Monthly Archives: August 2012

Caster Semanya; another athlete with a Games to celebrate

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Ten weeks ago, I listed three athletes who I hoped would do well at the Games: Mo Farah, Caster Semenya, and Bahaa al-Farra, the Palestinian 400m runner. I thought, between them, they might achieve three finals and one silver. I didn’t think it would be two silvers and a gold.

Al-Farra broke 50 seconds but did not make it through the first round.

Mo, I’ve discussed, and there’s no need to go back over his victories.

Dave Zirin encapsulates what it means to have Caster Semenya at the Games:

“Here is a phenomenal athlete who has had to endure all manner of allegations and innuendo simply because she does not fit the stereotypical body shape of a female runner.”

“This idea of binary gender norms is something that the Olympics—indeed the whole sports world—are going to have to address whether they like it or not. There will be more and more transgender athletes and this arbitrary dichotomy is going to be challenged. The idea that boys play in one place and girls in another is not something inherent to human nature; it is something that has had to be enforced and codified. Of course there will be different divisions of athletes, but why base this on gender? Why not on strength or speed or body mass? It is arbitrary and yet at the same time not arbitrary—it becomes yet another way to divide us and make us feel different from each other.”

Semenya has been roundly slated by the commentators, the suggestion being that she was naive to leave it so late in the 800 metres. Their other idea being that maybe she didn’t want to win Gold – not after the horror she had to endure after winning golds at the World Championship in 2009.

That’s not how I saw the race. Watching her, she seemed far bulkier than any of the other runners, and heavy on her feet. She was fighting hard to stay in contention, and was surprised to discover how much she had left in her legs.

You have to remember that Semenya has been injured for much of the past 12 months and hadn’t broken 2 minutes this year until the Olympic heats. Before the Games began, few serious commentators thought she would get a medal; even reaching the final was a victory for her.

She retains the leg speed to run a very fast 50 metres – she no longer has the right balance to be able to go (as by contrast David Rudisha can) seamlessly from anaerobic to aerobic exercise.

A way of thinking about how she runs is to imagine how Usain Bolt would race the 800 metres; he would just hope desperately to remain in the race until the end – knowing that if he did his last few metres would be devastating. That’s exactly how Semenya ran – not out of innocence nor in fear but in full knowledge of her body, and of fit (or not) she is just now.

In praise of Mo Farah

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To give you an idea of how well Mo Farah just run: until the Olympics, his best time in the 10,000 metres this year was only the 7th fastest any athlete had run in 2012. In the 5,000 metres, he wasn’t (and still isn’t) one of the fastest ten runners over the distance this year.

The genius of the race was that, in contrast to the 10,000 metres, which the other athletes gifted to Farah by refusing to lead from the front, leaving the race to whoever could sprint fastest, the 5k was a proper fight. Farah had to impose himself on the race. Into the last lap, he was leading from only 2-3 metres including from one athletes who is a specialist 1500 metres runners and should be expected to have a faster kick.

You can see how much better Farah ran in the 5k by the position of his training partner David Rupp in the two races: 2nd in the 10k, but only 7th in the 5k. Be clear: Rupp is a fantastic athlete in his own right. The only difference between him and Farah is desire.

And to run under 53 seconds in the last lap … To give you a comparison – David Rudisha just ran laps of 50 and 51 seconds in the 800 metres, and in doing so broke the world record. Farah was barely slower over his last lap having run six times as far.

Brendan Foster described it as the “greatest single moment in British athletics in my lifetime” – and this from a man who ran at three Olympics, won European and Commonwealth golds and was a world record holder.

If we are going to have a greatest British runner ever – wouldn’t you want it to be a Muslim who came here as a refugee, who was educated at a comprehensive and then an FE college, who lived with his partner for years before marrying her, and who worked in pizza restaurants before he was a professional athlete – rather than lifelong Tory Seb Coe?

