Memorable Lines

17th December 2020

As we move towards the end of the calendar year, let me refer back to a couple of the television sports programmes which I noted in the previous blog (“The Icing and the Cake”, 10th December 2020).

They generated the occasional memorable line. Two examples.

The weekly NRL Try Time programme of Australian rugby league highlights produced by Fox was actually quite a hard watch. There was no introduction or summary and no context was given to the action in a match, for example by showing player dismissals or crucial drop goals. Instead, it was just an unrelenting diet of tries: perhaps 70 or 80 (plus replays) in 50 minutes of airtime.

In August, the build-up to one score was when James Tedesco, the Sydney Roosters full back, made a break down the centre of the field. As he was halted in a despairing tackle by his West Tigers opposite number, his shorts and jock strap were hauled down, thus exposing a bare backside. As the play continued, the commentator – uncredited, unfortunately – remarked: “That thing’s broken… It’s got a crack in it“.

Absolutely brilliant. Moments later, a sweeping Roosters move produced a superb try in the right-hand corner for Brett Morris.

The second example – from Gary Imlach during ITV4’s excellent coverage of the highlights of one of the days in the La Vuelta a Espana in November – was probably less spontaneous. In the usual way, at the individual time trial towards the end of the race, the day’s current leader took his seat in a makeshift studio in front of a camera – with a backdrop of the sponsor’s logo – until someone else finished the course in a faster time and moved in to take his place.

Imlach’s commentary covered the moment when the time of the Australian cyclist, Alex Edmondson, was beaten and he was about to leave the seat: “He’s about to vacate it for the next leader…[pause]… unless he refuses, of course”.

This was on the day of the US Presidential Election.

Finally, another line – not from a sports commentator, but from a poet: the Northern Irishman Derek Mahon, who died in October at the age of 78.

The obituaries referred to Mahon as “truculent” and “troubled” and the details of his personal life – estrangement from his parents, alcoholism, illness – make for sad reading. It might be expected, therefore, that in our present circumstances – approaching the depth of winter, dealing with the coronavirus and its various implications, wondering when the light might shine again – we would find little in Mahon’s work to comfort us.

Not so. His reading of his short poem – Everything Is Going To Be All Right – was broadcast by the Irish television channel RTE at the end of its news bulletin earlier in the year and this has been widely shared on the internet. The poem acknowledges that “There will be dying, there will be dying…”, but goes on to state that “The sun rises in spite of everything…” and concludes with its title line “Everything is going to be all right”.

I am determined to end the year on an upbeat note. Everything is going to be all right.

The Icing and the Cake

10th December 2020

In the absence of watching any sport from the terrace or the boundary edge since the beginning of February, it might have been expected that I would have compensated by seeking out more sport on television. This has turned out not to be the case.

Since the Spring, the full catalogue of my television sport viewing has comprised:

* the BBC’s evening highlights of England’s Test match series against the West Indies and Pakistan (see “Soul Limbo”, 10th July 2020);

* BBC Alba’s coverage of the Glasgow City vs VfL Wolfsburg match in the UEFA Women’s Champions League (“Unfinished Business at Petershill Park”, 22nd August 2020);

* the respective finals of the rugby league Challenge Cup and rugby union’s Heineken Champions League (“Risks and Probable Outcomes”, 19th October 2020) plus a couple of games in the earlier rounds of the Challenge Cup;

* the weekly editions of the BBC’s The Super League Show and The NFL Show (a review of the National [American] Football League) and Fox’s NRL Try Time (the tries in Australia National Rugby League shown on a Sky terrestrial channel);

* the evening highlights of the major cycling tours of France, Spain and Italy (the Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana on ITV4 and La Giro d’Italia on QUEST/Eurosport); and

* ITV’s coverage of England’s delayed Six Nations match against Italy (when the English half backs spent 80 minutes kicking the ball high into the early evening Rome sky).

For what it’s worth, the programmes I have most looked forward to have been the ITV4 cycling highlights (with the excellent presentations by Gary Imlach and informed commentaries of Ned Boulting and David Millar) and The NFL Show.

The latter, in addition to the highlights of the week’s key games, has included some revealing analysis by Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora (both former NFL players) not only on the intricacies of individual plays on the field, but also some deep-rooted issues within the sport, including the “taking of the knee” and the psychological effect on the individual of long-term injury. The programme does have a laddish tendency, however, and the mid-season replacement of the reliable Mark Chapman by Dan Walker as its anchor is a step backwards. I am prepared to wince at some of the on-field hits that are shown, but Walker’s comment that the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrows “looked the most promising” of two young quarterbacks following an earlier “Me and Jason were wondering…” really did set the teeth on edge.

The overall choice of viewing has been constrained by the prescient cancellation of my Sky Sports subscription in 2019 but, even so, the above list is selective and not particularly long. There are no one-day cricket internationals or England soccer games (or, indeed, any soccer games apart from the Glasgow City/FC Wolfsburg encounter) or any of England’s recent rugby union internationals in the Autumn Nations Cup. There is no Match of the Day or golf or motor racing or athletics… Admittedly, some of these I probably wouldn’t have watched in a “normal” year, but the fact still remains that the scope of my interest in the general sporting environment – and the specific outcomes within it – does appear to have narrowed.

I am not at all sure what the psychological roots of all this are, though I suspect that they are complex. I assume that underpinning it must be the continual process of revaluation of what is or is not important – prompted by the global impact of the coronavirus – that all of us must have undertaken in some form or another in recent months across many parts of our day-to-day lives.

I should acknowledge that – pre-coronavirus – I was already really not all that interested in watching the global multi-millionaires of the Manchester United and Arsenal brands battle it out in front of a capacity Old Trafford on MOTD. So it is not surprising that I have not had any more interest when the stadium is empty. However, it can’t all be about the finances. My interest in The NFL Show has not been diminished by the reports of Patrick Mahomes – the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs – being awarded a contract worth $503 million over 10 years.

Perhaps some insight is given by looking back at the soccer games that I attended over the two years prior to last Spring. There was an international at Hampden Park, a Europa League tie at Celtic Park and Scottish Premiership fixtures in Kilmarnock and Edinburgh. But the other matches I watched were in Berwick, Alloa, Dumfries and Annan. Likewise, the rugby league venues included Workington and Millom as well as Huddersfield and Leeds and there was rugby union in Otley and shinty in Kingussie… It is not difficult to work out that, whilst I enjoy being an observer at a “major” event, I also like to attend the small-scale contest when there is a new place to visit and a local history to explore.

It was probably inevitable that the availability of television sports would not compensate for the absence of opportunities to watch local events. The sports on television are largely at the elite ends of their respective spectra – not at all surprisingly, given that broadcasters have hours of airtime to fill, the sponsors want value for money and the governing bodies and major clubs need to receive the finances for which they had budgeted.

Hence, for the rugby union authorities, the Autumn Nations Cup: on the one hand, a much-needed contribution to addressing a financial black hole; on the other, a quick-fix solution without any history, played in empty stadiums, the viewing rights for which were sold to the streaming arm of a global behemoth with no pedigree in the sport. Regrettably, for me, in the grand scheme of things, it just didn’t seem that important.

The principal impacts of the coronavirus on sport have been below the elite levels. In Britain, the 2020 rugby league season was abandoned after a couple of games at all levels below the Super League. For the 2020-21 season, the Rugby Football Union has cancelled all matches below the top two divisions (and even the second tier – the Championship – has not yet started); Scottish Rugby followed suit for all matches in its league structure. The 2020 English cricket season saw the 18 First Class counties muddle through truncated versions of their 4-day and 1-day competitions, but the club-level programme was drastically curtailed. The recent lockdown in England ruled out amateur and grassroots team sports, whilst team sport in schools has also been severely affected.

