Thursday, September 30, 2004

Why Harmison is a true hero

So Steve Harmison is the only England player to have backed out of the forthcoming tour to Zimbabwe on moral grounds. Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff may have been spared a trip in order to give them more rest (and indeed one of the huge benefits behind Harmison's decision not to tour, from an Englishman's point of view, is that he has less chance of breaking down in the following series against South Africa and Australia), and Andrew Strauss may have voiced "moral problems" regarding touring a country in such a troubled time, but Harmison is the only player to have listened to his conscience and decided that touring Zimbabwe was simply immoral.

Of course, there are many other reasons as to why backing out of a tour of Zimbabwe would have been the right thing to do. England refused to play a World Cup match in Harare in early 2003 on security grounds, and by many accounts the security situation has significantly deteriorated. And if that is the case, given the derisory security requirements of the ICC, then pulling out on those grounds would be more than justified. Yes, other teams may have toured Zimbabwe safely in the intervening period, but no other country has precisely the same squabble - many of the farmers being turfed out are British citizens - and Britain is the country on the receiving end of Mugabe's rhetoric against imperialists and colonials. Furthermore, the clamour against the Zimbabwe situation is much stronger in Britain than elsewhere, even if the constant fuss made by the Conservative Party does somewhat outweigh the true merits of the situation (in one particularly memorable interview, Ancram said Blair shouldn't be touring Nigeria while there was a crisis in Zimbabwe but proved incapable of either justifying this or explaining what Blair should do to oust Mugabe). England's players would have been perfectly justified in saying they were fearful regarding security.

Additionally, the standard of the Zimbabwe team is nothing short of appalling, at least as far as international cricket goes. They may have the most interesting first names in world cricket (Prosper and Blessing being especially memorable) but, captain Tatenda Taibu apart, their talent is quite simply not up to international level. Hence the ICC have removed their Test status whilst keeping them as a one-day side, which is fair enough, given that Kenya and Bangladesh hold one-day status. (Although forcing England to play Zimbabwe in light of the shockingly small amount of cricket played against Kenya is equally questionable). England, however, would be well within their rights to send a significantly weakened squad to Zimbabwe - indeed, given that in the absence of action from the government the tour seemed inevitable, my preferred course of action would have been to send an Academy side to make points about the level of cricket that was to be expected. It will not be an instructive exercise for the English team and with the amount of international cricket that is played nowadays it represents an unnecessary burden on our top players.

Accusations of hypocrisy are unfair and unfounded. Of course, it is hard to read the linked article without laughing nowadays, given its claim that "By and large its team is chosen on its merits." The sacking of 15 - white - players over the summer in a dispute over contracts and selection procedures snapped writers like this out of their comfort zone. But still it fails to acknowledge that ultimately Britain was right. The scruples with a particular regime do genuinely extend beyond the sphere of politics. The country is in turmoil, the economy has collapsed, any notions of a free press and judiciary are carefully tossed on the fire by Mr Mugabe's henchmen, and the opposition "Movement for Democratic Change", in the middle of their persecution, have made it clear that England turning up for a cricket tour helps legitimise the regime.

The Labour party have placed the ECB in an invidious position. Sponsors do not want England to tour, but the threatened financial penalties from the ICC, along with the willingness of many subcontinental officials (particularly the odious Jagmohan Dalmiya) to put accusations of racism ahead of the moral authority of the organisation mean that unless there is a clear governmental directive to cancel the tour, it has to go ahead. The grass-roots game could not survive another fine of the sort that was imposed on England following the World Cup fiasco - a punishment almost inevitable in the event of cancellation, although the threaten of suspension from world cricket was never likely as a solution. But the government's refusal to give clear instructions to the team to boycott Zimbabwe was a clear abdication of responsibility. It might fool some of the British people, but Blairite spin was never going to impress the ICC. Only a letter from a member of the cabinet saying, in effect "thou shalt not tour" would have been accepted. If, as this article suggests, Blair was merely trying to mollify people for a bid for the 2012 Olympics, then this abdication is even more disgraceful.