Why I run

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With just a few other pleasures, running is part of my nature. It is something which I could barely exist without. I run to feel the air cool and my body warm. I run because I want to and because I can. Running has repeatedly surprised me, it has shaken me out of the torpor of daily living. It has strengthened my body and prepared me for days which might otherwise have been stressful or long. At times when I have had to devote every mental effort to a task, running has kept me well.

I have run for the indulgence of physical companionship and I have run to be alone. I have run for the challenge of testing myself, whether against arbitrary goals (such as the time on a stopwatch) or against flesh and blood rivals. I have run selfishly and aggressively at time, I admit, and I have run collectively as part of a team. Running has given me a measure against which to judge myself and others. It has even taught me something of what it means to live well.

I run to live, and when I have run fast my body has been lifted in joy.

[from my book Lives; Running: now available to order from Bookmarks or Amazon]

The Gender Games

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One of the most positive outcomes of Team GB’s success has been the prominence of Women Athletes winning medals. Author of a new book on the Olympics MARK PERRYMAN considers the likely long-term impact.

A World record crowd for a Women’s Football match. Three more Team GB Golds, all won by women athletes. The first ever Women’s boxing Gold, again won by a Team GB athlete. That was just yesterday, Thursday, at London 2012. For Team GB these Games have perhaps represented the single biggest challenge to the traditional masculine hegemony that to date has gripped British sporting culture.

And its not just in the ring, on the pitch or round the track. In the BBC TV studio Clare Balding has for most been the stand out presenter, putting the more than occasional hapless amateurism of Gary Lineker once he strays outside the comfort zone of football, to shame. In the Guardian  women sportswriters have enjoyed a prominence that was previously unheard of even in this paper. Marina Hyde, Anna Kessel and Emma John in particular. While prominent feminist columnists Zoe Williams and Suzanne Moore have contributed pieces echoing the approval of what the Games have come to represent.

All this less than a year after the notorious BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award managed to fail to feature a single sportswoman on the shortlist. To do that this December would be simply unthinkable.

Of course inequalities still exist. No Olympic Woman football, basketball or cycling star will ever earn even a fraction of the money their male counterparts are paid. But the Olympics does broadly treat Women’s versions of the medal sports on an equal basis with the male versions. Few, except the most embittered chauvinist, would treat Laura Trott and Victoria Pendelton’s achievements in the velodrome as somehow inferior to Jason Kenny and Chris Hoy’s. The Team GB women rowers were celebrated every bit as much as their male medal-winning counterparts, in fact arguably with even greater prominence. It is almost impossible to measure  the magnitude of  Jess Ennis’s Heptathlon Gold versus Mo Farrar’s 10,000m Gold. And while the most puerile sections of the media, and not a few men too, will sexualise the female athletes’ bodies in a degrading manner few male athletes will have to endure, this is no longer the dominant norm.

Last night’s Women’s Gold Medal Football match at Wembley was a sparkling occasion. The previous world record crowd for a Women’s Football match was 76,000, Wembley topped 80,000. The standard of play was for the most part superb, perhaps a tad less physical, a fraction slower but this makes for a more skilful, passing game. The goals were of the highest quality, Hope Solo in the US goal putting on a world class performance to keep the Japanese women at bay. No. its not the same as ‘men’s football’, but then why should it be. These superbly gifted footballers aren’t trying to play the men at the game blokes like to call their own, they’re playing something different.

With next to no dissent, the one solitary dive, a single yellow card in many ways the game was better too. In the stands the passion was different too, a much more joyful atmosphere than the one I’ve become too used to watching England. No one standing up to block my view and refusing to budge, no foul and abusive language wrapped in hate for others in the name of passion, and most of all none of the drunken, threatening misogyny that too many have excused over the years as just what lads at football get away with.