And so the elite players are – if not thriving – keeping their heads above water. The multi-millionaire footballers and motor-racing drivers are still being paid. But the events in which they participate are – as they always have been – the icing on the cake. The difference now is that the icing is in danger of being all that is left. The cake itself is being hollowed out and is at risk of disappearing.

The Super League’s governing body can probably feel satisfied that its competition succeeded in reaching the end of the season, which culminated in a pulsating Grand Final between St Helens and Wigan that was only decided in the final seconds of the match. However, in doing so, they would do well to remember that, amongst the players who took part in that encounter, were those that had begun their professional careers at lower league clubs such as Batley, Featherstone Rovers and Whitehaven. About a dozen others had aided their development via loan or dual registration experience with other teams in the lower divisions, including the North Wales Crusaders, Dewsbury Rams and Workington Town.

My concern is that, by the time that we reach the “new normal” of the post-pandemic world, there might be a generation of sports participants below the elite levels – especially players and coaches, but also administrators, volunteers and spectators – who will have moved on to other things, not to return. Where, then, will the elite players come from for the television sports of the future?

The 1954 Vintage: Part 2

19th November 2020

Earlier this week, I qualified for the New State Pension. The age for men of my generation had drifted slightly – it is now 66 – but I have got there in the end. Henceforth, the UK taxpayer will generously contribute to my (taxable) income by just under £171 per week.

I have mentioned previously (“In The Stars?”, 14th October 2019) that Wilfred Rhodes is the oldest cricketer ever to play for England (aged 52 in 1930). The corresponding achievement in rugby union is that of Fred Gilbert (aged 39 in 1923) and in football Stanley Matthews (42 in 1957). In rugby league, Gus Risman led Workington Town to success in the Challenge Cup final of 1952 at the age of 41.

The ages of the oldest winners of Men’s and Ladies’ Singles titles at Wimbledon are 41 and 37 (Arthur Gore and Charlotte Cooper Sterry in 1909 and 1908, respectively, though Serena Williams will beat the latter record if she wins an eighth title). The oldest cyclist to take part in the Tour de France is from the same era: Henri Paret was 50 when he competed in 1904. In the Open Championship, the oldest winner is – appropriately enough – Old Tom Morris, who was the advanced age of 46 when he took the title in 1867. Like countless others, I was willing the 59 year-old Tom Watson to shatter this record at Turnberry in 2009; he was the runner-up.

I have left all these ages behind.

So far, so predictable. We have a good idea of the age-groups in which high-level sporting prowess is at its peak and after which it diminishes. However, all is not yet lost as far as my potential sporting success is concerned. If I brush up my shooting skills and win a medal at the Olympic Games in either Tokyo next year or Paris in 2024, I would still be younger that the 72 year-old Oscar Swahn, a Swede who won a silver medal in the “sports shooting” event at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.

Of course, Swahn was a mere whipper-snapper in comparison with the 73 year-old John Copley, who also won a silver (in London in 1948) in the “mixed painting, engraving and etchings” category of the Art Competition. (Helpfully, the website from which I gleaned this information noted that this was “no longer recognised as a sport”). Art competitions were in the official programme for all Summer Olympics between 1912 and 1948 and, in the last year, medals were awarded in architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. In 1949, the International Olympic Committee decided that, in future, it would hold a non-competitive arts exhibition instead.

More realistically, for my generation, there remain open the age-group sporting events in which we can compete. Most of these might be modest in scope and standard, perhaps, but they still provide the opportunities to derive personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. A couple of years ago, in one of our regular e-mail conversations, my good friend Andrew Carter – who is older than me by three days – reported that he had won a bottle of wine for being the first man over 60 to finish the Evesham 10k race: “Hardly the Olympics, but I feel like I’ve become a professional!”. We are – both, hopefully – still a very long way from that distant point at which Dylan Thomas memorably instructed us to “not go gentle into that good night”.

So what of the 1954 vintage? Which of my and Andrew’s contemporaries scaled the domestic sporting heights?

The England cricketers with the most test caps are Allan Lamb (79) and Chris Tavaré (31) – both of whom were selected for my 1954 Test XI, as reported last month (“The 1954 Vintage: Part 1”, 1st October 2020) – although only three other Englishmen make the list (with 5 caps in total). Lamb and Tavaré made 16 test match centuries between them (of which the latter contributed two), but the group as a whole took just two test wickets (one falling, rather improbably, to Lamb and the other to Arnie Sidebottom).

On the soccer field, the roll-call includes two prominent England internationals with nearly 100 caps between them: Trevor Francis, who was the first footballer transferred for £1 million when he moved from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest in 1979 – a fact that really betrays the passage of time when we learned earlier this summer that Lionel Messi’s contract with Barcelona reputedly included a buy-out clause of over 700 million euros – and Phil Thompson, the multi-trophy winning defender with Liverpool. There is also Sam Allardyce: an England manager, rather than player, albeit for only one match.

Given the demographics, it is no surprise that the 1980 British Lions rugby union tourists to South Africa included 5 players born in 1954. Of these, three were fly-halves – and all of them excellent players – David Richards of Wales and the Irishmen, Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward. In An Ordinary Spectator, I remarked on seeing Richards – then of Neath Grammar School – as the outstanding player in the Llanelli Schools Sevens tournament of 1972. In the league code, there have also been half a dozen Great Britain internationals, the most prominent of whom is probably the (Peebles-born) full-back George Fairbairn, who played 16 times for England as well as winning 17 GB caps between 1975 and 1982.

The overseas sporting Hall of Fame has some impressive members: Chris Evert, Bernard Hinault, Michael Holding (another 1954 Test XI selection), Marvin Hagler, Walter Payton et al. I must also include the distinguished Brazilian football captain (and qualified doctor) Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira – who was better known as Socrates – if only to reproduce an absolutely classical (pun intended) piece of John Motson commentary from Brazil’s match with Italy at the 1982 World Cup: “And that was a goal by Socrates that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football”.

At this point, I shall go slightly off piste as far as sporting connections are concerned by noting that the 1954 cohort has also been prominent in other fields, notably feature film direction (James Cameron, Ron Howard, Joel Coen, Ang Lee, Jane Campion) and – especially – politics. The vintage can lay claim to Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe and Condoleezza Rice as well as, er, Alex Salmond and Jean-Claude Juncker. I should note that this list includes presidents Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, HugoChávezof Venezuela and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, so perhaps I should move the discussion on elsewhere. How about contributors to popular culture: John Travolta, Matt Groening (the creator of The Simpsons) – and Adam Ant.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I remarked on my first realisation, when watching an open-age sports event, that the players on the field in front of me were of roughly my age. Referring to my first term at university in 1974, I noted that:

“The average age of the Cambridge rugby side… was, not surprisingly, two or three years older than me. The majority were, like me, undergraduates, though obviously further advanced in their courses. But [it] was only those two or three years. These players were not far away from being a team of my contemporaries doing battle with mature club sides… If I had been of the required standard – which, of course, I was nowhere near – it would have been me out there on the pitch as well”.

I also noted in the book that, by that time – although I did not realise it until much later – I had already attended the first international sports event that featured a participant who was younger than I was. This was the England versus Luxembourg Ladies Volleyball match at the Leeds University sports hall in Match 1973, when the home side included the 18 year-old Joan Quigley from the Kirkby club, who was already the veteran of 20 previous internationals.