Yet I seriously doubt the Government would act from motives such as that. Instead they cling to their line that "politics should stay out of sport" because otherwise they will be seen as far too interventionist. And, although it didn't prevent intervention in Iraq, wading in on smaller measures such as a sporting boycott of Zimbabwe would undoubtedly lead to all kinds of hand-wringing over other subjects - what if the England football team was to be drawn against Sudan in the World Cup, for example? Their refusal to help the ECB in their otherwise impossible position was, however, wrong. Sport and politics do mix. Of course, the aforementioned Dalmiya should know this, given that Kashmir is the biggest factor in the infrequent meetings between India and Pakistan. Politics and cricket go back a long way - take the campaign for Frank Worrell, a black man, to be made captain of the West Indies, or go back further and look at the diplomatic crisis that the Bodyline tour caused. And it isn't just cricket. The German national team played considerably more friendlies during the inter-war period as the Weimar Republic AND the Nazis sought to convince the world they posed no threat - how could they, if their football team were busy being such perfect ambassadors? Even now, China is using sport as a means of increasing its influence on the world stage (a topic I will undoubtedly return to later).

In Zimbabwe, of course, it is cricket that is the political vehicle for Mugabe. We've all seen the pictures of Mike Atherton, as captain, shaking Mugabe's hand. Mugabe, indeed, is President of the ZCU - showing that Zimbabwean cricket really is free from political influence. The selection panel contains a high proportion of people who have little cricket background and have been placed there by Mugabe so he can apply strict racial quotas to the selected side (indeed, a strong argument against using quotas ahead of merit in any situation). The 15 cricketers were sacked because they disagreed with Mugabe and his tyrranical regime, not because of ability - they would beat the current side hands down. To pretend that you can hate everything that Mugabe's regime stands for and still support tours going to Zimbabwe is nothing short of risible.

Hence Harmison should be applauded in the loudest possible manner for his refusal to travel. Flintoff today said he never intended to travel anyway - in which case, he should have spoken out before the tour party was selected. This truly was a time for cricketers to make a moral stand and to make a political impact. Sure, the lack of top-class competition may harm the development of Zimbabwean cricket. But the continuation of the Zanu-PF Party's government will do irreparable damage to the game. And we never cared about South African cricketers when we launched a boycott of their sporting teams - and rightly so. Getting rid of apartheid was far more important than the personal development of a few great players. Deny it as much as you like, but all too often sport IS politics. Harmison's protest is more admirable than any of his incredible feats on the cricket field.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


The one sporting event I would have paid most to see in the last year is Randy Johnson's "perfect game" against the Atlanta Braves in May. For those of you who don't know much about baseball, a perfect game occurs when the pitcher retires all 27 of the opposing team's hitters in order - that is to say, not a single one of them reaches base. It is such a difficult task that only 17 such games have been played in history. To maintain such complete and utter dominance over the course of a whole game is a simply incredible feat. Most of us in life crave perfection, to obtain it at such a high level must be a marvellous thing to behold.

Of course, when I say it was the event I would have paid most to see, I can only say this retrospectively. And watching the match retrospectively would lose such a huge part of the excitement - the real thrill of the event is through experiencing it live; the gradual realisation that such a feat is even thinkable, the tension that builds as each consecutive batter is retired, peaking as the final out stands before the pitcher, followed by the excitement, amazement, and admiration as the impossible is achieved.

Why, then, do I find myself as enraptured with this event as much as I am when I read about the World Series perfect game, Roger Bannister's sub-four-minute mile, or when I remember watching Michael Johnson at the Atlanta Olympics, or (forgive the indulgence here) Allan Donald's spell of bowling in the 2000 C&G Trophy final, a spell of bowling so devastating that it surely would have turned the match had it not been for the cruel intervention of the rain? It is because the drama of sport is largely based on imperfection. Even in the most wonderful of memories for a fan - take the 2003 RWC Final, for instance - Ben Kay's handling error in front of the try-line, or the errors in the scrum giving Australia their last-minute equalising penalty, it is the knowledge that at any moment something might go wrong that adds so much to the experience. And in the course of any normal game, these imperfections will occur, no matter how infrequently, and it is the sign of a great side to overcome these errors and still prevail. For the tension to focus on someone at the absolute pinnacle of their talents, and for perfection to triumph, is something that should be able to unite all sports fans.

