Friday, 24 April 2015

Sport is a vicious monster we make

First the win, then the spleen: Bob Willis vents at the end of the Headingley Test in 1981© Getty Images

The games we follow are brutal, unforgiving and unjust, but we wouldn't have them any other way

SIMON BARNES in Cricinfo| APRIL 2015

Sporting events are put together with a number of things in mind. The idea is, (1) to make as much money as possible, (2) to provide as much entertainment as possible, (3) to provide an opportunity for the best possible sport. Very much in that order.

The best ways to do this, also in order, are: (1) make huge demands on the athletes, (2) make even bigger demands on the athletes, and (3) make near-impossible demands on the athletes. That, after all, is what they're for. It's hardly surprising, then, that at the end of every competition, most athletes seem a bit mad.

Some are light-headed with euphoria, others are speechless with relief. Some are in a post-coital haze, others are at the compulsive-talking stage. Some love the whole world, some - even the victors - hate everyone, starting with their own team-mates. Some want someone to hug, some want someone to punch.

Steve Redgrave, winning his fifth gold medal in his fifth Olympic Games, chose the occasion for a bitter jibe at the press - and we responded by applauding him in heartfelt admiration. Bob Willis celebrated one of the all-time greatest displays of fast bowling at Headingley in 1981 with a prolonged rant at that convenient target, the press, while Sebastian Coe responded to his gold medal in the 1500 metres at Los Angeles in 1984 by shouting abuse at the great massed banks of press seats in the Olympic Stadium.

Matthew Pinsent wept uncontrollably after winning his fourth gold medal at rowing; Fu Mingxia took each of her diving gold medals with an air of complete calm; Usain Bolt looked mildly gratified that the world had cottoned on to to his greatness. It's all in the way these things take you, but it's seldom straightforward.

That's because the demands we make on our athletes are extreme in every possible way. That's what sport means. The winners of the cricket World Cup were required to play nine matches in six weeks, all in the public glare, and had to win the last three of them.

The more it costs the athletes, the greater the entertainment. We want nerves to be shredded. We long for truly exceptional performances, and accept that all great victories are built on the disappointment of others. "It is not enough to succeed," said the writer Gore Vidal. "Others must fail."

In sport that statement is not funny. It's an accurate summary of the way sport works. We must put our winners through the hell of nearly losing if we are to be truly satisfied: and put the losers through the hell of thinking they were about to win, before dashing their hopes to the ground.

Thus the England cricket team went to Australia in 2013 having won the last three Ashes series and strongly fancying themselves to do so again. They were beaten 5-0 and are still suffering from the traumas they endured.

Or take the Brazil football team, seemingly inevitable winners of the 2014 World Cup. They were the story of the tournament, and yet they lost 7-1 in the semi-finals to Germany, the eventual winners. This was a humiliation: a misery that you wouldn't wish on anybody.

And yet sport works by setting up opportunities for such misery. That is what brings people in: for reasons of partisanship, in search of drama, and also in search of genuine sporting excellence. None of these things can be done satisfactorily without putting the performers to an extreme test.

And some mourn: David Luiz and Thiago Silva after Brazil's horrific loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup © AFP

You test rather more than their physical skills. You also test the temperament, from the glossy surface down to the abyssal depths. Thus we had the extraordinary, ridiculous, hilarious and horribly cruel events of the semi-final of the World Cup of 1999.

Yes, the one when, with scores level against Australia, Lance Klusener of South Africa called for a mad single and Allan Donald at the other end forgot to run - and then dropped his bat as he tried to make up for this lapse. He was run out: South Africa were defeated in horrific circumstances. It remains a classic example of minds twisted and broken by sport.

Sport was designed as a pleasure: as a way humans could get together and test themselves in various forms of competition and mock combat. But like sex, everything in sport changes the instant people watch and when people are paid for doing it.

Sport is a triviality made serious. It was at first an opportunity in which a participant could test and savour his own courage in a comparatively safe and non-threatening way. But because of the demands of the audience - that's you and me, by the way - it has become an industry based on the breaking of human beings.