In an idle moment, as I stared out of the window contemplating (yet again) the implications of the coronavirus – from tomorrow evening, given the new restrictions in Tier 4 Local Authority areas imposed by the Scottish Government, I will be breaking the law (repeat: breaking the law) if I travel outside East Dunbartonshire – I had considered conducting an enquiry of anorakian proportions. Which sporting contest had I attended – I wondered – that incorporated the highest level of 1954 representation? A moment’s thought suggested that it would certainly have been the London Marathons – with their cast lists of thousands – that I went to see in the early 1980s, followed by the Wimbledon tennis and Open Championships fields of the same era.

Not very interesting. What about team sports? I suppose that an answer might have been found by trawling through my collection of match programmes – and focusing on those for the bigger events for rugby, soccer and cricket, in which the players’ details were given – in order for me to pinpoint the fixture that included the highest number of my exact contemporaries. But life is too short, really. A glance at the programme for the Varsity Match of 1976 reveals that five of the participants had been born in 1954 (and that I was not one of them). That answer will suffice, I think.

And so the New State Pension age is reached and I arrive at another checkpoint on life’s journey. It feels as if I were passing over the line across the road that marks the location of one of those intermediate sprints that feature part of the way along a mountainous Stage in the Tour de France. I trust that that is an appropriate analogy: a staging post at some considerable distance from the finishing line.

Let us hope that, in the years to come, we will be cheering the 80 year-old first-time novelist who wins the Booker Prize or the 90 year-old chemist being recognised by the Nobel Prize Committee. We of the 1954 vintage will look to follow them – albeit some distance behind – in heeding another of Dylan Thomas’s commands: we will indeed “burn and rage at close of day/rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

Pamela Ewing’s Dream

1st November 2020

Eight months ago – at the beginning of March – I had just about completed my plans for sports-watching in the summer of 2020. It turned out to be a memorable programme.

The opening item on the agenda, at the end of that month, was the first leg of the Women’s Champions League quarter-final between Glasgow City and VfLWolfsburg at Petershill Park in Springburn. Although the Scottish Women’s Premier League runs over the calendar year – and the 2020 season had only just started – the European tournament had commenced last autumn and Glasgow City had reached the last eight for only the second time.

I had expected that Wolfsburg would be formidable opponents, having twice won the competition and been runners-up on two other occasions in the last eight years. The home side battled hard, cheered on vociferously by their support in the 1,500 crowd, but the German side’s experience showed through and they took the spoils 2-0. The second leg, a week later, produced an aggregate score of 5-1. (In a parallel universe, previously reported on 22nd August in “Unfinished Business At Petershill Park”, Wolfsburg won 9-1 in a single-leg tie played in the Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastian).

At the beginning of May, my friend George Farrow and I had a couple of days in Manchester to watch Lancashire play Essex in the County Championship. It was the first time I had visited the ground since 1976, when I had seen Geoff Boycott make a century and then watched Geoff Cope take six wickets on the third day of a Yorkshire victory in the Roses match.

The weather this time was not quite so hot as it had been in that glorious summer, but it was pleasant enough for the early season. The visitors dominated the match, Alastair Cook and the new Essex captain Tom Westley making first innings centuries and the impressive off-spinner Simon Harmer taking 10 wickets in total. There was some late resistance in Lancashire’s second innings from Steven Croft and Graham Onions, but Essex sewed up victory by 8 wickets on the third afternoon.

The following month, Scotland hosted two T20 international matches at the attractive Grange ground in Edinburgh: New Zealand and, ten days later, Australia. The tourists won both matches: New Zealand by scrambling a hurried single off the penultimate delivery and Australia in a canter by over 100 runs. Both games were played in bright sunshine in front of capacity crowds and we were treated to some exhilarating batting, initially by Kane Williamson and then Steve Smith. I have remarked before on how much pleasure is to be gained by watching elite sportsmen at the top of their game.

The evening after the Scotland-Australia match, I reverted back to soccer. I had been successful in the ballot for tickets for the Last 16 Euro 2020 match played at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Of course, at the time of booking, I had not known which teams would be playing – and this added to the sense of anticipation of the event – and it turned out that these were Spain (winners of Group E) and Russia (third in Group B).

The Spanish supporters turned out in huge numbers and their vibrant enthusiasm and noise was something of a contrast to the stuttering performance of their lauded team. The Russians were methodical and well-organised, but neither side was able to break the goalless deadlock before the end of extra time. The real drama came in the penalty shoot-out, in which a combination of striker nerves and goalkeeping excellence meant that the score was only 2-1 to Russia when Sergio Ramos, the Spanish captain, stepped up to take the final kick in the first phase of five attempts. He duly blasted the kick over the bar to send the Russians into the quarter-finals.

A double header of cricket followed in July. First, there was a 50 over Royal London Cup match – Yorkshire Vikings versus Nottinghamshire Outlaws at Scarborough – and then, the following evening, the Northern Superchargers vs the Oval Invincibles at Headingley in the new “Hundred” competition.

The two traditional county sides were without some of their main players – including Joe Root, Johnny Bairstow and Alex Hales – who had been voraciously gobbled up by various Hundred franchises. But that did not prevent them putting on an excellent game of cricket, in which both teams scored over 300 runs and Yorkshire won by two wickets with 4 balls to spare. Adam Lyth played the decisive innings, his final boundary taking him to exactly 150 not out.

It was at that time, unfortunately, that the summer’s hitherto fine weather turned less favourable. My train journey from Scarborough to Leeds the following morning was characterised by a view across the Vale of York of squally showers and strong winds. The weather hinted at an improvement in the hour before play started and, indeed, three (10 ball) overs were possible before the rain arrived again and set in for the evening. The Oval Invincibles had made 41 for 2 by the time the players sprinted from the field. Jason Roy, their star opening batsmen, revealed himself as being not quite so invincible after all when Ben Stokes dismissed him lbw second ball.

So much for what I have recently watched. There is more to come, not least the Second Test in the three-match England vs Australia rugby league Ashes series, the first such confrontation for many years. I have a good seat on the half-way line for the game at Elland Road next weekend. Can’t wait.

I am reminded of a popular 1980s television soap opera.

Dallas. (Series 8, Episode 30, 1985, CBS). Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) is fatally injured when run over by a car driven by Katherine Wentworth (Morgan Brittany).

Dallas. (Series 10, Episode 1, 1986, CBS). Pamela Ewing (Victoria Principal) wakes up in her luxurious bedroom. She wanders into the bathroom, where Bobby is in the shower. It turns out that she had dreamt Bobby’s death – as well as all the events in the 31 episodes of Series 9.

Risks and Probable Outcomes

19th October 2020

Two major rugby finals were played on Saturday: league’s Challenge Cup final between the Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils at Wembley and union’s Heineken Champions League final between the Exeter Chiefs and Racing 92 at the Ashton Gate ground in Bristol.

There were several similarities: both were shown on terrestrial television (respectively, the BBC with 9 presenters/commentators/analysts) and Channel 4 with 8 – whatever happened to Ray French or Bill McLaren commentating with only Alex Murphy or Bill Beaumont in support?); both were played in stadiums that were eerily spectator-free as a result of the coronavirus restrictions; and both entered the last 10 minutes with the game evenly poised (16-16 at Wembley and 28-27 to Exeter at Bristol).

It is the contrast in game management in their respective final stages that is particularly interesting.

