Saturday, February 26, 2005


It's amazing how sporting games can be decided by factors almost completely irrelevant to the actual talent level of a side. Look at Arsenal this season, for example. At the start of the year they were comfortably continuing their startling unbeaten run. Now they have lost their self belief (particularly having been given a thorough turning over by Manchester United twice) and look a pale shadow of the side once so intimidating - despite there being practically no turnover in personnel. Simon Barnes in yesterday's Times suggests Chelsea are about to go the same way - although I suspect he is jumping the gun here in a desperate need to fill space. Chelsea are a well-drilled outfit and I suspect it will take more than a defeat at the hands of one of the strongest teams in Europe to lose their touch (although we will see tomorrow how accurate that assessment is).

The importance of self-belief, however, is playing itself out incredibly in the Six Nations rugby championship at the moment. Wales, well known in the past ten years for churning out a series of impressively useless teams, have suddenly started playing well and have won three games on the trot - two of them against England and France who, whilst not as strong as they were two years ago are on paper at least as strong as Wales, and probably stronger. Indeed, watching the last 20 minutes of the France-Wales match today, it struck me that France were playing considerably the better rugby.

Yet Wales still won. It wasn't the same against England - they were easily the better side but a whole series of wrong options left them needing a crucial penalty late in the game to secure the win. In many ways, I think securing a win over England in such a manner was probably a defining moment for this Welsh team; the reason they won this afternoon was because their defence in the last few minutes was highly strong - they evidently believed they could win (whereas the French, who had struggled to an undeserved victory over England last weekend, didn't).

Mide Ruddock must have put a lot of work in to get the team spirit right. Wales do have talented players, and some have put in huge performances, most notably Martyn Williams (who must now be looking at a Lions tour place). But the confidence that they will have gained from crossing the hump and beating the two strongest teams in the tournament will pay dividends, probably, for years to come.

What surprised me most about this was that for all the media talking up Wales's rugby, they hadn't been playing that well before the tournament. Yes, they have some good players - but their results flattered to deceive, often making "comebacks" when the game, in reality, had been well out of reach. Normally, the belief that you can beat the hardest opponents comes only following many years of gradually getting nearer the standard.

Now, England and France are at a low ebb (England in particular, through missing Jonny Wilkinson - if he had been playing, the last three matches would have been victories and not defeats). So Wales have probably taken their chance at the best time they could. Good luck to them. Although I hope that ultimately they collapse, it will be fascinating to see the results of this increased self-belief. Especially if Ireland-Wales ends up being a winner-takes-Grand Slam clash!

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Shutting down Mainz

So President Bush is in Europe this week, and once again the lefties have their daggers drawn. I wish I could say I believed this was something other than a cover for crude anti-Americanism, but I think that it has become all too fashionable to hate America rather than making constructive points against their President. Last year in Oxford, when Bush came to Britain for a state visit, a group of Americans went to a protest against the visit to support the arrival of their President. Protestors quickly seized their American flag and set fire to it - so much for believing in the right to free speech.

Yet the Americans continuously fail to do anything to help their own world standing. Some might ask why they should, for after all much of the anti-Americanism we see now is bitterness at the fact that America wants to choose its own course of action and not be at the beck and call of the French. (And no, I'm not being 100% facetious there - where was the anti-Americanism when they were volunteering troops to help sort out the Balkans?)

However, antagonism in the realm of diplomacy is never helpful. It will prove to be a semi-frequent refrain of mine, but entrenchment in the manner seen over Iraq will only lead to further friction and, most likely, a greater lack of any kind of restraining influence over unilateral action of any kind (and once the principle of unilateralism develops, there will be grave danger for the rest of the world, for it is always difficult to claim moral superiority).

Which is why forcing all protestors in Mainz, for example, to wait outside a two-mile exclusion zone, or to refuse a town-hall meeting because not all questions could be pre-screened, does no good to combat the image of the arrogant American. Now, I can understand why both America and the host countries are worried about security - in particular, no host country wants to be responsible for a security lapse whilst hosting such a high-profile visitor.