Writing this, I am reminded of the Swedish defender humiliated by the "Cruyff turn" at the World Cup, who said on retirement it was the favourite moment of his career. For it was the one time that nothing he could have done could possibly have stopped the attacker; it will be remembered for how perfect and unexpected the moment was. Moments like this do go beyond the most exciting of sports events - I remember the Australia-South Africa Cricket World Cup semi-final in 1999, which came down to the last over and ended in a tie as one of the most thrilling events you could watch - utterly compelling, a match that genuinely kept you glued to the screen. Even then, the game ended in farce, a total lapse of judgement and an easy run-out. Ultimately, this is why the perfection I was referring to earlier is so wonderful, as it transcends just about every other event, unless you take a passionate interest in it.

Why, then, am I writing this now? Partially it was watching an NFL match between the Indianapolis Colts and the Green Bay Packers, led by two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. Yes, the match was still comparatively full of mistakes, but it was a joy to watch two such skilled performers battle it out head-to-head. But partially it is a growing disillusionment at the moaning that follows every single football match. In the heat of a game, I admit, I am one of the worst for shouting at a referee or moaning about officiating decisions. At the end of the day, however, it is rare that this is borne of anything other than frustration - even given a bounce, the better team will win more often than not, and a truly great team will win in spite of the 'bounces' going the other way. What really irritates me is the whingeing of fans of losing teams that can continue for days afterwards - not in the way of informed discussion, but simple moaning with no real constructive criticism present. Instead, we should accept life may not be fair, that teams have the rub of the green against them from time to time. Continue instead with the pursuit of greatness. And when it arrives, in whatever form it may take, we should sit back, applaud, and bask in its glory.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The need for vision

I spent my lunchtime watching Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Party conference, and as much as it pains me to say it, Brown really is one of the top performers in politics. I may not agree with all of what he says, and many parts of it were intentionally vague to keep discussion on the content of the speech (in particular his continuous assertion for the need for "progressive consensus"), but at the same time he knows that the media will also be focusing on the rumoured Blair-Brown rift, and as one delegate said when interviewed afterwards, the clear message was to "leave Gordon alone".

For the real message from Brown's speech was that he has an alternative vision to the Prime Minister. Perhaps this is most notable in the section regarding the developing world - although Blair has been widely quoted as saying that Africa is "the stain on the conscience of the world", his conference speech in 2001 was actually very interventionist in tone, seemingly Tony's crusade to bring the light of democracy across the world. The will of politicians on this sort of matter is always very questionable, however - has Blair legislated to stop the arms trade to the Congo, for example, when it would harm Britain's economic performance? Brown was far more persuasive today - saying "the contribution we can make is more than money", and, in effect, that if we fail to show stable economic growth and success in the public services then how the hell can we expect Africa to develop along those lines? How can we meet the millennium development goals if we do not do our utmost to support the principles on which they are based at home?

I have never been a huge supporter of the drive to cancel Third World debt. Not that I wish to see Africans in poverty, but I think there are too many issues at stake here. First, did we keep a control of what that money was used for? Secondly, what about countries that actually did work to pay off their debt? Thirdly, those countries entered into those loan agreements knowing what the terms were. Their arguments would not stand up today in a court of law if it was an individual in Britain complaining about inability to pay back a loan. However, today I have a lot more sympathy with Brown, as he took the time to outline that in return for extra aid from the western world, developing countries must tackle corruption, institute anti-poverty programmes and open themselves up to trade and investment. This is perfectly reasonable - if countries need our money to help them progress, then it is only right that we should have the faith that they will use the money wisely and for the benefit of their people.

Brown's speech today was full of a vision for the nation and the world that hangs together as well as any currently promulgated - regardless of personal opinions on the matter. As I said earlier, too, there are clear differences between the Brown and the Blair vision for the country. Indeed, the speech was one clearly designed to win the hearts of the Labour delegates - references to the 1945 government, mentioning of Labour values - whilst still keeping a national agenda at the heart of it. Even here, it is very clearly a vision more to the left than the current Labour line.
Still seemingly focusing on tax-and-spend, but playing to Labour's new found reputation on economic policy (thus being able to justify sustained investment in public services - and a subtle attack on the Tories, saying their plans for cutting taxes would jeopardise this), the speech definitely stuck more to the investment side of Labour’s motto of "investment and reform".