At Wembley, once Ash Handley had scored his second try to draw Leeds level (and Rhyse Martin had missed the touchline conversion), it was distinctly possible that the next score would determine the winners of the Challenge Cup. Moreover, it was also highly likely that that score would be a drop goal – as Jonathan Davies, one of the BBC’s commentators, anticipated as early as the 70th minute (though he annoyingly used the Australian term “field goal”).

Sure enough, Leeds twice manoeuvred themselves into position for Luke Gale – their drop goal expert – to make attempts at the extra point. His first effort (a minute or so after Davies had raised the possibility) went narrowly wide, but his second – perfectly struck with 4 minutes to go – sailed through the posts to give his side the decisive 17-16 lead.

The Salford defenders had known what was coming and on both occasions they made valiant attempts to charge the kick down. However, as their captain Lee Mossop acknowledged afterwards, the physical exertions of the game had taken their toll and Gale, knowing exactly how much time and space he had at his disposal, was able to successfully execute a well-rehearsed routine.

As Bristol, in a match in which the Parisian side had never held the lead, a penalty goal reduced their arrears to that single point after 64 minutes. That remained the position when Racing had possession within the Exeter 22 for a full five minutes from the 70th minute onwards, including a run of 19 successive phases, several of which were right in front of the Exeter posts. During this period, the Racing forwards took it upon themselves to make individual thrusts for the try-line in the hope that supporting colleagues would drive them over, before recycling the ball to launch another attempt; their fly-half and playmaker, Finn Russell, touched the ball once.

One wonders at what point Russell might have realised that the forwards’ strategy was not yielding results against the impressively disciplined and organised Exeter goal-line defence. Why did he not take up a position a few yards deeper and demand the ball in order to attempt the easiest of drop kicks that, with the three points on offer, would have given his side a 30-28 lead? Indeed, the longer Racing’s unsuccessful siege of the try line went on, the better the drop-kick option would have been, as the running down of the clock would have reduced the time available for Exeter to make a counter-strike on the scoreboard. (This approach is one with which all the great American Football quarterbacks have been familiar over the years – from Joe Namath to Tom Brady – namely, the timing of their team’s winning field goal (sic) with the clock ticking down to its final few seconds).

Ultimately, game management at a time like this is a question of assessing the risks and probable outcomes of the alternative actions that are available – usually when in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. I would judge that the probability of Russell succeeding with the drop goal from 15 yards in front of the posts would have been close to 100%. The probability of Racing retaining possession through multiple phases before crossing the Exeter try-line might also have been high – and Exeter did have a player in the sin-bin for this period of play – but, crucially, not as high as the alternative. There was always a risk that possession would be lost or an infringement incurred – as did finally happen after the 19th phase. A penalty awarded to Exeter took them to the security of the half-way line with their lead intact.

It might be argued that this discussion is irrelevant because another subsequent penalty was awarded to Exeter to take the final score to 31-27. I think we can discount this. The psychology of the game would have been completely different if Racing had taken the lead – for the first time in the match – with only 5 minutes to go. And the last penalty was given away in a desperate attempt by a Racing player to regain possession, which wouldn’t have been needed if his side’s noses had been in front.

A final point. Neither Miles Harrison – the lead Channel 4 commentator – nor any of his army of supporting colleagues made any reference to the drop-goal option during this decisive period of play.

The assessment of risks and probable outcomes. Where else have I been hearing about that recently?

The 1954 Vintage: Part 1

1st October 2020

Next month, when I join the ranks of the UK’s state pensioners, I shall post a blog on some of the thoughts that occur to this sports spectator on reaching that particular milestone on life’s journey. Here, I preface those remarks with a cricket-specific exercise.

A trawl through the list of the 3,000-plus dates of birth of test cricketers listed in the 2020 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack has presented me with the opportunity to select a test team entirely born in my year of birth – 1954.

The squad from which to choose is not large – 27 in total, including some who played only one or two matches – but I have to say that the First XI is not a bad side: 439 caps, 41 centuries and 347 wickets (though the last of these figures is somewhat skewed by one contribution, of which more below).

Although the representation comes from five different countries, it must be acknowledged that the contribution from the Sub-continent (with only one player selected from India) is disappointing. The lack of available players is partly explained by Sri Lanka’s relatively late entry into test cricket (in 1981) and this factor obviously accounts for the absences of representatives from Bangladesh as well as Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan. I was also seriously constrained by my chosen age cohort being affected by the absence of South Africa from the test cricket arena during their peak playing years.

Being from my generation, I like my top order batsmen to be relied upon to give a solid foundation to the innings: none of this flashy stuff. Whilst Geoff Boycott fails to qualify (by 14 years), it can safely be said that a top-three of John Wright, John Dyson and Chris Tavaré more than adequately meets this criterion. Wright scored 12 centuries in 82 tests, whilst Dyson and Tavaré have similar records: two centuries apiece in 30 and 31 appearances, respectively. One of John Dyson’s hundreds – which I witnessed – was registered in the first innings of the Botham/Willis test at Headingley in 1981. Until the English pair’s heroics on the last two days, this looked to have been the defining contribution of the match.

But it is at the other end of the batting order that the team’s real strength is to be found. The opening bowlers are two West Indians, Michael Holding and Sylvester Clarke: a frighteningly formidable combination (though I don’t envy the captain’s task in telling one of them that he will have to bowl uphill).

Holding took no fewer than 249 test wickets in only 60 matches. I first saw him play in the Lord’s test of 1976, when he opened the bowling with Andy Roberts. This was in the days when Mike Brearley, the England captain, was experimenting with a rudimentary skull-cap to give his head some protection: a virtually unheard-of development at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that, until then, a soft cloth cap or a sunhat had provided the only defence against the 90-plus mph missiles that had been hurled at batsmen through the decades.

I was surprised to learn that Clarke played in only 11 tests, his appearances limited by the rich choice of fast bowlers available to the West Indian selectors in this era as well as his test match banishment for taking part in unauthorised “rebel” tours of South Africa. In An Ordinary Spectator, I described my impressions on seeing him play for Surrey against Yorkshire in a Gillette Cup semi-final at the Oval in 1980:

“Clarke, notwithstanding an ungainly bowling action, exemplified the menace that surrounded so many West Indian fast bowlers of the time. In his thoughtful autobiography, Playing for Keeps, Alec Stewart described Clarke as the fastest and most intimidating bowler he played with or against. I clearly detected his threat, at the time, from the safety of the spectators’ seats”.

The 1954 Test XI has a four-man bowling attack. The supporting seamer’s role is filled by Arnie Sidebottom: a veteran of one test match and the obligatory Yorkshireman in the side. (If and when I get round to selecting my 1954 XI of English professional footballers, Sidebottom would again be a contender, given his 20 appearances for Manchester United between 1973 and 1975 and his subsequent career at Huddersfield Town and Halifax Town).

The choice of spin bowler rests between the Australians Ray Bright and Trevor Hohns and the West Indian Derick Parry. The first of these is selected on the basis of the length of his test career (53 wickets in 25 matches), the variation that his slow left-arm bowling would provide and his ability as a stock bowler when the opening pair need a rest.

