Monthly Archives: March 2012

Why I dislike treadmills

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We are a nation of couch people, complains Will Self, decreasingly capable of travelling short distances without mechanical help. The paradigm wasted journey he writes, is a car-ride to work. I equally dislike the car economy, but the problem isn’t only about the distances between people’s homes and their workplace. It’s also about what we do with our leisure time.

Capitalism delights in taking things which used to be free or nearly free and making us pay for them. Each year three million people in Britain join a gym; half a million never go again, and a further million visit no more than once or twice a month. Gyms duplicate the experiences of sports which either used to be free (running, swimming), or for which the costs of participation were minimal (rowing, cycling, etc). The treadmill itself was invented as a prison punishment in the early nineteenth century; long-term offenders were placed on a machine to process grain cheaply.

Gyms are marketed as clean and safe; but they deprive those doing the sport of air and light. Rather than taking people to places they’ve not been before, they repeat and diminish the familiar. Running outside, by contrast, sets you free.

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That Olympic Legacy: Sunday Trading

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I’ve posted before about the Olympic promise: “To demonstrate that the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, to visit and for business.” An early sign of how the Olympics will change Britain, came with George Osborne’s announcement last week that Sunday trading laws will be relaxed for eight weeks over the summer.

The Sunday Trading Act 1994 (as heavily amended) prohibits Sunday opening for more than 6 hours altogether between 10am and 6pm. While at one stage, the legislation limited the powers of businesses to make workers work on Sundays; in practice all that is left is a restriction on big businesses’ ability to force small businesses out of the market. “We’ve got the whole world coming to London – and the rest of the country – for the Olympics,” Osborne was quoted as saying. “It would be a great shame – particularly when some of the big Olympic events are on Sunday – if the country had a closed for business sign on it.” But if people are watching the Olympics, they’ll be at the games, not in Tesco.

This isn’t aboutmaking life easier for tourists, or shoppers generally. There is no bolder vision than to recreate Britain afterwards as a place where businesses can trade without taxes or responsibilities.

Injured; again

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Running on Wednesday, I felt a sudden tear in my right calf muscle. In theory, it should not have happened as I had warmed up sufficiently (or as much as I usually do). While I was running relatively quickly, doing a personalised cross between fartlek and interval training, I was not running further or faster than I have been for several weeks. The day was warm and the ground dry. I was running on park paths, dirt and gravel. My body did not feel tight but loose.

As I wrote a few days ago, I have long had a weakness in my left achilles tendon. It goes back to my first year as a runner, and possibly years before that. I can’t help but feel that in some way my body was compensating for that injury, shifting the pressure subtly from one foot to another, and it was that false realignment which caused the injury. 

It comes at a bad time; I had been hoping to run a 5k this Saturday, and build up from there to running again with friends. From all sides meanwhile I hear of runners’ plans: a half marathon in Cambridge, a marathon in Vienna, 76 miles for Hillsborough Justice.

That Olympic Legacy: G4S

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In the Olympic bid, five promises were made regarding the long-term benefits of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games:

1. To make the UK a world-leading sporting nation
2. To transform the heart of East London
3. To inspire a generation of young people
4. To make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living
5. To demonstrate that the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, to visit and for business.

One business indeed set to do very well from the Olympics is G4S (previously Group 4), probably still best known in the UK for its cornering 20 years ago of the market in transporting prisoners between court and detention. 

G4S will generate £284 million in turnover from the Olympics. According to the company website: “As the Official Security Services Provider for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games we will be working alongside the police, local authorities, venue and London Organising Committee Olympic Games (LOCOG) volunteer workforce to provide a range of security solutions including:

•           Search and screening 

•           Perimeter protection 

•           Mobile and river patrol protection 

•           CCTV monitoring 

•           Command & control”

 The company as a whole reports trading as follows:

Annual turnover £7 billion

Annual profit £300 million

Highest paid director’s salary: £1,656,000

Increase over last 5 years: 22.12%

Among the non-executive directors Lord Condon (previously Metropolitan Police Commissioner) alone trousers £125,000k p/a as a non-exec director – i.e. for presumably less than a full day’s work a week. 

Condon has not been the only prominent person on G4S’s payroll. The company has a track record of offering jobs to washed-up former politicians: John Reid from New Labour and Norman Fowler, in a previous generation.

No doubt they have considered offering Seb Coe a similar sinecure post-Olympics.

Achilles tendon injuries

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I was, as I explain in my book, a decent schoolboy athlete. I am, I happily acknowledge, a crock of an adult runner. By the age of eighteen, I had suffered repeated minor tears of my left achilles tendon. Runner’s guides distinguish between tendonitis, a condition where the tendon thickens but the thickening dissipates after a period of rest, and tendinosis, which is when the tendon suffers chronic, microscopic tears, a condition for which the ultimate cure is surgery. I had first been injured at the age of fourteen. Never since then had I enjoyed a full running season without even minor injury. My injuries had long since passed from the occasional to the chronic.