Yet when people in Mainz are told they cannot go to their balconies, or are forced to work 12-and-a-half hour days because of the Presidential visit, it is no wonder that hostility increases. The problem the Americans have is that many people are willing to focus on the strongest negatives - a fact no doubt fuelled by the moral vision on which Bush claims to be acting. And there is a need for a common understanding if mutually agreeable solutions are to be found. Swanning in, acting heavy-handed and forcing unnecessary and major changes to routine are not the best ways to win people over.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Evening Standard Should Apologise Forthwith

There has been a lot of rambling in the newspapers recently regarding comments that Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, made to a Jewish Evening Standard reporter at the back end of a party he was attending. Livingstone referred to Oliver Feingold, the reporter, as a "concentration camp guard", and stuck by his remarks after Feingold informed him that he was Jewish. Much of the ensuing discussion has referred to the comments as anti-Semitic; Livingstone has stood by the comments he made. Indeed, he has gone so far as to refuse calls from Tony Blair to retract his remarks.

The first point to be made here is that likening someone's actions to a "concentration camp guard" is not anti-Semitic. The comments were foolish, extraordinarily insensitive and guilty of ridiculous hyperbole, but not actually racist in any way. Indeed, while you would think this was conduct unbecoming of an elected official, it scarcely seems to be worth the massive fuss that it has caused - particularly when you consider that Livingstone's support for far more offensive radical Islamic clerics has not attracted similar levels of derision.

However, at the time this storm was brewing, the IOC inspection team was visiting London ahead of the decision for the location of the 2012 Olympics. The press have decided that holding the Olympics in London will be a Good Thing, and London is currently festooned with posters urging everyone to "back the bid". Although not a reader of the Evening Standard, it appears to me that it has suddenly been decided that Livingstone's comments will cast a shadow over the entire episode and so London will not be selected for the Games (which, in any case, still seems a long shot to me).

This is complete claptrap. The London bid will have many strengths and shortcomings and they will be identified in due course. What the Mayor (who will not be Mayor in 2012) said is ultimately of little consequence to the entire process. If, indeed, it would cast a shadow over the inspection then the whole bid must be so weak it wasn't worth bothering about in the first place.

So why would the Evening Standard want to link Livingstone's comments to the hosting of the Olympics? As I mentioned before, it has been decided that holding the Olympics would be a Good Thing. The subconscious message inherent within the exhortations to "back the bid" is that to fail to do so is somehow against the best interests of London and the country.

Therefore, to invent the myth that Livingstone's comments jepoardise the campaign allows the Evening Standard to continue its vendetta against the man by portraying him as a self-interested newt acting against the best interests of the capital. Indeed, if the bid now fails they will lay the blame squarely at Mr Livingstone's door. A shoddy trick designed to manipulate public opinion in a way which is totally and utterly unrelated to the matter at hand.

Which is why I am now calling on the Evening Standard to apologise for its complete overreaction to this matter. I don't want to be an apologist for Livingstone, but he is dead right when he refuses to make a public apology for statements that he is prepared to stand by. There are many reasons for castigating him, but blowing an issue like this up in such a manner is not one of them. It's fine to call upon Livingstone to apologise. But to try and pretend it has any bearing on the London bid for the Olympic Games is ridiculous.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Is there such a thing as Modern History?

One of the debates I regularly have with my friends regards modern history. Specifically, is it possible to study the recent past in a historical manner? Recently I found myself under attack in the pub (with my friends and a professor against me!), being told that "history is an approach", the implication being that this approach could be taken to any specific time period and thus it could be studied as history.

The statement that "history is an approach" is something I would not hesitate to agree with. I believe, for example, that if a novel contained sufficient viewpoints, then it would be possible to study the events of a novel in a historical manner. However, I think a key part of the study of history is a degree of objectivity. Obviously, even in an academic sense, this is impossible to achieve. Perhaps most self-evidently, no historian is ever going to want to study something simply to agree with all the literature that has gone before him. But the bias stretches much deeper, and more unconsciously than you might think.