It was Bright, of course, who nearly scuppered Boycott’s glorious day at Headingley in 1977 – when the local hero made his 100th First Class century in a test match against Australia (which I also witnessed) – his passionate appeal for a catch by the wicket-keeper Rod Marsh down the leg-side being turned down by the umpire. The incident was recollected in An Ordinary Spectator:

“Bright’s body language suggested he was less than impressed when the decision went against him; he snatched his sunhat from the umpire in disgust. The crowd on the Western Terrace jeered. We were square to the wicket, of course, and in no position to judge the validity of the appeal. But we knew it was not out: it couldn’t possibly be. The fates had decreed otherwise. From my own perspective, I thought that Bright was a scruffy cricketer – with an appearance not unlike that of the Richard Dreyfus character in Jaws and an ungainly bowling action – and certainly not the man to disturb the natural course of events on this particular day”.

After the solid – if not stolid – foundations laid by the first three in the order, the heart of the batting line-up takes on a more flamboyant appearance through Allan Lamb and Kim Hughes with Yashpal Sharma getting the selector’s nod for the last batting place over Australia’s Peter Toohey and Faoud Bacchus of the West Indies. There is plenty of experience here with a total of 25 centuries in 186 tests.

Although I saw Lamb play several times for England, the reference to him in An Ordinary Spectator is from the Benson and Hedges Cup Final at Lord’s in 1987, when Yorkshire defeated Northamptonshire. My father and I watched the game from a packed Mound Stand, two rows back from the boundary edge. I noted that after Lamb had been dismissed for a low score – edging a wide delivery from Paul Jarvis through to David Bairstow behind the stumps – my dad had been really impressed that he had walked off without waiting for the umpire to raise his finger. (Arnie Sidebottom was at the crease when, with the scores level, Jim Love blocked the last ball of the game to give Yorkshire the victory on the basis of having lost fewer wickets).

Hughes is the obvious choice as captain of the 1954 XI, I think, notwithstanding his experience as being another veteran (along with Bright again and Dyson) of the 1981 Headingley test match, which was one of the 28 occasions on which he led Australia. Wright, who captained New Zealand in 14 tests, would be his deputy.

That just leaves the wicket-keeper. The role is taken by Steve Rixon, who played 13 times for Australia between 1977 and 1984 taking 42 catches and making 5 stumpings.

The selection is not without its flaws. The batting line-up lacks a consistently heavy scorer – no-one in the side averaged 40 in tests – although having Yashpal Sharma at number 6 does provide a useful supplement to the top order. Perhaps most significantly, there was no obvious candidate to fit the bill as all-rounder and provide the ballast in the middle-order. As a result, Sidebottom is due to bat at number 7 and Rixon at 8, which might be at least one place too high in each case. The lack of an all-rounder also places a significant burden on Sidebottom and Bright in their support of the main strike bowlers, Clarke and Holding. Overall, however, it looks to be a side of resilience and character and it will fight its corner.

On a broader historical note, it is perhaps not surprising that the 1954 cohort feature in some of the major developments in the cricket world during the last half century. For example, at the end of the 1970s, Bright and Holding took part in the World Series Cricket competitions organised by Kerry Packer as did two other 1954-born test players, Richard Austin of the West Indies and Taslim Arif of Pakistan.

Then, in the following decade, no fewer than five of the players in my 1954 Test XI took part in “rebel” tours of South Africa during the period before that country was admitted back into the test match fold: Clarke, Dyson, Rixon, Sidebottom and Hughes (who captained the Australian sides in two series in the mid-1980s). These squads also included four others born in 1954 who, as noted, didn’t make the final XI: Austin, Bacchus, Parry and Hohns.

It is also interesting that, following the completion of their playing careers, three players – Wright, Dyson and Rixon – have held senior coaching positions with one or more of the test-playing nations.

So these are my contemporaries in the 1954 vintage (or were in the case of Sylvester Clarke and Richard Austin, who died in 1999 and 2015, respectively). I am in good company. Bring on the 1955 XI.

The 1954 Test Team: JG Wright (New Zealand), J Dyson (Australia), CJ Tavare (England), AJ Lamb (England), KJ Hughes (Australia, captain), Yashpal Sharma (India), A Sidebottom (England), SJ Rixon (Australia, wicket-keeper), RJ Bright (Australia), ST Clarke (West Indies), MA Holding (West Indies), PM Toohey (Australia, 12th man).

Citius, Altius, Fortius.  Part 3: Moscow 1980

10th September 2020

In 1980, I was one of a party of students on a “cultural exchange” to the Soviet Union organised by the National Union of Students. It was actually my second trip. Two years earlier, I had visited Minsk, Smolensk and Moscow. This time, the itinerary comprised Moscow, Riga and Leningrad (which is now St Petersburg once again, of course).

On neither occasion was there any need for me to have any particular left-wing sympathies – or, indeed, any political interests at all – in order to be selected for the respective tour parties. I simply responded to the advertisements in a student newspaper and, a few weeks later, joined the companies of 15 or so others who were curious about what they might find – or, more accurately, be shown – behind the Iron Curtain.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I reported on how, during the first visit, we had found ourselves in a cavernous and largely empty sports hall in Minsk watching some of the group-stage matches in the 1978 Women’s World Volleyball Championships: Belgium vs Tunisia, Mexico vs Holland and Yugoslavia vs Italy. It had been our collective decision, part of the way through the second game, that we were ersatz Dutchmen and that we would suddenly start to cheer wildly whenever Holland won a point. I’m sure that this was instrumental in enabling our new-found heroines to level the score at two sets all, though it wasn’t sufficient to take them to victory.

In this blog, I wish to recall something from my return visit to Moscow in 1980. My diary of the trip for Wednesday 10th September 1980 – 40 years ago to the day – records the following entry for when I had some spare time to myself one late afternoon:

… to the large beriozka… and then, most enjoyably, a quick walk down to the Lenin Stadium, which I entered and in which I sat for about quarter of an hour – the tartan track, the somewhat spartan seating, no covering, the posher orange and red-backed seats on the far side, the flag poles, the bowl for the Olympic torch, the green football pitch in the centre of the stadium, the televisual screens at each end. And, especially beautifully, the sun going down at the point directly behind one of the large square blocks of floodlights. A splendid little bonus to the trip. For some reason I felt quite exalted as I walked past the large statue of Lenin down the main boulevard away from the stadium”.

It was exactly four decades ago and I can remember it very clearly. What surprised me at the time – and continues to do so in retrospect – is that I was allowed to enter the stadium and take my seat in the stand without any hindrance. I don’t doubt that I was being observed by someone, from somewhere, but there was no hint of an official coming to tell me to vacate the premises. (I enjoyed exactly the same type of unencumbered access to the Melbourne Cricket Ground – which had been the main venue for the 1956 Summer Olympics – when I visited that city in 1987).

As I sat in the Lenin Stadium, I was aware that, only a few weeks earlier, it had been the venue of some dramatic athletics events which had brought gold medals for Allan Wells (100 metres), Steve Ovett (800 metres), Sebastian Coe (1,500 metres) and Daley Thompson (decathlon). Elsewhere, there had been Olympic success for Duncan Goodhew in the swimming pool.

In some respects, it was strange that there had been any British athletes there at all. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the USA had led a boycott of the Games, which had been supported by 65 other nations, including Canada and West Germany. However, the UK was not amongst them. The Conservative Government, which had been elected with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister for the first time in 1979, supported the boycott, but left any final decision over participation to the National Olympic Committee and the individual athletes. In the event, the Games were boycotted by the British associations governing equestrianism, hockey and yachting.