Sport is an opportunity to display bravery in public: a courage-op; and we who look on find it compelling and frequently edifying. I remember watching a super-heavyweight weightlifter set a new world record, and then Andrei Chemerkin of Russia, lifting last, had the weights increased to a level beyond even that. Then he showed the glorious strength and courage to lift it. This was at the Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996 and the entire hall was roaring in empathy with his giant effort.

It is absurd, perhaps even unfair, to ask such prodigious things of sporting performers, and yet we do it on a daily basis. We make still greater demands when it comes to the biggest tests of all. Always we are looking for ways to make life still harder for the athletes.

Anyone can catch a cricket ball. But when you're told that catching a cricket ball will earn you a million bucks, you might find it a little harder - even though you are twice as eager to catch it. Of course, some people find that extra difficulty an inspiration: and that's the sort of thing we are looking for when we set these extraordinary tests for our athletes.

It's like walking along a kerbstone. Most of us can manage to do this when the drop to the gutter is two or three inches. It would be a different matter if the drop was 3000 feet.

Reality television shows are all about trying to torment people: to make them cry on television, to make them crack up in public. Call it Masterchef Syndrome. Well, it may be cruel, but the participants choose to be there. If you don't like the heat the solution is in your hands.

But the greatest reality TV ever devised is sport. Sport brings us Garry Sobers hitting six sixes in an over; and for every such wonder, there's always a Malcolm Nash at the other end, the poor bowler who will always be remembered for that, rather than for his worthy career in cricket with nearly 1000 first-class wickets.

Hardly surprising, then, that there is always something a little odd about great performers in sport. They live in circumstances cruelly devised to test them to their limits. Those who achieve genuine greatness are never satisfied by victory, and are only ever inspired by humiliation. They must have no compunction whatsoever about inflicting humiliation on someone else.

In sport we search for drama and misery © AFP

Sometimes they are asked to do one extraordinary thing on one very special day: like a World Cup final, like competing at the Olympic Games. Sometimes they are asked to do the same thing again and again, day after day, for weeks, even years, on end.

The best of these are asked to produce both kinds of courage: the enduring kind and the kind that responds to the greatest of tests. Yet we are surprised, and sometimes contemptuous, when these people fail, or show themselves wanting in certain areas.

Thus the England cricket team fell apart. It seemed that the only thing that unified them was their hatred of Kevin Pietersen. So they got rid of him and found that they couldn't cope without him either. Sport tears people apart and it does so because it's supposed to.

Some teams find inspiration in the most difficult circumstances, as Imran Khan's cornered tigers did when Pakistan won the 1992 World Cup in Australia. Sometimes circumstances find the most unlikely of heroes: who would have tipped Roger Binny to be the hero at the World Cup in 1983?

The fact is that sport is vicious, vindictive and unfair. And if it wasn't, it wouldn't be any fun. Thus at the end of any great event there are always casualties, and often enough, the casualty is celebrating victory. Often the greatest success is the undoing of the person who achieves it.

Sport feeds on its victims: gourmandises on them. There's a passage in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, in which the narrator has to consider publishing a vicious review of a new book. "So far as I was concerned the juggernaut of critical opinion must be allowed to take its irrefragable course. If too fervent worshippers… were crushed to death beneath the pitiless wheels of its car, nothing could be done. Only their own adoration of the idol made them so vulnerable."

Sport is about exactly the same process.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The three big election questions that all the parties are simply ignoring

Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian
Elections have but one iron law: listen for what the politicos are not saying. Follow it, and you hear a roaring silence at the centre of this campaign. For all that Dave and Ed have jousted with interviewers and made pledges on platforms, there are three big questions that neither would-be prime minister will talk about. Yet the questions are existential, and the answers to them will matter not merely for the next parliament, but far beyond.
The three questions can be summed up as: How are we meant to live? Where are we meant to live? And who is meant to live here?
In this month’s war of words, these are the real undiscussables, the issues and the people painted out by all the main parties. Where will post-crash Britain’s income come from? How will we house everybody? And will mainstream politicians allow migrants and those receiving social security the same rights and basic human value as those sanctified hard-working families? Let me go through those questions.
How are we meant to live?
This election was meant to be all about the economy. Instead, it has been all about the deficit. Cameron and Miliband squabble over who has the most firm yet appropriate grip on the state-spending axe. This isn’t economics: it is accountancy. Yet both main parties try to pass it off as economic policy. Look at Labour’s manifesto: the very first pledge is that it will “cut the deficit every year”. Squirrelled away in there is a promise of a British investment bank and more regional banks. But a line is all those get, while “balancing the books” merits higher priority than the NHS.
Given how little politicians talk about growth, you might think it was no longer a problem – that after a few rocky years, Britain had finally got its groove back. Not so. If you fancy a fright, flick through three major reports published by the IMF last week. First, its World Economic Outlook warned all rich countries that “potential growth is likely to be lower than it was before the crisis”. For those not fluent in Washington that basically means: sorry, boys, those boom times ain’t coming back.
Second, its financial stability report observed that British households had proportionately the biggest debt mountain of all major capitalist economies – more than the Americans, more than the Greeks. By 2020, the IMF reckons, we’ll have the second biggest loan burden, just behind the crisis-hit Portuguese (see table 1.1 here).
Finally, the IMF’s fiscal monitor rubbished politicians’ claims that they will wipe out the deficit by the end of this decade – yes, the very same boasts we’ve been hearing so much this past fortnight. Part of its scepticism is because it doubts the UK will grow as much as is hoped.
On hearing the last announcement, Cameron immediately took to the rolling-news channels to say he much preferred the projections made by Britain’s own Office for Budget Responsibility to the IMF’s. Well, I’ve got bad news for him: the OBR may, if anything, be more pessimistic than the Fund.
Right at the back of the outlook it published just before Christmas, the OBR asked a simple question: what if Britain’s weak productivity – with more workers doing less – continued? The economists’ answer was that growth would drop so sharply (see table 5.7 here) that it would feel almost as bad as a recession, year after year, all the way to 2020. For each of the past seven years British productivity has just kept dropping. The OBR’s nightmare scenario looks more than plausible.
Ever since the crash, politicians and policymakers have been waiting for the economy to get back to the way it was before. It is now dawning on the economists that this probably won’t happen – that we are entering a new era in which our incomes will be a permanent disappointment. The question for Cameron and Miliband is: what are you going to do about it? It’s a question they keep ducking.
Where are we meant to live?
Both Dave and Ed accept that there’s a housing crisis; neither have any actual solutions to offer. Labour promises that 200,000 houses will be built every year – without providing any detail on how they’ll be paid for or built or whether they’ll be social, private or (that toxic euphemism) affordable. This is more modest than the 230,000 homes a year promised by Gordon Brown, but just as vague and just as certain not to happen. The Tories merely want to privatise more social housing– this time, property they don’t even own, but which belongs to housing associations. What either plan adds up to for anyone under 35 and either living at home or paying over the odds for a crap flatshare is basically: get stuffed.
Who is meant to live here?
Brecht jokingly called on the government to dissolve the people and elect another. Our politicians are actually doing it. We know which voters they like: the squeezed middle (Ed); alarm-clock Britain (Nick), the strivers (Dave). The voters who don’t pass muster are those on benefits and immigrants. Labour flogs a racist mug, while the Tories send a racist van round London. The divide is not just rhetorical: the coalition has smacked working-age families on benefits. People with disabilities – and therefore with limited access to the jobs market – have been hit worst of all. The Centre for Welfare Reform calculates that, under this coalition, those with severe disabilities have taken a financial hit 19 times greaterthan the average.
Why aren’t politicians answering these existential questions? They’re certainly smart enough to do so. But democratic leaders have parted ways with their voters – literally. Membership of the main parties has dropped sharply over the past three decades, so that there are now more vegans in Britain than members of the Conservative party. What’s replaced mass democracy is big donors and a professional political elite. It no longer pays for politicians to think hard about fair growth or build more houses, because to do so would antagonise the big corporates or the big media, or deter those middle-class and retired voters who actually do turn out to the polling stations.
This is the definition of a democratic crisis: when the narrowness of a country’s politics means it can no longer deal with the serious problems that face it. Look past the television debates and the battle buses and this is where we are.