This has been a glorious two week break from the way sport has become perverted, particularly via football, a process excused by many, I include myself, in the cause of a supposed authenticity of our crowds’ passion. For that grip to be broken I propose one simple idea. Forget about bidding to host the men’s World Cup, 2026 is the earliest now that tournament might come here. Bid now for England to host the Women’s World Cup, the 2015 competition is in Canada, 2019 should be the target. Send out the clearest possible message that our national game belongs every bit as much to women as men. Use the positive euphoria around our women athletes’ achievements across a whole range of Olympic sports to unravel the hitherto impregnable male bastion of football. Take that brick out of the wall and male hegemony in sport would come crashing down, for the better. The FA has been scrabbling round for a sense of purpose ever since the Premier League took over the game and the national team proved incapable of getting past a quarter final, mired in the ever falling standard of behaviour of our players and clubs out of financial control. This would give football a mission, one fitting with a post-Olympics mood that compared to the way our Olympians conduct themselves our male footballers don’t compare. Nothing less will do. 

Mark Perryman is the author of the Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And

How They Can Be, £8 (£6 kindle edition) from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

Can David Rudisha run the perfect 800 metres?

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“I think two laps of 50 seconds are not out of sight” (Seb Coe, 22 December 1979).

The first runner to break 1.40 for the half mile will cross a boundary as impermeable as the 4 minute mile once seemed. To run it, you would have to run two laps in under 50 seconds each. There are relatively few runners who have the leg speed to manage even one lap at this time.

Step forward David Rudisha. Of the twelve times in history that any runner has broken 1.42, six have been run by Rudisha.

In his last three races before the Olympics, Rudisha ran on each occasion in under 1.42; in the first of them (at New York) he ran a first lap in under 50 seconds; in the second (the Kenyan trials) he ran a last lap in under 50 seconds; in the third (the Diamond League), he was back to an opening lap in sub-50 seconds.

I don’t doubt that Rudisha has broken 1.40 in training; the real question is whether he can do it in open competition?

If he does, then the Olympics deserve to be remembered for his achievement as much as any record that any other athlete breaks.

Tonight: Challenging the neo-liberal games

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I wanted to remind all readers of this blog that I’ll be speaking this evening from 7pm at Housmans bookshop.

Much of my talk will be about the Olympics, about the ways in which the corporations have used them to take over London, and about the individuals who have profited from them (Coe, Mittal, Dizdarevic…). I’ll also speak about the way the Games have been organised as a sporting spectacle, their jingoism, their sexism and racism.

I’ll also speak about my book Lives; Running, and the alternative model it articulates of a different kind of sporting practice: one based on participation rather than spectating, and one which thrives on racing defeats as well as on victories. I’ll use Coe here, again, as a negative model, whose life story points a way (against Coe’s wishes) towards how to run freely.

The talk will be at:

Housmans Bookshop
5 Caledonian Road
King’s Cross
London N1 9DX
Tel: 020 7837 4473
Email: shop@housmans.com
http://www.housmans.com

Entry: £3, redeemable against any purchase
Nearest tube: King’s Cross

All welcome

The women’s 800 metres: how to run; how not to coach

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It’s hard not to feel warmth for Lynsey Sharp, the sole UK woman running the 800 metres at the Olympics. By the time of the final selection decision, she was the fourth-fastest athlete eligible for selection. Under IAAF rules, a county could select up to three athletes who have run the fastest (“A”) qualifying times, or, just one athlete, if she had run a slower (“B”) qualifying time. Sharp’s personal best of 2.00.52 was within the B time for her distance (2.01.30), but not the A time (1.59.90).

The circumstances under which Sharp was preferred over three faster British women (Jenny Meadows, Marilyn Okoro and Jemma Simpson) were as follows: the fastest of the three runners, Jenny Meadows (silver medalist at the 2011 European championships), has been injured for much of the past year with an achilles injury which had shown signs of improvement. She managed to persuade the organisers of her child’s school sports day(!) to keep the track open for her, and ran a solo race in 2.00.8 (within fractions of a second of Sharp’s lifetime best). Meadows’ achilles then flared up and she was injured for the UKA selection race, as was Simpson, with a broken rib.