I still think Brown is wrong on many issues. His taxation policies have directly led to the pensions crisis, yet he seems to have escaped a battering in the media over this. I could scarcely believe it when he made the awful announcement of granting 12 months paid paternity leave. Furthermore, the Labour spin machine was at its most disgraceful when it claimed that small business groups had accepted these proposals - the government has increased regulation in business dramatically and refuses to accept the impact that this has. And Brown still is far too trusting in the current structures of the public services (although nor would I go so far so to endorse the market-based policies of the Conservatives).

The one thing that Labour possess, and the other two parties lack, is a coherent vision, or at least the image of one. This is even stronger on the Brown side than on the Blair side, but with the government, you actually have a rough idea of what aspirations you are voting for, even if achievements have a tendency to be spun beyond belief. Listening to Brown today, you could tell there was some sort of cohesion behind the range of issues he discussed. I then put my mind to thinking what the opponents of Labour have as their vision for the future of the country. And couldn't actually think of anything. This is the true problem facing Britain at the moment - there are many of us very dissatisfied with Labour's performance but cannot find any other party to vote for (see the front page of today's Times). Brown may have a lot of convincing to do to establish a national "progressive consensus", but as things stand, he will not have any competition for the hearts and minds of the people.

A dirty word?

The leading article in the Sunday Times today raises some very valid points about the Labour government's record on taxation. According to the article, almost two thirds of the population believe they have had no return on their tax bills through improvement in the public services. For the government themselves, this must be highly worrying - many of their policies are indirectly designed to give the impression that public services are improving, most notably the 50% target for participation in higher education (but no doubt I will return to that at a later date). Fear regarding the heightened awareness of taxation amongst the public will, no doubt, be mitigated by the fact that the poll was taken by YouGov, which seems to have a habit of skewing polls towards the Tories on an impressively consistent basis. Yet if the trend continues, the simplistic but highly effective Labour line of "more investment means better services" will ultimately have failed, and a new sales pitch will have to be found.

The potential failure of this line seems quite remarkable - spending has increased massively in the key public services which Labour themselves decided to focus on. And furthermore, as we move towards soundbite politics - for evidence of this, see the way that Charles Kennedy's speech at the Lib Dem conference was reduced in many news bulletins to the phrase "we are no longer a party of protest but a party of power" - the Labour promise of "investment and reform" is much easier to 'understand' and follow than a more detailed position on reform that may result in lesser expenditure for better services. And given the huge increase in spending, there really should be more perceptible increases in the standards of public services. This is all the more so when it is considered that Labour have managed to weave a self-created statistics culture where the newspapers focus their attention on specially selected targets. Without an in-depth knowledge of the relevant departments, it is impossible to do anything but speculate, but surely from a political point of view the extra money could be funnelled into areas that have already been flagged up as needing improvement by the spin machine?

It seems, however, as though the real answer behind the growing concern at the increase in public services lies more on the front page of the Sunday Times than in the leader article. The soundbite culture which I implicitly criticised above, combined with spectacular incompetence regarding the war on Iraq (Blair sounded the least convincing I have ever heard this morning on Breakfast with Frost, and in an area that used to be his strongest suit), has led to the trust levels in government being incredibly low. Far from restoring government that was "whiter than white", Blair has managed to continue the low esteem in which politicians in general, and governments in particular are held.

There should still be few reasons for Labour to worry, however. The Tories do not seem to have come up with a well-received and credible alternative for running the public services. The criticism that they wish to privatise public services is most probably unfair, but a risk you run with Blair's "dirty tricks", especially when the avowed aim of your policies is to open them up to market forces (a particularly stupid extension of Thatcherite ideas). And when your party has already been discredited by privatising many services and industries in which it is impossible to introduce effective competition (we all know about the problems of the railways, but how the hell are you supposed to have companies competing for your water supply?) these brickbats will stick in the minds of voters all the more readily.

Furthermore, the country has begun to move beyond the notion that taxation is a dirty word. It remains one of the most stark blemishes on the Thatcher governments that one-off money from privatisations was not used to improve public services but was instead ploughed into unsustainable tax cuts. Even if the bureaucracy in the public services is unnecessarily bloated at present, it seems to me that investment may need to be increased in the short-term, to make it more efficient and less expensive in the long run. If this analysis is right, then Labour are (amazingly) helping the country in trying to break the negative connotations of "tax" - even if they are failing to tackle the root problem, inefficiency of delivery of the public services.