UK supermarkets dupe shoppers out of hundreds of millions, says Which?

Rebecca Smithers in The Guardian
The competition regulator is to scrutinise allegations that UK supermarkets have duped shoppers out of hundreds of millions of pounds through misleading pricing tactics.
Which? has lodged the first ever super-complaint against the grocery sector after compiling a dossier of “dodgy multi-buys, shrinking products and baffling sales offers” and sending it to the Competition and Markets Authority.
The consumer group claims supermarkets are pushing illusory savings and fooling shoppers into choosing products they might not have bought if they knew the full facts.
Examples raised by Which? include Tesco flagging the “special value” of a sweetcorn sixpack when a smaller pack was proportionately cheaper, and Asda raising the individual price of a product when it was part of a multi-buy offering in order to make the deal more attractive.
Richard Lloyd, the group’s executive director, said: “Despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves. Shoppers think they’re getting a bargain but in reality it’s impossible for any consumer to know if they’re genuinely getting a fair deal.”
“We’re saying enough is enough, and using one of the most powerful legal weapons in our armoury to act on behalf of consumers by launching a super-complaint to the regulator. We want an end to misleading pricing tactics and for all retailers to use fair pricing that people can trust.”
The cumulative impact of all these different pricing tactics is that it is impossible for people to know if they are getting a fair deal, the consumer group says, particularly when prices vary frequently, consumers are in a hurry or are buying numerous low value items.
About 40% of groceries in Britain are currently sold on promotion, according to the retail analysts Kantar Worldpanel. With £115bn spent on groceries and toiletries in 2013, Which? said consumers could be collectively losing out to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.
The right to make a super-complaint to the CMA or an industry regulator is limited to a small number of consumer bodies such as Which? and Energywatch. Once Which? has submitted its dossier to the CMA, the regulator has 90 days to respond.
As a first step the CMA could request a market study, in which it could demand further information from the supermarkets themselves, before escalating to a full-blown investigation. A decade ago Citizens Advice helped bring the payment protection insurance scandal to public attention by lodging a super-complaint with the now-defunct Office of Fair Trading.
Which? has previously made super-complaints on care homes, credit card interest rates, Northern Ireland banking, private dentistry and the Scottish legal profession.
Meanwhile, new research suggests that more than 1,400 suppliers to Britain’s supermarkets are facing collapse as the cut-throat price war takes its toll on the industry.
The number of food and beverage makers in significant financial distress has nearly doubled to 1,414 in the last year, according to insolvency practitioner Begbies Traynor.
The findings will increase the pressure on the government and the groceries code adjudicator to take action to protect suppliers and prevent large companies from delaying payments or changing agreed terms.

Examples Which? sent to the CMA

Seasonal offers: higher prices only applied out of season, when consumers are less likely to buy the item. It found a Nestle Kit Kat Chunky Collection Giant Egg was advertised at £7.49 for 10 days in January this year at Ocado, then sold on offer at £5 for 51 days.
Was/now pricing: the use of a higher “was” price when the item has been available for longer at the lower price. Acacia honey and ginger hot cross buns at Waitrose were advertised at £1.50 for just 12 days this year before going on offer at “£1.12 was £1.50” for 26 days.
Multi-buys: prices are increased on multi-buy deals so that the saving is less than claimed. Asda increased the price of a Chicago Town Four Cheese Pizza two-pack from £1.50 to £2 last year and then offered a multi-buy deal at two for £3. A single pack went back to £1.50 when the “offer” ended.
Larger pack, better value: the price of individual items in the bigger pack are actually higher. Tesco sold four cans of Green Giant sweetcorn for £2 last year, but six cans were proportionately more expensive in its “special value” pack, priced at £3.56.

