream channels respond accordingly and basically shove all their shit on when they think nobody is watching. Granted, these days it’s not always evident what time of the year one is watching the box, so low have standards sunk; but if you want the worst British TV can offer, June, July and August are the months to tune-in. It feels to me like quite a gamble on the part of programme schedulers, considering the wayward nature of the Great British Summer, though the practice nevertheless persists.

Sport can be viewed as summer’s saving grace from the point of view of TV mandarins, the one guarantee of high viewing figures. Wimbledon is an annual dead-cert, especially if Andy Murray does the business, and then there are always the bi-annual attractions of the alternating World Cup or Olympic Games. Of course, in an era of Sky and other specialist sports channels, pickings are thinner on the ground for mainstream terrestrial broadcasters. In recent years, the BBC has surrendered numerous major events to Murdoch and his ilk, yet it’s interesting to look at how the BBC – more so than ITV – used to juggle its abundance of live coverage.

A glance through some copies of the Radio Times from the summer of 1974 sees live test cricket coverage on both BBC1 and BBC2 in the week that the World Cup in West Germany kicks off, though largely occupying those great swathes of empty hours on the junior BBC channel and only appearing on the senior channel when the schools programmes are finished for the day. When the World Cup begins at the back-end of the week, the teatime children’s schedule is shunted over to BBC2, though normal programming is only temporarily shuffled due to the fact that ITV is also covering the tournament – as was the case with the Olympics up to (and including) Moscow 1980.

A month later, live coverage of the Open Golf Championship and the England Vs India test series is juggled with International Show Jumping (yes, live!) and then Wimbledon. Yet, even though all of these sports are exclusive to the BBC, there is room within a two-channel system to accommodate them all as well as regular programming for those for whom sport holds no interest whatsoever. Other events trumpeted during what the RT keeps referring to as ‘Great Summer of Sport’ include the British Grand Prix, county championship cricket, international athletics, horse-racing and USPGA golf. Quite a line-up to cram into two channels, yet the BBC managed it without intruding too much upon everything else and incurring the wrath of the ‘I don’t pay my licence fee for this kind of thing’ brigade.

During the last Olympics, which were held (how could we forget?) in London, the BBC not only swamped BBC1 and BBC2 with disciplines, but also made use of its red button facility as well as BBC3. The way in which the Corporation’s outlets were ruthlessly utilised for an event that its ancient rival no longer covered seemed to support occasional demands for a specialist sports channel to be added to the expanding BBC portfolio. In 2012, BBC4 was left standing as the solitary Beeb TV alternative to the Olympics overkill, and though I myself (as with many other non-fanatics) was occasionally swept up in the euphoria as the nation’s athletes shot up the medal table, it was nice to have an escape that wasn’t one of the dumb & dumber ITV digital channels.

In the summer of 2012, Jimmy Savile’s posthumous shadow had yet to cast itself across the Corporation, and the era of spineless kowtowing to Parliamentary Select Committees, Murdoch and the Mail hadn’t been envisaged; little did the BBC know what was around the corner during the heady evening of ‘Super Saturday’ at the Olympic Stadium. How things have changed four years on. Timid downsizing is the order of the day. BBC3 has disappeared online and the BBC has to constantly justify its existence. With this in mind, it pours its resources into the great sporting events it still has live coverage of, and the decision has been taken to essentially hand over the entire remaining BBC TV channels to Rio for the next three weeks.

BBC1, BBC2 and even BBC4 have effectively been rebranded as ‘BBC Sports’ for the duration of the 2016 Olympic Games, even though time differences between Blightly and Brazil should mean that most of the contest will probably be taking place live in the wee small hours, thus negating daytime dominance. This, however, is not the impression given via a cursory glance through this week’s edition of the Radio Times. The evidence suggests there is no break in the sporting schedule whatsoever; it’s a 24-hour service. London 2012 was different in that the Olympics were here for the first time since 1948, and the BBC was expected to go a little overboard; but no such excuse can be offered up this time round. Basically, if you don’t like sport, there’s always…er…well, DVD box-sets, I guess.

Leaving the BBC viewer without a BBC alternative is pretty bloody outrageous; but every single second of every single moment of this tournament has to be broadcast by the BBC in order that it can continue to cover the competition every four years, so terrified is it of losing out to commercial competitors. Imagine if it still had access to all the sports it had access to in 1974 – what would it do? I dread to think; but I’ve a feeling that sandwiching them between programmes for non-sporty types would not be an option now.