Why does any historian pick his areas for study? There is going to be something intrinsic within that period that appeals to his own interests - my interest in sporting culture, for example, ties in with my view that sport reflects politics in a way that is all too often underappreciated. And if we are drawn to study something because of our own interests, then we are automatically going to be pre-disposed towards certain conclusions, although I would argue that in a truly historical study we would not be precluded from reaching them.

And it is that last sentence which explains the essence of why I believe that a study of the very recent past cannot properly be called "historical". Simply put, we are too emotionally attached to the events of the recent past for us to be able to approach them with a veneer of objectivity. Let us take the politics of the 1980s as a case in point - the policies introduced then are still having a direct effect on us now, and anyone wishing to study them will almost certainly be approaching them considering them to be "good" or "bad" before they have even embarked on their research.

I would go so far as to say that it is difficult even to write an objective history of the Nazi regime nowadays. The emotional scars of the war still live with us - we need only look at the events in Dresden over the last weekend - and the painful memories of the Holocaust precondition us to conceive the Nazi regime as "bad" in terms that black-and-white.

Now, I am not being an apologist for the Nazis here. I think it is possible to write a historical (properly historical) study of the Nazis which does portray them in a bad light. But, I am not sure that any historian approaching the subject from the outset would be able to overcome his preconceptions about the regime and be able to present any aspect in a favourable light. Again, I am not saying that this should be done - but if it isn't a conceivable possibility before the research has been conducted then the objectivity of the historical approach is missing.

The question then, of course, is where do you draw the dividing line? What can be considered history and what can't be? Part of this, I think, lies in who is actually conducting the study. Certainly I think it would be difficult to write a genuine history of a period that an academic has actually lived through himself. There the emotional attachments to the subject matter are too great. The grey area lies in whether conditioning from parents or even grandparents who lived through the events could have an effect on preconceptions that are brought to the work. And that is something that I feel can only be dealt with on a case by case basis.

Yet even then that answer is too simplistic. I feel, for example, that it is probably easier to write a cultural history of the recent past than a political history, if we are taking the "history as an approach" line at least. Indeed, it could even be argued that it is necessary for good cultural history to be written nearer the time of its passing, due to the greater abundance of source material available.

This shows, of course, that any views that I have on the matter are highly questionable. Yet I feel if we are going to vaunt history as being an academic subject that is distinctive because of the approach of the study, then a degree of objectivity is fundamentally necessary for us to place it on such a pedestal. And if emotional attachments to the period under study are too great, then that objectivity cannot be reached. Which is why I think that in many cases "modern history" is an oxymoron.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Super Bowl Musings

This wasn't the article I wanted to write. I was planning on doing a comparison between the World Series and the Super Bowl, and explaining ultimately why I preferred the World Series. Less full of hype and commercialism, you see. No chance of finding the seventh inning stretch getting more media coverage than the main event of the game itself. Much more likely to end up with a deserving winner in a 7-game contest that ebbs and flows than a three-hour blast of high intensity.

And yet, in the build up to last week, I found out I was completely wrong. Yes, there is something that appeals to the sporting romantic in me about the World Series. It is certainly less unsullied by corporatism than its more famous cousin (although the teams that contest it usually have the advantage of significantly better buying power). But one of the major advantages of the Super Bowl is that it is very definitely a climax, rather than an anti-climax.

There isn't much better in sport than a close 7-game World Series (except for a close, high-quality Test match, which drags the tension out better than any other game known to man)- the 2001 Diamondbacks-Yankees clash is indelibly etched in my memory. Yet, if like this year, one team jumps out to an early lead, it is incredibly rare for it to be pulled back. As I blogged back in October, the Red Sox victory was actually an anticlimax given the emotional intensity of their victory over the Yankees in the Championship series.