Thus the Tories announcement this week about "aspirations" to cut taxes are probably misplaced. From the speeches of Howard this week, the direction of the conference seems to me to be quite clear - attack immigration and tax, with probably a broadside against political correctness and liberal law and order policy for good measure. Admittedly, the weasel words of Howard in the summer regarding Iraq have removed all ground for him to make a principled objection to the aftermath of overthrowing Saddam. But pandering to the base instincts of the right is unlikely to work - as much as the Tories may detest it, pandering to the liberal media, in particular the BBC, is crucial to their electoral success and any image of a lurch to the right will be highly detrimental. If instead they focused their efforts on creating a credible but clearly nationalised policy regarding the public services, their chances of attacking the electorate's disillusionment with Labour are slim to none.

Sunday, September 26, 2004


This afternoon I witnessed (either side of a rugby match, admittedly) one of the most frustrating cricket matches that I have seen. No doubt if I was a neutral, it would have been a highly exciting finish, but one of the things that makes cricket one of the greatest of all sports is its ability to draw out tension for longer than just about any other sport I know. And naturally the tension increases further when you are actively rooting for one of the teams to win. So when England blow their chance to win a match that they really should have won, the frustration is ten times greater. Increase that further when you consider the match was the final of a reasonably major championship.

It would be easy to blame the outcome on one absolutely diabolical umpiring decision. The Windies may well have won because of a fantastic 9th wicket partnership between Ian Bradshaw and Courtney Browne, but one of them should undoubtedly have been given out lbw by Rudi Koertzen long before the finishing line was in sight. The lbw was so plumb that I was almost jumping up and appealing in the rugby club bar - and when Koertzen said not out I couldn't help myself shouting "what!!!" If the partnership had been broken then, I have no doubt the next batsman would have been out quickly - he would have had difficulty adjusting to the light - and England would probably be celebrating a wonderful victory. Instead, we are wondering what went wrong. In my self-appointed role as sporting critic, I now aim to point this out.

Firstly, England have no idea how to bat at the death when setting a total. I may not be the greatest batsman in the world, but one of my very limited skills at cricket is participating in run-a-ball partnerships in the last 5 or so overs. The best way of going about this, I have found, is pushing the ball around - trying to score singles as regularly as possible. This works for four reasons. One, rotating the strike means the bowler is constantly having to adjust the way that he bowls and is more likely to make errors. Two, you will still most likely get some bad balls which you can hit for boundaries and increase the scoring rate further. Three, there is always the chance of extras coming along and giving you even more balls to face. Finally, you are much less likely to lose wickets.

Time after time, though, England seem determined on throwing the bat around and blasting the ball well over the grandstands. The fact is that swinging at everything is rarely highly productive, and it prevents the steady build up of runs which can leave you with a much more impressive total. If it wasn't for England's customary collapse, with the team doing their best impression of headless chickens, at the end of the first innings, then the total would have been at least 10 runs more, possibly higher, and the game would have been beyond the heroics of Browne and Bradshaw. Furthermore, the said heroics were made possible because... they pushed the ball into gaps, didn't take big risks and kept the scoreboard moving, thus increasing the pressure on England.

Secondly, we must really ask ourselves what is going on when Trescothick and Collingwood are bowled ahead of Ashley Giles. Yes, Giles' contribution of 31 with the bat was highly valuable in the game (and indeed kept England competitive) but if we are picking him as a specialist batsmen, there are many others who should be picked ahead of him. I thought we had finished our fascination with bits and pieces players - Trescothick and Collingwood should not be the only options to bowl the last over among players who have bowled before. The pitch may not have had a huge amount of turn on it, but Giles is nothing if not accurate, and could have played a very useful role in taking pace off the ball (which presumably is the rationale behind bowling Trescothick and Collingwood) and keeping the runs as tight as possible (which was not a likely outcome with the other two...).