© The Editor

WE HAVE WAYS OF MAKING YOU WIN

SochiWhenever Sir Humphrey Appleby wanted an especially tricky issue kicking into the long grass on ‘Yes Minister’, he would propose an inquiry to put-upon Jim Hacker as a means of burying it – never a public inquiry, of course; it would always be an in-house affair chaired by someone purposely chosen to ensure a verdict that would absolve Hacker’s ministry of all responsibility. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this process when reading of Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban all Russian track and field athletes from the imminent Rio Olympics following claims of Russia’s state-sponsored performance-enhancing doping of its Olympians in a damning report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. After announcing all the named officials had been suspended pending an inquiry, Tsar Vladimir nominated an honorary Russian member of the IOC to head an anti-doping commission; Putin also apparently wants his nominee, Vitaly Smirnov, to make sure the stable doors are bolted now that the horses have buggered off.

‘The official position of the Russian authorities, the government and the president, all of us, is that there can be no place for doping in sport’ – those were the words of Vlad when confronted by the claims of his nation’s own former national anti-doping laboratory head, Grigory Rodchenkov, a man who is now on the Kremlin’s hit-list after his allegations appear to have been given credibility in the eyes of the IOC by the WADA report. Descriptions of how Russia assembled a veritable piss-bank of clean urine samples that were then ingeniously swapped with contaminated ones in an elaborate scam involving the Russian secret service, the FSB, are worthy of a Cold War spy novel.

These practices are alleged to have begun in earnest following demands for improvement after Russia’s low medal count at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. With Putin viewing the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in the Russian Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, as his very own ‘Berlin ‘36’ moment, he spent £37.7 billion to impress the watching world and obviously required a return on his investment via a vastly superior performance by the host nation’s athletes than they had managed four years previously. Positive drug tests miraculously vanished where Russian competitors were concerned and the country found itself top of the medal table by the end, boasting 33 in total, considerably up from the tally of 15 in Vancouver. Grigory Rodchenkov alleges a third of Russian medals awarded at the Sochi games were won courtesy of doping. According to the WADA report, 580 positive tests across 30 different disciplines were successfully suppressed for the four-year period the scam was in use.

It goes without saying that Russian athletes are hardly unique when it comes to enhancing their performances with illicit substances; but if what the WADA report claims is true, the scale and professionalism of the operation the Russian sports authorities evidently embarked upon before Sochi is unprecedented. Blaming it on a few isolated individuals would be akin to blaming Hack-Gate on a small handful of rogue reporters as opposed to the billion-dollar organisation that employed them. But should we really be surprised?

Throughout the Cold War, there was no shortage of suspicions regarding athletes from Iron Curtain countries whenever the wider world had the rare opportunity to see them in action during international competitions. Some of the female competitors were remarkably masculine, to say the least – often making Giant Haystacks resemble a passable Lynsey de Paul lookalike. Only when the Iron Curtain collapsed and countries such as the GDR ceased to exist did some of those competitors finally speak about the systematic abuse of their bodies by chemicals provided by the state, an abuse that was standard practice for decades. Is it any wonder that the kind of government Putin has established in Russia should revert to old-school Soviet tactics now that winning at the expense of fair play has become the be-all and end-all of a tournament too huge for its own good?

The increased pressures and demands on big name countries to triumph in sporting competitions is apparent with each one that comes around; even the BBC commentator midway through the dreary European Championships Final of a couple of weeks ago was moved to ask what the last exciting international football final the viewers could remember seeing actually was. I shouted at the telly ‘The 1986 World Cup Final – Argentina 3 West Germany 2!’ There have been seven World Cup Finals since then, and they’ve all been played by men who look terrified of putting a foot wrong for fear it will lead to their nation’s humiliation. And now they also have to contend with what social media will make of them.

Sporting records are set to be broken, but one wonders how much faster a human being can run, how much higher he can leap and how much further he can jump. Yes, intensive training programmes, developments in diet and a more educated awareness of what constitutes physical wellbeing have all played their part in the vast improvements that have been made in track and field over the past fifty years; but how much does the breaking of records owe to doping? How far are nations, let alone individuals, prepared to go? Ask Vlad.

© The Editor

WHAT PRICE SPORT?