Britain’s criminally stupid attitudes to race and immigration are beyond parody

Frankie Boyle in The Guardian

The anti-immigration election rhetoric is perverse – we fear the arrival of people that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them

‘Let’s not forget where coffee and tea come from: this mug is bitterly opposed to its own contents’

I sometimes wonder if satire has reached a nadir in Britain because British society has itself become a parody of itself. The Chipping Norton Set: the prime minister, a tabloid editor and a Roger Mellie-ish TV icon all conveniently living in the same little town and taking turns at being the centre of scandal, feels like a novel Martin Amis bashed out because his conservatory was leaking. Likewise there has been an element of tragic irony this week as the growing drumbeat of anti-immigration election rhetoric has been punctuated by the mass drowning of migrants.

The SNP’s growing popularity has prompted a little low-level press racism of the kilts-and-porridge variety, as an English electorate struggles with the idea that there will be Scottish people holding the reins of power for the first time since the last government. Nicola Sturgeon has been called “the most dangerous woman in Britain”, by someone who hasn’t met any other Scottish women. Of course, it’s difficult to explain to English people that we have always had their best interests at heart – if we hadn’t invented penicillin they would have all died in a Greek airport departure lounge. There have already been a couple of amusing moments in the campaign when leaders standing in front of union jacks expounding on the need for a £100bn missile system have taken time out to warn us about the dangers of nationalism. Personally, I think it might be invigorating to have a hung parliament where, before any law was passed, the government had to have an argument with a Scottish person.

“Gosh, you seem awfully good at this. Have you had some practice?”

“I’m not actually part of the Scottish negotiating team, I’m just here to take your drinks order …”

“Ah, right, could I have a cup of tea?”


Ed Miliband’s anti-immigration stance is odd: it’s hard to vote for a man who doesn’t have the confidence to defend his own existence. It seems that his main argument against immigrants is that his dad raised a befuddled fuckwit. Could you hand Labour’s “controls on immigration” mug to a guest? There’s nothing like jollying up a Macmillan Cancer Support coffee morning by making your neighbours feel like the pakoras were a little unwelcome. Let’s not forget where coffee and tea come from: this mug is bitterly opposed to its own contents. Unless you drink hot Tizer from a coffee cup, the drink inside that mug will be an immigrant. The logic of a receptacle for hot beverages provided by slavery and colonisation being anti-immigrant bears no more examination than a pair of homophobic Speedos.

Then there’s Ukip, like someone made a heavy-handed version of The Thick of It for ITV. They don’t want Britain to be ruled by foreigners – with the notable exception of the royal family. They want an Australian-style points system for immigration. Who knows what this will look like, but my suspicion is “being white” will be like catching the snitch in Quidditch. If we have become a self-satirising society, Ukip are just the broader end, the easy slapstick laughs. They even have a porn-star candidate. Of course, he isn’t the first MP to have filmed himself having sex. But he is the first to do so with an adult, whom he allowed to live.

Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.

In a further nod to satire, Comic Relief this year focused on Malawi and Uganda. I didn’t see any acknowledgement that Britain had been the colonial power in those countries. “Thanks for the gold, lads, thanks for the diamonds. We had a whip-round and got you a fishing rod.”

A lot of racism comes from projection. White Americans have a stereotype of black people being criminals purely because they can’t acknowledge that it was actually white people that stole them from Africa in the first place. Today, you have the spectacle of black men being gunned down by cops who, by way of mitigation, release footage to show that the victims were running away. This is what happens when you don’t understand or even acknowledge history. You end up in a situation where, when slavery is the elephant in the room in your relationship with African Americans, you think it’s OK to say that you killed one of them because he was trying to escape.

Britain is in a similar place with colonialism. We have streets named after slave owners. We profited from a vile crime and feel no shame. We fear the arrival of immigrants that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them. For much of the rest of the world we must be the focus of bitter amusement, characters in a satire we don’t understand. It is British people that don’t learn languages, or British history. Britain is the true scrounger, the true criminal.