In September 1980 – and for some time afterwards – the Cold War remained a central feature of global geopolitics. The old guard Soviet leadership – headed by Leonid Brezhnev – was still in place; two months later the USA would elect a new right-wing president in Ronald Reagan; the Soviet Union would lead a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games by 14 Eastern Bloc countries in 1984; the fall of the Berlin Wall was nine years away…

The Lenin Stadium, which had been built in 1956, was extensively renovated in 1996 with, amongst other things, a roof being added. It had been renamed as the Luzhniki Stadium four years earlier. However, this structure was itself demolished and rebuilt in 2017, in time for Russia hosting the soccer World Cup the following year.

Today, I doubt that the casual visitor to the Grand Sports Arena of the Luzhniki Olympic Complex – to give it its full title – would be able to walk in off the street and take a seat in the stand. The security-conscious times in which we live would put paid to that. And that’s before one acknowledges being a Western visitor amid the general tension in East-West relations that never really seems to go away.

However, one cheering fact revealed in the stadium’s Wikipedia entry is that parts of the cover and the façade wall of the old structure were retained in the latest design, thus ensuring that not all of the 1980 Lenin Stadium has been lost.

For my part, I also have something from that time. The beriozka I mentioned at the beginning of my diary entry was a store in which good quality items could only be purchased with western currency. On my visit, I bought an elegant wooden letter-rack, complete with Olympic rings, which – 40 years on – retains its place in my study.

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Unfinished Business At Petershill Park

22nd August 2020

When the coronavirus brought a premature end to the 2019-20 Scottish Premiership season in March, Celtic FC (with 8 games still to play) held a 13-point lead at the top of the table, albeit with their nearest challengers, Rangers, having a match in hand (and two further Old Firm games to play). As far as I am aware, most neutral observers agree that, under these circumstances, the decision of the SPFL Board to award the championship title to Celtic was the correct one, notwithstanding the mathematical possibility that the outcome of a fully completed season might have turned out differently.

This provided Celtic with their 9th consecutive championship success, equalling the feat of Jock Stein’s teams of the 1960s/1970s. For their part, Rangers won the title for 9 years in a row up to (and including) the 1996-97 campaign. It is a fairly safe prediction that, in the 2020-21 season, Celtic’s bid to take the unbroken run into an unprecedented double figures – and Rangers’ attempt to stop them – will dominate the Scottish football headlines.

Against this background, it is interesting to note that there is another Glasgow-based football side with an even longer run of domestic championship success: the Glasgow City women’s team has won the Scottish Women’s Premier League for the last 13 seasons (up to and including 2019).

Traditionally, the SWPL has run over the calendar year and the 2020 season had only just kicked off when the virus brought matters to a halt. The early indications were that Glasgow City might have some serious competition: the Celtic women’s team defeated them 2-1 in the opening league fixture in February. However, this campaign, which was initially put on hold after that first game, has now been declared null and void by Scottish Women’s Football. All being well, the 2020-21 season will run from October to May with a condensed League Cup competition in May and June 2021.

In the meantime, the Glasgow City side has had interests elsewhere: in Europe. Their championship success of 2018 took them into the UEFA Women’s Champions League for 2019-20. In this, they progressed to the last 8, defeating FK Chertanovo Moscow and Brøndby IF, the latter on penalties last October.

Glasgow City’s quarter-final tie against VfL Wolfsburg had originally been scheduled as a conventional two-legged affair in March. The cancellation of the first game at Petershill Park in Springburn was an early victim of the coronavirus in the sports spectating itinerary that I had planned for the spring and summer of this year. (The refund of my £14 ticket was made with impressive efficiency by the club manager, Laura Montgomery).

After a long delay, the Women’s Champions League has now resumed and the Glasgow City-VfL Wolfsburg quarter-final was played yesterday evening in the Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastian. (All the matches in this round, the semi-finals and the final are currently taking place in a mini-tournament in Bilbao and San Sebastian as one-off games behind closed doors). I took advantage of BBC Alba’s coverage to see how things turned out.

It is relevant to note, I think, that, apart from Glasgow City, all this year’s Women’s Champions League quarter-finalists have formal associations with their men’s counterparts – Arsenal, Barcelona, Paris St Germain, et al – with the advantages of technical support, use of facilities and access to sponsorship that these provide. Wolfsburg – similarly positioned – have a fine record in the competition, having won it twice and been runners-up on two other occasions in the last eight years. I was aware, therefore, that Glasgow City were facing a stern challenge in yesterday’s match. (The club’s only previous quarter-final appearance was a 0-7 aggregate loss to PSG in 2015).

The challenge turned out to be more than stern. Wolfsburg scored their first goal after 15 minutes and a second four minutes later. Two further scores just before half-time gave them a 4-0 interval lead. After the break, the goals kept coming at regular intervals to yield a final tally in favour of the German side of 9-1.

Glasgow City kept going until the end; their heads certainly did not drop. In the second half, Lauren Wade scored arguably the goal of the game with a spectacular shot from the corner of the penalty area, Leanne Crichton hit the cross-bar and Krystyna Freda sent a shot narrowly wide with the goalkeeper beaten. But, even allowing for the lack of match sharpness from this being Glasgow City’s first competitive outing for 6 months, there could be no doubting that – both collectively and individually – Wolfsburg were in a different league.

The Wolfsburg side had an enviable combination of athleticism and skill. They moved the ball out of defence with confidence, attacked strongly down both flanks, maintained a high quality in their deliveries into the penalty area – notably from Svenja Huth on the right-hand side – and, when possession was lost, were quick to swarm round the Glasgow City player in order to win it back.

The Danish striker Pernille Harder led the way, her four goals comprising two headers and shots from the edge of the penalty area with left and then right foot. She was denied a fifth (and best) goal – a shot on the turn from distance – by the cross-bar. I was also impressed by the commanding presence in the centre of midfield of Ingrid Syrstad Engen – the scorer of two first-half goals – and the neat footwork and distribution of Huth.

And so Glasgow City’s 2019-20 European campaign, which began in Moscow last September, has come to an end. Of course, the football tides do not cease and the club’s ebb and flow of transfer activity has seen four new signings – including the South African national captain, Janine van Wyk, who made her competitive debut yesterday – announced in the last couple of months. The new season – domestic and European – awaits. I hope that, at some point in its course, I can complete some unfinished business and take in a match at Petershill Park.

Citius, Altius, Fortius. Part 2: Munich 1972

9th August 2020

The previous blog – “Citius, Altius, Fortius: Part 1” (31st July)was published on the day that the programme of athletics events was due to have started at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and referred to some of the athletics highlights that I recall from the 1968 Games in Mexico City. In this follow-up – on the day that the athletics schedule was due to have been completed in Japan – I move the story on to the Munich Games of 1972.

These were the two Olympiads that took place during my teenage years when – I would argue – memories of sporting achievements are particularly susceptible to being firmly lodged in the back of one’s mind. As before, my recollections are of the black-and-white images that I viewed on television at the time supplemented – if this is not cheating too much – by the library of footage that is now available on YouTube.

(In passing, it might be noted that the YouTube collection of Olympic action includes a limited amount of material that dates all the way back to the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. It will no doubt hurt most modern sensibilities that the unofficial events in the next Games in Paris in 1900 included shooting – that is, shooting live pigeons. The film of those events appears to have been lost, fortunately. For the record, Leon de Lunden of Belgium and Donald Mackintosh of Australia were the winners).

Nearly half a century on, the Olympic Games of 1972 are chiefly remembered for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. I remember being told about the attack on the Olympic village when I turned up for a 1st XV rugby training session at school. I also recall the following week’s cover of The Economist magazine: the famous photograph of a masked terrorist looking out over the balcony of the athletes’ apartment with the journal’s prescient heading “He and his kind will be among us for the rest of our lives”.