In games as close as this one was likely to be - England had posted a defendable but not world-beating target - you have to give yourself the best chance to win, and that comes through having your best bowlers bowling. I could go on from here make numerous other criticisms, such asto nit-pick about selection - what the hell is Alex Wharf doing anywhere near the England side? - but I think for the sake of my sanity I will give up here. All I will say is it is incredibly frustrating to watch a side with the talent that England undoubtedly has to throw the game away throw an absence of grinding it out - supposedly a great characteristic of the British. Simple things would have increased England's chances of victory greatly. I hope never to have to watch an England cricket team again that shouldn't walk off the pitch thinking they gave it their best shot. Sadly I fear this will be a forlorn hope.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Sport and History

One of my pet peeves is seeing wonderful history books end up solely on the "sports" shelves in bookshops because of their main subject matter. I refer not to the sports books such as "A History of Arsenal Football Club 1945-2000" that revel only in reporting victories over Spurs, or every change in bootroom boy. Instead, I mean books such as "Beyond a Boundary" by CLR James or the majestic "Ajax: The Dutch, The War" by Simon Kuper, which go far beyond the bounds of mere sporting achievements, and look at the impact that sporting culture has on history.

The book I am reading at the moment concerns the story of a Negro League baseball team in Washington during the Second World War - a team so successful that it was able to outdraw the major league team that played in the same stadium. But it is not a particularly heartening story in many places - the audience at the Negro League games was almost exclusively black. By focusing on the way the community reacted to the team, it gives a great insight into the problems of integration in the northern cities, and a welcome change from the focus upon the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Likewise, looking at football and the way it operated during the Second World War is of great value to understanding the political aims of the leaders, and the effects of war on the ordinary population. Whn you learn that on the day of the German invasion of Russia, 90,000 fans were in Berlin to watch the German league final, the war genuinely does take on a new dimension. And indeed, focusing on football, such a popular passion throughout Europe, casts a very interesting light on the attitudes of different countries to the war. Upon declaration of war, the English league programme closed down almost immediately - the Germans kept theirs going until they could physically not cope without the footballers on the front, for the Nazis had to convince the population that war was just a normal part of everyday life.

When we consider cultural history, we tend to think of anything except sport. The pub, but more regularly the theatre, music, books, newspapers - all of these get attention, but sport is frequently neglected. The performance of the English football team in major championships, however, has a huge effect on the national economy. On the day Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile, the largest rugby league crowd ever assembled watched the Challenge Cup Final replay - surely study there would throw light on to the history of northern towns? Or the effect on New York of two of its three major league baseball teams moving to California in the 1950s?

Indeed, the aforementioned "Beyond a Boundary" is considered by many who have read it as one of the best insights into the colonial condition. Of course, all the books to which I have referred here go far beyond the detail of sporting achievements and minutiae. But all good history books refer to incidents and themes which may at first glance appear beyond the initial subject matter of the study. And the popularity of sport since organising bodies first appeared means that it plays a hugely important part in the ordinary lives of many people. The Miracle on Ice, where the US Olympic ice hockey team, comprised of college kids, defeated the Big Red Machine of the Soviets, before the tournament seemingly invincible, act almost as a precursor to the end of the Cold War. Of course I am not being as facile or stupid as to suggest had the US team lost, the outcomes of history would be remarkably different. But context is important, and that this came at a time of great difficulty in the Cold War does hold a greater significance than that of a mere sports match.

I suppose on a certain level I should be happy that these books appear in the "sports" section of a bookshop, for it will probably mean they get the attention of people whose eyes would never come across it cast away on the history shelves. But the reverse is also true, and we ignore the forces of sport in history at our peril. At the very least, they provide one of the most interesting looking glasses into the way people lived in the past. And if done correctly, studying sport, sporting organisation and sporting culture is absolutely integral to an understanding of the 20th century.

Sub-fusc sucks

It's the most important time of your life. Over the next two weeks, you are to take a series of exams that will ultimately judge how successful your time at university has been. The exam rooms are poorly ventilated as they are, and with it being the middle of summer you are finding the heat indoors somewhat uncomfortable. Of course, the problem isn't helped by the fact some arcane regulations make you wear a gown, jacket and bow-tie.

There is something uniquely Oxonian about the university's insistence on retaining sub-fusc academic dress for matriculation, but more particularly examinations. Claiming it is all part of the tradition of the university is fine, but tradition is not a justification for anything in itself. Just because something has been around for a long time does not mean that it serves any useful purpose. Indeed, in many cases, it is tradition that is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Sub-fusc should be done away with purely because any education system worth its salt should provide its students with the chance to perform to the best of their ability in exams. Forcing an uncomfortable dress code on them, at the most stressful period in their lives, does not serve any useful purpose. Thinking about it now, I can't actually think of any good reason as to why the university would want people to be wearing any sort of uniform in the examinations. The only effect it can have on results is injurious - if people worked best in those clothes, they would wear them in such situations anyway.