Okoro (who has since broken the UK 600 metres record) set off like an express train at the UK selection race, but froze in the second lap, running laps of 57 and 67 seconds and and finished in seventh, two seconds behind Sharp.

Sharp (pictured) won the UK selection race, and followed that victory up with a silver in the recent European championships in Helsinki. In no time at all she has gone from being the fourth or fifth-fastest middle distance runner in Britain to being the UK’s sole women’s 800m Olympian. Jason Henderson the editor of Athletics Weekly described her selection as “brave”, and, again, I congratulate her for seizing her opportunity. But that’s not all I see in the story.

UK Athletics head coach Charles van Comenee (a man so well loved that he has an alternate Twitter existence as “Charles van Comedy”), a former decathlete who never made it to international standard, but career coach, publicly blamed the other runners for their own failure to achieve selection. Using the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone of managers everywhere when blaming their workers, he said, “not one of the athletes took control of their own destiny … they made it difficult by not doing what they were supposed to do.”

You can hardly blame a runner who gets injured. As for Okoro, who Comenee very clearly blames for mis-pacing her 800 metres race, this just strikes me as the sort of stupidity that people who’ve never run will use in talking about those who do. Of course runners periodically mis-pace their races; this can happen for all sorts of reasons, not least because you can wake up of a morning feeling healthy (the adrenaline in your body giving you falsely positive  signals) only to work out mid-race that you are not as fresh as you thought.

If you would seek an example of a well-known athlete ruining their own 800 metre race by setting off too fast, look no further than later multiple world record holder Seb Coe, who ruined his first championship 800 metres, by doing just this at the 1978 European championships (and costing his teammate Steve Ovett of gold when Ovett tried to follow him). Far from being publicly humiliated by the coaches for that failure, Coe was retained in the UK team, and went on to win gold two years later at the Moscow Olympics. Coe who was seen even then as the Golden Boy of British athletics had, of course, the polite, almost deferential demeanour of a public schoolboy while Okoro is made of different stuff.

Van Comenee telephoned Okoro directly to tick her off for failing to qualify for the Olympics; so incensed was she by his insensitivity that she told him she was quitting the sport. I, can’t help but admire her for having the guts to tell him what he should do with himself.

Olympian Reading

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With London 2012 drawing to a close Mark Perryman rounds up the new books which help us to understand the Games’ longer-term significance.

In the mid 1980s a strain of left writing emerged which took popular culture seriously, too seriously, according to some critics, who preferred a more reductionist model of the old base-superstructure variety. However amongst these writers, covering a wide variety of subjects that frame our everyday lives, the argument that stood out was one of contestation. They made the case that via the media, film, music, fashion and more, ideas and ideologies were shaped, reinforced and crucially challenged too.

Sport was one of the subjects addressed in this way, a small number of original thinkers accounting for its role beyond the pitch, track and ring. Garry Whannel’s Blowing the Whistle, published in 1983 was one of the fisrt to foreground a politics of sport. He picked out two key themes. Firstly, the ways in which sport contributes to the way people see the world, especially via race, gender and extreme versions of nationalism. And secondly, the role of health and fitness in human development.

Applying some of these ideas to the Olympics a year later, ahead of the Los Angeles Games of 1984, Garry co-edited with Alan Tomlinson the collection Five Ring Circus .Ranging over issues of corporate power, the role of TV, sexism in Olympic sports, the cult of amateurism and more, this was a collection of its time, reflecting the emergence of a left that took culture seriously and rejected an instrumentalism that was dangerously close on occasion to framing a one-dimensional view of the world.

Almost thirty years on Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport has little time for the kind of nuanced critique of sport Whannel, Tomlinson and others helped pioneer on the British left. Instead he describes the growth of global sport as a ‘plague’. Racism, drug abuse, and worse has helped create a pornographic hybrid he dubs ‘sporn’, all in the cause of decadence fuelled by competition, fame and elitism. The rhetorical flourishes are hard to fault but the self-satisfaction of outright opposition to almost all versions of sport does tend towards an overbearing sense of moral and intellectual superiority at the expense of political engagement.