I focus here on three athletics events.

* Women’s pentathlon

There were 14 track and field events contested by women in Munich. (The longest distance race was the 1,500 metres, newly introduced). Of the available gold medals, 6 were claimed by East Germany, 4 by West Germany and 3 by the Soviet Union. The other – in the pentathlon – was won by Mary Peters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As with David Hemery in the men’s 400 metres hurdles event of 1968, this was GB & NI’s only gold medal in athletics and, not surprisingly, it was the focus of the BBC’s television coverage. My recollection is of the tension in the moments before the times for the last event (the 200 metres) were announced, as it was clear that whoever won the overall event had done so by the narrowest of margins. It turned out that Peters’s cumulative score of 4801 points (a new world record) was just 10 points higher – the equivalent of a tenth of a second in the final race – than that of the runner-up, Heide Rosendhal of West Germany (who had already won the women’s long jump and would later add another gold in the sprint relay).

Mary Peters’s background was from the NI component of GB & NI. Although she was born in Lancashire, she had moved with her family to Northern Ireland at the age of 11. She ended up representing NI at every Commonwealth Games between 1958 (when she was 19) and 1974.

The Northern Ireland of 1972 was a sorry place. The official records show that it was the worst year for casualties in “The Troubles” with 479 deaths (including 130 British soldiers) and 4,876 injuries. It would probably have been no surprise to Peters – a Protestant competing (and winning) for GB & NI – that she would receive the death threats that were duly made to the BBC. I cannot imagine the distress that these calls would have caused, particularly as, to add to this combustible mix – the very next day after her success – the Palestinian terrorists invaded the Israeli compound and confirmed that there were no boundaries of Olympic decency and respect for human life that could not be crossed.

Mary Peters insisted that she would return to Belfast, where she was greeted by her fans at the airport and paraded through the streets. She has remained a resident of Northern Ireland ever since. For reasons that go far beyond the limitations of mere athletic excellence, I think her Olympic gold is amongst the greatest achievements in British sport.

* Men’s 10,000 metres final

Finland produced some very impressive long-distance runners in the early 1970s, thereby extending its reputation for success in these events that had been firmly established in the inter-war period. In 1971, I recall watching the final of the European Championships 10,000 metres race on television, when the domestic interest focused on the British runner, David Bedford. Bedford was leading with about 300 metres to go, but then seemed to tread water as two sprint finishers – the Finn Juha Väätäinen(the eventual winner in front of his home Helsinki crowd) and Jürgen Haase of East Germany – swept past him. It was an astonishing piece of athletics drama: these men might have just run over 6 miles (at a fair lick), but they then accelerated through the gears as if they were top-of-the-range sports cars.

Väätäinen’s compatriot, Lasse Virén, won the gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres finals in Munich (and went on the repeat the feat four years later at the Montreal Games). The main recollection I have from 1972 is of Virén taking a heavy fall about half-way through the 10,000 metres race and being stranded on the track 30 metres or so behind his leading rivals.

This is perhaps slightly unfair but, at this point, one is tempted to fast-forward to the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, when the American favourite, Mary Decker, tripped and fell during the women’s 3,000 metres. (She had clipped the heels of the South African-born Zola Budd, who was representing Great Britain). Whereas Decker remained prone of the ground bemoaning her misfortune, Virén sprung to his feet, dusted himself off and chased after the leading pack, to which he attached himself again within about 150 metres. He took the lead on the penultimate lap and, after holding off the challenge of Emiel Puttemans – the Belgian runner who came second – won the race comfortably by about ten metres.

Wikipedia’s entry for Lasse Virén includes a fascinating reference to “bend (curve) mathematics”. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it is clever nonetheless. Virén ran almost all the bends near the inner edge of the first lane, thereby sparing himself tens of metres compared with his main rivals. (Think about how much the “stagger” is between individual lanes in a 400 metre race). It has been estimated that, in the 10,000 metres race in Munich, this gave him an advantage of about 50 metres over Puttemans, the latter having run many of the bends wide on the outer edge of the first lane or sometimes in the second lane.

* Men’s marathon

The Olympic marathon runners have attracted popular attention since the event appeared in Athens in 1896. There is dramatic footage on YouTube of the Italian, Dorando Pietri, in a state of some distress from exhaustion and dehydration, coming home first in London in 1908, only to be later disqualified as he had been helped over the line by officials; the great Czech runner Emil Zátopek combined his 1952 win in Helsinki with wins in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres finals; the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila famously won in Rome in 1960 running in bare feet (although he did wear running shoes when he took the gold medal again in Tokyo four year later)…

In Munich, the marathon was won by America’s Frank Shorter (who had actually been born in Germany). He must have had a shock in the closing stages when, certain that he had the lead, he entered the stadium to a chorus of boos and saw that there was another runner in front of him; it turned out that the crowd was simply venting its displeasure at the uninvited intervention of a student hoaxer, who had entered the race near its conclusion.

The significance of the 1972 event is that Shorter’s success is widely acknowledged to have kick-started (pardon the pun) the jogging boom in the United States. By 1976, when Shorter took the silver medal at the Montreal Games, the New York Marathon had over 1,500 finishers, compared with 259 in 1974 and 55 in 1970.

Other cities took up the baton for hosting marathons, including London in 1981, which I remember watching from a vantage point in Poplar High Street at about the 16-mile mark. In the glossy official programme for that event, it was noted that a further 25 marathons were scheduled across the UK over the remainder of that year – from Aberdeen to the Isle of Wight – and over 200 in the US.

The running business is now a global multi-billion dollar industry. Accordingly, it is reasonable to argue that Frank Shorter turned out to be one of the most significant of modern Olympians in terms of his impact on general societal trends. (On the other hand, within the boundaries of his own individual sport, that accolade would undoubtedly belong elsewhere: to Dick Fosbury, whose introduction of the high jump “Flop” at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City I mentioned last time).

One final thought about the Munich Games of 1972. It is of interest to note that the terrorist massacre of the Israelis halted the Games for a couple of days, but did not lead to their cancellation. I wonder what would happen if – heaven forbid – a similar outrage were to happen again? Would the Games be postponed – or cancelled – in the global wave of horror of the circumstances and empathy for the victims? Or would the powerful alliance of infrastructural, media and sporting interests result in only a temporary halt to the proceedings – as happened then – especially if it were married to the type of defiant “the terrorists won’t win” determination that saw many New Yorkers turn up for work in Manhattan on the day after 9/11. I can’t be sure of the answer – and I certainly hope that I never find out – but I think I know what it would be.

Citius, Altius, Fortius.  Part 1: Mexico City 1968

31st July 2020

Today should have been the first day of the athletics events at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. We must now be patient in waiting for that particular extravaganza, of course: the current plans – coronavirus permitting – have put things on hold for 12 months.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I described my visits to the Olympic Stadiums in Munich (in 1975), Moscow (1980) and Barcelona (2005). (I should have added Melbourne – in 1987 – to that list). I followed this up in Still An Ordinary Spectator by noting trips to the stadiums in Berlin (in 2014) and London (2016). None of these visits were for the Games themselves: Munich, Barcelona and Berlin were to watch football matches and London for a rugby league international. In the case of Moscow, I simply walked in off the street – this was a month after the city had completed hosting the Games – and sat alone (and untroubled) in a seat in one of the open stands. I enjoyed the same casual access to the Melbourne Cricket Ground seven years later.