Yet there is a further reason as to why an outdated uniform should be scrapped. The New Labour government is intent on attacking the university system, and removing the independence of Oxbridge academics in the application process. Instead, they see the universities as ripe for an experiment in social engineering and as a means by which they can justify their failed education policies.

Oxford is singled out for particular targeted criticism. The misplaced attacks of Gordon Brown in the Laura Spence affair typify this best, but Charles Clarke has been on record as saying that "Oxford needs to shed its Brideshead image" (and his comments regarding mediaeval history can only have been directed as an attack on the top universities). All those at Oxford and have been fortunate enough to avoid close involvement with OUCA know that such allegations of the wrong kind of elitism are unfair - but Oxford does not help itself. Every time a newspaper carries a story regarding Oxford students, it is accompanied by a large picture of young people outside the Exam Schools wearing a uniform designed for the 19th Century.

What better way to send out an image that Oxford isn't a modern, forward thinking institution? That background and your school are more important than you and your academic potential. That rather than teaching in the most up-to-date manner, it is an institution hung up on class and obsequience. That if you are from a comprehensive you might as well not apply.

Of course, it's all complete rubbish. No don in his right mind would admit someone based on background rather than ability - after all, they have to teach them. The fact that your tutors are at the cutting edge of research in their fields is one of the reasons that the tutorial system is so stimulating. And once you arrive at Oxford, which school you went to really isn't an issue in the slightest. But paper sales increase on the back of negative stories; the government is more than willing to let them keep coming. So why do we assist these forces at their own game?

Friday, September 24, 2004

Am I missing something?

One of the reasons I really enjoy boxing at the Olympics is because it is the only sport that remains amateur. But I have to confess I was a little confused by the BBC website's article today which said the Amateur Boxing Assocation was offering him £70,000 a year to stay amateur. The article also contained the classic line from Lennox Lewis: "There is a lot of amateur money out there". Now, I'm sure Cuban gold medallists get special rations from Castro, just like Javier Sotomayor did whenever he won a world title or broke the world record at high jump. But what exactly does "amateur" mean if staying amateur brings commercial opportunities and tax free funding from Sport England?

Addition by Subtraction

Another regurgitated article. Regurgitated articles are fun.

The current crop of British 14-year-olds, soon to embark on the beginning of their GCSE courses, will be the first not to have to take a compulsory examination in a foreign language. The Times today thinks that this will drastically reduce the balance of the core subjects for examination, and further still be a detriment to the country in the international marketplace. This, of course, is something that can only be observed over a longer distance (although it should be noted that the markets mentioned by The Times as particularly problematic if English is the only spoken language are not markets whose language is taught at GCSE). However, I think that the derision at the decision of the government to lessen language requirements is actually misplaced.I should emphasise that I am in no way a "little Englander". I travel around Europe regularly, believe that the xenophobic attitude of most Britons is worrying, and wandering around Prague on a recent trip, I was hugely embarrassed by the ignorant actions of many Britons who travelled there mainly for the cheap booze. Furthermore, I took German and French to A-Level and greatly enjoy the challenge of mastering a different language; I hate travelling to countries where I can't speak the language, as I think it is rude as a guest to absolutely depend upon the host to be able to get around. Yet I believe that one of the reasons that numbers participating in language courses beyond 16 are so poor is because of the GCSE language exam itself.

Now, many of the criticisms I am about to make probably point towards a deeper malaise in the school system and make a persuasive case for a wholesale reform. Languages, however, are an extreme case of the broader themes that will emerge in my argument and deserve further examination. Languages at GCSE level are not in the slightest bit demanding for the top candidates. Whereas at 16 a large number of European counterparts will be able to hold conversation on a wide number of themes in English (the Germans being particularly strong at this), the requirements for passing GCSE don't greatly help a wide-ranging conversation. Certainly a C-grade pass at GCSE is obtainable by people who are not really able to speak the language at all, and would probably struggle if ever placed in the "role play" speaking situations in real life. At the A* level, the examination is not really that demanding for good linguists. It provides little challenges, and it is possible for a candidate to coast through the exam - when actually at that age they are capable of significantly more. But those at the bottom end really find languages difficult and a struggle. Their time would be much better spent by focusing on the subjects remaining within the core curriculum and actually achieving grades worth something.