The range of my injuries, moreover, seemed to be spreading. I had already suffered one bout of exercise-related asthma, and for the next two years was prone to chest infections. My knees were often sore. There seemed to be some relationship between the recurring weakness in my left tendon and pains in my right knee. Had I wanted to continue, I should have asked to see a consultant specialising in sports injuries. I did not ask to see one.

Today, I sorely regret that indecision.

Finsbury Park

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I walk with my youngest son to Finsbury Park. He ascends the slides. He climbs from a rope structure of interlocking hexagons, through a rope bridge, holding on by just one hand. A lexicon of tort phrases pass through my mind: allurement, contributory fault … I have sat at the back of courts as defences have been distinguished on the basis of a parent’s duty, or not, to shield their children from risk.

I show him the running track, hidden behind an odd-shaped duck pond, the edges of the water lapping with discarded water bottles. The tartan is worn; patches of black rubber poke through a crust of red. There is a sign asking runners to pay for use of the track but no-one to collect the money. Teenagers toy with a discarded shot putt. The scene is a testament to the rapid running down during this recession of past generations’ municipal collectivism.

But my boy sees it differently. I explain to him that the track is for running. His eyes widen in anticipation; he thinks of the hours and days he has spent running against his own brother. “You run round it”, he asks … “the whole way round?”

Anatomy of a protest

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Dave Zirin and John Carlos, The John Carlos Story (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011)

If the definition of mis-government is a society which disdains spending on health or education but fritters billions on prestige projects designed to boost its leaders’ global prestige; then there are few processes better designed to speed this process than when a country wins the competition to host an Olympic games.

For John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and the other protesters of 1968, the enemy was something more specific than our own generation’s villains of privatisation and corruption. Their demands were:

  • restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title
  • remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee
  • disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics

Their vehicle, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), called for boycotts of the Mexico Olympics. But the boycott position crumbled, from a mixture of weakness (one of the activists behind the scene was Martin Luther King; the athletes were disorientated after his death) and strength (South Africa was banned).

Carlos and Smith, two of the most ardent boycotters, qualified for the Olympics and travelled to Mexico, arriving in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of several hundred student protesters. They were determined to do something to demonstrate against racism and only settled belatedly on the tactic of the black power salute.

The iconography of the scene turns out to subtly more complex than just the two saluters sharing a single pair of black gloves. Carlos and Smith wore beads to remember the American history of lynching. They refused to wear shoes, their bare feet symbolising the poverty in which so many black Americans have lived. Carlos wore a black t-shirt to hide his USA vest.

Peter Norman, the (white) Australian silver medallist in the 200 metres, wore an OPHR badge on the podium, in solidarity with Carlos and Smith.

Carlos reveals that he had been overwhelmed by the significance of the Olympics from an early age: “Of course I listened to every sport on the radio, but nothing captured my mind, heart and spirit quite like the Olympic Games … The sheer variety of sports, the idea of the finest athletes from around the globe gathering and representing their countries: it was different, and the fact that it was very four years just made it feel like an extra kind of special.”

He hoped to swim at the Olympics; the absence of a full-size pool in New York open to black swimmers stymied this early ambition.

Growing up in Harlem, Carlos’ early teens were spent stealing from trains and distributing food and nappies among local residents. The weeks spent running, heavily laden, from police officers, were a preparation of sorts.

Carlos’ athletic breakthrough occurred when he was asked to try out, together with children several years his senior, for the high school team:

“I hadn’t shown up to run so I was wearing these big, heavy clodhoppers. We called them ‘Ivy League shoes’ because they had no style … In [my father’s] mind, if you had on Ivy League shoes, you were good to go because they would never wear out in the broken asphalt of New York City and so that’s what my brothers, my sisters, and I would wear.”

“Despite these Ivy league shoes, I lined up alongside the fastest guys on the high school team in my street clothes and my clodhoppers to run 100 yards. When the coach said ‘go’, I pumped my legs, and felt the resistance against my pants. I kicked out my feet and felt the heaviness of my shoes. And then, I crossed the finish line and saw that everyone was way back. snacking on my dust. Mild-mannered Mr Youngerman whooped loudly and said, ‘Oh sit, we got a phenom here.’”

The drama culminates in the podium scene. The gesture was not popular; nor did Carlos or Smith expect it to be:

“As the national anthems played”, Carlos explains, “the calm before the storm ended and the boos started coming down. The people who weren’t booing were screaming the national anthem … I thought about what Tommie and I had already said to each other: ‘If anybody has a high-power rifle and they hit the trigger, just remember that we’ve been trained to listen to the gun. So, just focus and hit the deck.”

“If you look at the pictures”, Carlos continues, “Tommie’s first and back are so straight it looks like he was drawn with a protractor. My arm is slightly bent. That was because I wanted to make sure in case someone rushed us. I could throw down a hammer punch to protect us.”

With London 2012 due soon, this book reminds us that there are more routes to success in the Olympics that studying at Loughborough and having a father who worked as a manager. It is published in the US only; but can be ordered through Bookmarks, etc.