I have only ever been to two Olympic events, both of them soccer matches in 2012 when Hampden Park in Glasgow hosted some of the group matches of the football tournaments and my sports spectating itinerary took in Belarus versus Egypt (men) and France versus Sweden (women). Both were enjoyable occasions, as I recall.

In a recent blog – “The Rest of the World”, 17th June 2020 – I mentioned how thrilled I had been, as a 15 year-old, to watch some of the world’s best cricketers take part in the 1970 “test” match series between England and the Rest of the World, either on television or (for one of the matches) in the flesh at Headingley. It is perhaps not surprising that it is from the impressionable teenage years that there remain many of the strongest memories of sports spectating. In this essay and the one that follows, therefore, I shall reflect on the two Summer Olympic Games that took place during this period of my life: Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972. (A third blog will recall my visit to Moscow in 1980).

It is perhaps relevant to note that it is from these times that the modern politicisation of the Olympic Games really took hold. This was not a new phenomenon, of course – the Berlin Games of 1936 were testimony to that – but it is probably the case that the Tokyo Games of 1964 were the last to enjoy the post-war innocence that had been a characteristic of the Olympiads from 1948 onwards.

The 1968 Summer Olympics were prefaced – a few weeks earlier – by the Mexican military authorities’ massacre of students and other protesters against the Games in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Cultura; Wikipedia refers to the death toll as “an indeterminant number, in the hundreds”. Fifty-plus years on, the most powerful image of the Games themselves is probably that of the Black Power salutes at a medal ceremony by the American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (As far as I am aware, it has gone largely unremarked that it was the salute given by Smith and Carlos – the single raised fist in a tight-fitting black glove – that was exactly replicated by the West Indies cricket team prior to this month’s test matches against England at Southampton and Old Trafford. See “Soul Limbo”, 10th July 2020).

I shall focus here on my recollections of a few of the sporting achievements from the athletics arena in 1968. At least, I think they are my recollections from seeing the events at the time – on television, of course , and in black and white – rather than in any subsequent repeat showings. For the purposes of this blog, however, I must confess to having supplemented the memory bank by also checking out the wealth of material now available on YouTube.

* Men’s 400 metres hurdles final

Great Britain’s only gold medal on the athletics track in Mexico City was won by David Hemery. The YouTube excerpt captures my memory of his brilliant performance – a stunning combination of grace, power and technique – which yielded a new world record. Unfortunately, it also includes the crass television commentary by David Coleman as Hemery sprinted down the final straight: “It’s Hemery, Great Britain. It’s Hemery. Great Britain [with
a gasp in the voice]… David Hemery wins for Great Britain. In second place is Hennige [Gerhard Hennige of West Germany]. And who cares who’s third? It doesn’t matter”.

Well, we cared actually, David, because it did matter. In third place – and therefore a bronze medal winner in the Olympic Games – was the Yorkshireman, John Sherwood, running for Great Britain.

* Women’s 400 metres final

Lillian Board was the Golden Girl of British athletics in the late 1960s: talented, attractive and successful. She was the favourite to win the single-lap race in Mexico City, even though she was unfavourably placed on the inside lane in the final.

Jarvis Scott of the USA went into a commanding lead down the back straight – “She’s really going for the gold”, proclaimed Coleman helpfully – but, as the runners came off the final bend, it was Board who had edged to the front and had looked to have paced her race to perfection. It was in the last 30 metres or so that she faded and was beaten into second place. “And Lillian Board is struggling. Lillian Board is struggling. And she’s lost it, shouted Coleman into his microphone as she crossed the line. The winner was a French athlete – Colette Besson – whose name has stuck in the back of my mind ever since.

My recollection is that there was a general sense of anti-climax in the media reporting of Lillian Board’s race – almost one of failure – as if following Coleman’s lead. I thought at the time how unjust this was. Like John Sherwood, she was an Olympic medallist: how could that simply be dismissed?

Lillian Board was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in September 1970. She died three months later at the age of 22.

* Men’s long jump final

The men’s long jump in Mexico City was a keenly anticipated event. The field included the gold medal winner at the previous Games in Tokyo (Lynn Davies of Great Britain) and the joint world record holders (Ralph Boston of the USA and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the Soviet Union, who had set the mark at 27 ft 4¾ins).

The event was effectively over after another American, Bob Beamon, had taken his first jump. Beamon simply bypassed the 28 feet range in setting the new world’s best, which was eventually recorded at 29 ft 2½ ins. It took the officials some time to confirm the distance, as they had to do this manually with a tape measure, the optical device that had been installed for the event apparently having not been designed to measure a jump of such length.

The footage of Beamon’s leap remains astonishing viewing: the driving rhythm of his arms and shoulders on the runway, the stretching of the neck to keep his head upright and his eyes looking forward, the acceleration of his sprint to reach its maximum speed as his foot hit the departure board, the synchronised sweep of the arms in mid-air, the two kangaroo jumps forward after his initial landing, the final bounce upwards into a standing position prior to exiting the sand pit…

The Olympic record for the men’s long jump still dates from 1968 (though the world record was eclipsed in 1991 by another American, Mike Powell). At the time – and subsequently – much was made of the favourable effect that Mexico City’s high altitude might have on explosive events such as the short sprints and the long jump. I ignore all that. Instead, I prefer to picture Bob Beamon sprinting from left to right across the television screen and jumping into history.

* Men’s high jump final.

I was fairly hopeless at the high jump at school. In our PE classes – a couple of times a year, if the weather were conducive – we might venture across the rugby field to the high jump pit, where we would attempt our versions of the “straddle” technique. This involved a diagonal approach to the barrier – an iron bar – before taking off from the inside leg, thrusting up with the arms to rotate the torso and clear the bar horizontally, and landing on the side of the body. At least, I think this was how it was supposed to be done. For me, it was an engagement invariably marked by painfully clattering into the bar and landing in a solid bed of damp sand.

Dick Fosbury of the USA introduced the world to the “Fosbury Flop” at the Mexico Games. He had been developing the technique for some time, but this was its theatrical premier in front of a global audience.

Fosbury also had a diagonal approach but at the end of it, instead of facing the bar and propelling himself upwards with his arms and legs, he turned the other way and arched his back as he pushed off from the ground and, like a worm climbing over a pencil, contorted his body so that all its parts cleared the hurdle, the last of which – with a final kick – were his legs. Has there ever been a more radical – indeed, revolutionary – change in an athletics technique?

And yet? Check out the YouTube footage of the action from the 1896 Olympic games in Athens. There are a few seconds of film of the high jump which, at that time, did not permit any run-up to the bar at all, but rather simply comprised a leap upwards from a standing position. One of the competitors is clearly seen to half-turn his body and clear the hurdle backwards.

Wikipedia reports that, by the time of the next Olympiad in Munich in 1972, 28 of the 40 competitors in the high jump were employing Dick Fosbury’s new technique, although the winner at those Games – the Estonian Jüri Tarmak, representing the Soviet Union – was an old-fashioned straddler. He was the last of his kind to win Olympic gold.

It did occur to me, when seeing Dick Fosbury attempt the high jump in 1968, that a necessary condition for the Flop was to have the sort of soft-landing area that was the standard at major athletics events by that time. Or, to put at another way, the technique could not have been attempted at the school’s high jump pit. One’s first attempt would have been the last, complete with broken neck or fractured skull.

In “Citius, Altius, Fortius: Part 2” – to follow – my recollections of the athletics events in the Munich Games of 1972.