If, by dropping the mandatory requirement to study a language past 14, the teachers at any given school are actually able to stretch their top-class candidates by significant teaching away from the direct examination syllabus, then I think the government have (incredibly) done the education system a service. I remain convinced that it is the lack of incentive to do well in the GCSE exam, and its largely undemanding nature, that deters students from taking it to a further level - especially as the result is that the step up from GCSE to A Level is the largest of any subject, with even A grade students finding A Level a struggle. Of course, this could be extrapolated across any number of the core subjects (and probably further). The major weakness of the comprehensive system is that no amount of streaming in any subject can guarantee classes of a more or less similar ability - which is absolutely essential in a subject like languages where getting left behind at an early stage almost completely prevents future progress. If the argument is extended across subjects, it suggests that by placing students in a "one-size-fits-all" system, it doesn't help those at the bottom, who need more help, and it doesn't sufficiently stretch those at the top to discover where their real interests and aptitudes lie.

This is particularly the case in languages. Far better to try and get people focusing on subjects they can either handle or excel at, and actually try and get the best people taking languages. Because in an international marketplace, GCSE languages mean nothing. Certainly someone who has only studied a language to 16 will not be capable of business dealings. Yet if we actually get people truly interested and stretched by the subject, a level of fluency by 18, and if not then, certainly by 21/22, is by no means a ridiculous goal. As strange as it may seem, if less people take GCSE languages, we might actually get more top-class candidates.

Hand back your medal!

I had an earlier attempt at a blog elsewhere, I'm just filling this one up with the old material before I get some more stuff under my belt.

According to Yahoo!, the US Olympic Committee are up in arms that the International Federation of Gymnastics have asked their gymnast to give up his gold medal despite the fact that it is now clear the judges made a clerical error which wrongly denied a South Korean of a win. In no way is this something that officials should "react furiously" to.I can understand the problems Hamm must be facing right now. At the end of the event, he genuinely believed he had produced a phenomenal comeback to snatch the most unlikely gold. Yet now it is clear that the judges didn't even fail to judge the performance correctly, but simply wrongly counted the difficulty of the routine performed by the South Korean. Surely it is obvious to all that, however well Hamm performed on the day, he was not actually good enough to deserve to win the gold medal?The linked article says "Hamm, ...has made clear he sees himself as the rightful gold medallist." There are only two ways that Hamm can think this is the case: 1) the judges did not unfairly dock points off his opponent. 2) the judges were cheats and graded his opponents wrongly on the basis of their performances.Now, to me, gymnastics is an inferior sport to many because ultimately it relies on subjective judgements to decide winners (other sports with referees or judges are defining whether rules were fulfilled or not). Yet leaving this aside, I wonder what satisfaction Hamm gets from continuing to claim his gold medal. He is obviously a fantastic athlete, and although I know nothing about gymnastics, I would imagine at 21 he has the chance to fight for gold at the next Olympics too. As an amateur knockabout sportsman, I can only imagine what it must be like to have the ability to compete at such a high level in any given sport. My desire to win, however, is as great, if not greater, than most currently residing in the Olympic village. But whenever I play sport, I want to win through being the best. I would never want to claim a trophy if I felt a match had been thrown, or there had been a judging error, or the game had been scored incorrectly. If Hamm had the Olympic sense of fair play, he would accept that he wasn't the best man on the night. His victory is hollow. The medal is not his. And if the spirit of fair play is truly to reign at the Olympics, he should hand his medal back. Only then would he be shown to be a true sportsman.


This is my first post, having set this site up just upon my return from Philadelphia (and with time to kill before I return to university). My guess is that this will turn into some kind of running commentary on the news, articles I read around the Internet and further comments regarding pub discussions I've had, but can't be certain. Also, I have a habit of being highly loquacious, so this may well end up being full of incredibly long posts. Sorry. Anyway, I hope any of you who stumble across this find it interesting!