Written anonymously by a former member of the Team GB Olympic Athletes Squad The Secret Olympian is a book about the side of the Games the rest of us won’t see. The pressure to reach the podium, life inside the training camp, the drug-testing regime, Olympic Village affairs… A tale of dedication but also loneliness and pressure. The insights are revealing enough to suggest that despite the wall-to-wall media coverage the culture of elite sport remains largely under wraps to the rest of us.

For an entirely different view of the potential of sport read Run Wild by Chumbawamba frontman Boff Whalley. A hugely impressive first-time writer on the joyful freedom of running. Stripped down to its basics running is the most simple of all sports requiring next to no kit or facilities. Boff’s book describes what running wild, back to nature, can mean. However much we might enjoy the televised spectacle of Gold-medal winning performances this is the form of sport most of us will ever aspire to, and by capturing the democratic spirit of sport for all this book reveals its liberatory potential too.

The Olympic Park is without doubt a magnificent space of architectural excellence drawn to the purpose of sport. But what will it look like in five, ten years time? Anna Minton’s Ground Control puts the Park firmly in the context of spiralling CCTV networks, the privatisation of public space, shopping malls and gated housing which increasingly dominate contemporary urban living. Her analysis of the topography of legacy and regeneration is both wonderfully written and a telling response to the unthinking boosterism that is no preparation for future disappointment.

So far these Games have been largely free of drugs scandals, but the whiff of suspicion, rumour and samples that prove positive never seems so far away to be entirely discounted, Chris Cooper’s Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat provides, for the first time, an in-depth explanation of how drugs can improve sporting performances. How they are detected is explained but perhaps most interestingly of all this book provides an examination of the ethical issues: what would be the impact of legalisation?

For those who consider such a shift the antithesis of the meaning of sport, a contest founded on human physical endeavour not the superiority of the contents of one test tube over another, the perfect antidote is to be found in Adharanand Finn’s superbly-written Running With the Kenyans. With Kenyan athletes so dominant in middle and long-distance running, what are the secrets of their athletes’ success and is it possible for others to adapt their training, diet, lifestyle to improve our own fitness and running speed?

Few have successfully used sport as the plotline for a novel. The real life drama of sport is so epic, as vividly portrayed every day of London 2012, that fiction is hardly needed to add to the impact. With Gold Chris Cleave shows how a plot mixing emotion and intrigue plus Olympic cycling can produce a compelling and thrilling read. As good as the real thing? In this case, even better and well-deserving of the rave reviews, and no doubt bumper sales, the book is already attracting.

Almost every day of London 2012 there has been a race, a result, a contest on water, around the track, in the ring or on the pitch, that has been a conversation starter in the home, at work, the bus stop or wherever. Some, many no doubt, begin and end with who won what and how. But plenty will also reveal themes of race, gender, class and national identity which connect with issues represented by sport. These books are evident, in their different ways, of how writers make those connections and enrich our enjoyment of sport as the one of the most compelling, and vital, global spectacles of the modern era.

Mark Perryman is the author of Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be just £8 (£6 kind edition), available from www.orbooks.com.

The mile: a twenty-year PB

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Monday’s wonderfully-titled Self-Transcendence 3 x 1 Mile relay was organised by the Sri Chimnoy running club in Battersea Park.

Sri Chimnoy himself was that familiar type, a spiritual leader from India who travelled to the West. But whereas others of that ilk played the sitar, collected Rolls Royces by the dozen, etc, Chimnoy devoted himself to the nobler task of transcending his ego through running: managing for example 7 marathons and 2 ultra-marathons at age 48. (The only person I know who tops that was Jimmy Saville, with his 200 marathons in 30 years, maybe he too should have offered his services as a religious guru…)

Anyway, the route is an 800 metres-out and a 800 metres-back, run along the long straight road at the south end of Battersea Park guarded by plane tress.