OlympicsWhat became known as ‘The Austerity Olympics’ were held in 1948, with a still Blitz-scarred London the host city; they were they first Olympic Games staged since the notorious Nazi propaganda-fest of Berlin in 1936 and the amateur age of athletics was more evident than ever, with male competitors housed in RAF and Army camps while female competitors made do with ladies’ colleges, and both sexes were restricted to a diet of rations; there was no room for millionaire prima-donnas in 1948. No new venues were built to hold the 19 sport disciplines in the schedule, but the capital could boast the likes of Wembley Stadium, the Empire Pool, Earls Court and various football grounds. Cost-cutting was paramount, though from all accounts it was a successful tournament and a positive return to sporting normality after the war years.

The 1948 London Olympics was the fourteenth modern tournament since the event’s official revival fifty-two years previously, and like many of the great global events that continue to the present day it had relatively humble beginnings. The football World Cup, inaugurated in Uruguay in 1930, was similarly small-scale with many of the leading European nations – including England – failing to participate. One only has to consider the length of time it took to travel from Europe to South America by sea in 1930 to understand the reluctance of the FA to take part in what many regarded as a minor tournament that would probably end up as a quickly-forgotten one-off. Television, let alone satellite technology, was in its experimental infancy, so looking ahead to a future whereby events in every corner of the planet could be beamed into living rooms around the world was pure sci-fi.

The first Eurovision Song Contest was held in Switzerland in 1956, the debut venture into Europe-wide broadcasting attempted at a time when the continent was bitterly divided and lingered in the shadow of the Second World War. Just seven nations participated in what became an annual event rather than the four-year schedule of the Olympics and World Cup, and although the number of competing countries fluctuated for the first thirty years of its existence, the line-up averaged no more than 20-21 nations until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc saw a sudden increase in the amount of participants during the early 1990s.

Like the Olympics and World Cup, the Eurovision Song Contest has swollen way beyond its initial origins and the cost of staging a competition with such a huge worldwide television audience and the need for it now to be held in a massive venue capable of holding thousands rather than the old theatres has presented many host nations with a financial headache. Identical problems on an even bigger scale have afflicted those cities selected to host the Olympics, with Rio the latest host city to find itself confronting difficulties as a result of winning the bidding process.

A serious economic crisis is facing the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro, with the Governor declaring a financial emergency at the weekend. Coming at a time when this summer’s Olympics are less than fifty days from opening, the denials that this calamity will affect Rio’s ability to host the contest suggests there has been a good deal of head-burying on Copacabana beach. Coupled with concerns over the Zika virus, the last thing Brazil really needs at this moment is an influx of upwards of 500,000 visitors expecting a grandiose festival of sport when the future of Rio’s public services is balanced on a perilous knife-edge.

There is an argument that an Olympics or a World Cup brings in corporate investment and raises the morale of the nation, but it’s rare for financial benefits to filter down to the masses, and Brazil in particular has long had an infamous problem with poverty that it’s hard to see being solved by hosting its second major sporting event in two years (the World Cup was held there, of course, in 2014). Commercial pressures and the increasing power of sponsorship on the part of multi-national brands marketing each competition with tie-ins and cash-ins that saturate coverage are a long way from the amateur ethos of 1896. Even the money spent on merely the opening ceremony is staggering – an alleged $100 million for Beijing in 2008. In the same way that a so-called musical event like Glastonbury has become just another corporate carnival a long way from the purpose behind its distant founding, the Olympics appear to have little to do with Pierre de Coubertin’s vision anymore.

One has to ask if such major mega-events that have outgrown their original remit are worth the expense and the crippling cost of their aftermath when they last no more than three weeks at the most. Also, considering the recent corruption revelations of football’s world governing body FIFA and not dissimilar accusations being levelled at the Olympics’ equivalent the IOC, the question arises as to whether or not they need to go back to basics and simply start afresh on a more affordable scale than they have gradually acquired, though with the obscene amounts of money invested in them, it’s difficult to envisage that ever happening.

The modern Olympic Games have now reached the ripe old age of 120; the World Cup 86; the Eurovision 60; and even a relative newcomer such as football’s European Championships tournament is 56 years old. It’s horrific to imagine how much bigger they can become, though will anybody even be able to afford staging any of them fifty years from now – and is it really worth it?

© The Editor