Whereas the Super Bowl itself is always an event. Yes, it can sometimes occur that the match is a total blowout. But there is a real sense of climax to the season; for all that the hype gets in the way of the game (and even more so since a bye week was introduced) there is a clearly defined pinnacle to the season. Indeed, in many ways it is the hype that has made the Super Bowl the event that it is - one of the last truly national moments in American culture. Perhaps even one of the few truly national moments left anywhere else in the world.

Yes, the Super Bowl may find problems as it tries to spread the event around as many different NFL cities as possible. This indeed shows how there is a symbiosis between the event and the game. Without there being a true sense of occasion - the sense that can only really be given if all those attending can be in close proximity to the venue (and not staying many miles out of town as this year at Jacksonville) - then the event will begin to lose some of its appeal. As strange as it sounds, it is the hype that actually makes the Super Bowl as great as it is.

Because football, due to its physical nature, is a game that can only be decided in a three-hour duel. And the hype is necessary to give the sense of occasion that makes the game worth staying up till four in the morning for (for UK viewers at least!). Maybe it says something about the nature of modern sport that adding irrelevances like the half-time show can actually add to the occasion.

But such hype couldn't actually stand up to scrutiny if the product didn't match. There are regular Super Bowl blowouts - two years ago, for example, the game between Tampa Bay and Oakland was barely a contest even from the end of the first quarter. Even this year, the three-point margin made the game sound much closer than it really was (over as a contest by the start of the fourth quarter). Yet more often than not, the game is thrilling. The build-up may go completely over the top, but football is a high-intensity sport. The sense of occasion adds to the tension which makes the game itself such a compelling spectacle. And ultimately so much more memorable than the World Series.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Cricket and Politics

Yesterday this article was posted in the Guardian. At first glance, I was pleased, because it recognises the vital link between cricket and politics that I have harped on about at length on this blog. It refers specifically to racial tensions over "quota" policies, which I discussed in this post about a week ago.

The problem is that it epitomises the lefty wrangling over empire that continues to portray England as an inherently racist nation. Take this comment about Zimbabwe, for example:

I am not arguing that Robert Mugabe is a good guy, but the global cricketing view is that Zimbabwe should continue to feature on the international fixture lists. Only England has failed to fulfil fixtures in Zimbabwe (during the 2003 World Cup). The most recent tour went ahead only after much indecision.

Could England's ambiguity be driven by the fact that the schism in Zimbabwe's national side has been between the white players and the non-white players (with the honorable exception of Henry Olonga), with the white players being the excluded.
In short, the ECB are hopelessly racist, and wouldn't have taken any sort of a moral stand had it been white people dispossessing black people. That the ECB is basically a retirement home for unreconstructed colonialists. Quite apart from the fact that many non-white players expressed sympathy with the rebels, but daren't openly rebel for fear of what might happen to them or their families, this is offensive rubbish and the author should be ashamed of himself.
Similarly, he attempts to discredit Kevin Pietersen's desire to play for England by dismissing him as a racist, although in heavily disguised language.
But back to Pietersen, who claims that his switch in nationality is linked to the Englishness of his mother, conveniently ignoring that his father was an Afrikaner, that he played for Natal and that his transfer only came after the "quota" incidents
Everyone knew from the moment of Pietersen moving to England that the "quota" incidents were a prime motivating factor in his decision. As far as I recall, he was quite explicit on this matter.
But worse than this is the implication that racial quotas on whatever level are acceptable. In a previous article I posited the hypothesis that a weakened side is perhaps the best chance for South Africa to change its selection policy to reflect the "rainbow nation". Controversial I know, but when quotas are being introduced semi-officially at a lower level than the national team, then there are not equal opportunities for everyone. And if you are going to complain about people being denied opportunity because of the colour of their skin, it doesn't matter whether that colour is black or white.
I don't deny there are other, infrastructural, problems that hold back black players in South Africa. But that doesn't justify a policy of racial discrimination on any grounds. Instead prejudices have to be fought, and the real problem - lack of access to good facilities (a hangover from apartheid) - must be addressed. To justify one form of racism while launching attacks on another is hypocrisy of the worst kind.