It’s August now and the nights are already longer than they were and the evenings shorter. The race began at 7, ending thirty minutes later in the approaching dusk. There was even time for a sudden, passing shower.

I was lucky to be running with John and Alice, two fellow Mornington Chasers, for a team we named “Mornington Chasers Red”. Other Chasers included a men’s group led off by Ian Gordon, our sub-2:15 half-miler, their team finishing fifth in the men’s relay, and a women’s Chasers over-50s team who beat not just all the other women, but also all the men in their age group.

John led us off in 5:14, with Alice running her mile in just a fraction over 7 minutes. John’s face at the end was a study in determination (it reminded me of a story told about Steve Prefontaine, that he knew he wasn’t the fastest runner on the track, but he also knew that there wasn’t another runner in the world who could bear pain better than he could).

By the time I began I was about 50 metres behind the next runner, and I settled into a pace which was intended to shield the calf injury I’ve been feeling – off and on – all summer. A runner in his twenties overtook me at about 200 metres, and for the next kilometre I settled into his pace, leaving him to pull me round the course.

A quick look at my watch at the halfway point showed that I ran the first 800 metres in about 3:10.

Through the return half my calf was horribly sore, but I comforted myself with the words John had spoken to me – not altogether seriously – before I started. “This time, David”, he said (two of my last runs having ended Did No Finish), “you’d better not stop, even if you’re injured.”

At around a kilometre, I seemed to overtake around a dozen runners.

And then with about 200 metres to go, I was passed by a runner in a white vest. Furious, I kicked back at him, allowing my stride to lengthen (probably too long) and letting my feet race towards the end. He finished three metres ahead of me.

I ran 5:52 for my mile leg; which translates to a 66.61% age related time. Just to give you a sense of how fast this is – for me – it narrowly beats any race I’ve run over the past 10 years, at any of the recorded distances I’ve run from 5k to a marathon.

Not having run a timed mile since my teens, I declare it a 20-year pb.

Did I transcend myself? I don’t know; right now, I feel sore but happy.

Where’s Phillips Idowu?

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The “elusive” Phillips Idowu, carrying the Olympic torch through London, 21.7.12

If Team GB head coach Charles van Commenee is to be believed, no athlete at the Games is in a worse state of physical preparation than Phillips Idowu. Van Commenee has given repeated press conferences complaining that Idowu does not want to speak to him. (Here’s a clue, Charles, if you go to the press criticising one of your top athletes, maybe the athlete won’t be minded to return your calls…).

Van Commenee has threatened to compel Idowu to attend a fitness test, the implied threat being that if he didn’t attend he would not be allowed to compete at the Games. (So poor was van Commenee’s performance in front of the cameras that UK Athletics chief executive Niels de Vos was then required to do a further set of interviews explaining what his boss had meant to say – which was rather different from what he did say). Idowu, to his considerable credit, has simply ignored the Dutchman, successfully calling his bluff.

How did it get to this? Idowu, who was the silver medallist at Beijing 2008, suffered injuries in 2011 and has been suffering them again in 2012. In 2011, to deal with the possibility of having to compete with insufficient preparation, Idowu’s coach Aston Moore (whose salary, as van Commenee points out, is paid for by Team GB), encouraged him to practice on a regime which would see him jumping just once outdoor all year (Idowu’s first meeting of the year duly saw him jump 17.57m, the longest jump in the world to that point).

This year Idowu declined to attend Team GB’s training camp in Portugal (the crime which Van Commenee will not forgive) and has pulled out of three of the six meetings he had planned to attend – most recently, in mid-July, because he was suffering hip tightness. Idowu is 33, this is his fourth Olympic Games, and he knows his body well enough to err on the side of caution rather than to compete just to keep the press on board. He doesn’t need a non-athlete like Van Commenee to sanction his decisions.

Where’s Phillips? In London, making his final preparations for the Games.