Category Archives: Superficial chaff

Andy Murray: step into the light

This would hardly be a self-respecting blog if it didn’t follow a zillion other bloggers and write about Andy Murray’s scintillating and nail-biting victory at Wimbledon today. I’ll keep it brief – you know the pack drill.

I have only ever warmed to four Wimbledon champions – Boris Becker is much better for me as a commentator, apart from when he adopts that husky Teutonic tone which reminds me only of the legend about a broom cupboard at Nobu and makes me wince. The champions I refer to then are: Bjorn Borg, Pat Cash, Goran Ivanisevic and, now, Andy Murray. In my mind the Swede with the crossed-eye will always carry all before him – that’s because I was young, it was the seventies, he wore a head band and it fitted with the ABBA zeigeist. Not to mention that he had that gripping rivalry with the American brat John McEnroe, who is an amazing commentator – better than Boris and very mellow now as well. Then the Australian: the hair, the good looks, the guitar. The first one to clamber into the crowd. Nuff said. Ivanisevic, the ninety foot Croatian was a man with a vision – and many years after he first dreamed the dream of Wimbledon he defied the odds to win. I stuck his picture up in the kitchen at the time, to remind me never to give up on dreams.

And now we have Andy. I have never been a Murray-knocker, so I may allow myself a moment of quiet satisfaction now.

I made a comment earlier elsewhere on tinternet, in praise of the Scottish one, and I don’t think I can say better than that here, so I will just replicate it. I can only add, of course, that I am a tiny bit Scottish too (quite a lot in fact on days like these) and I am, therefore, biased. Today, as it does once a decade, the bias worked out well.

Well, what a match. And it is today, of all days, that those who have always had Andy’s back can feel a momentary frisson of, dare I say it, smugness. It has been a pleasure to watch him mature and it has been of equal pleasure to note that he has not entirely lost that hint of gawk that people so criticised when he was younger. It is what makes him, him. Along with all that steely determination, persistence, hard graft and also, belief.

I have not enjoyed a Wimbledon winner so much as when Goran Ivanisevic won. He was a man with a dimming dream. Andy reminds me more of a man who has got there through sheer cussed conviction that there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, he has stepped into it. Long may it shine.

The Saltire on horseback

Lovely Estimate

I break into my Delhi doings to note something rather lovely has happened at Ascot this afternoon. The Queen has won the Gold Cup, the great stamina test of the five day meeting. Not only has she never won this race before today, she is the first reigning monarch to ever win it. It’s not an easy race to win. None of them are at Ascot. And this is the best bit – she won the race with a mare on her seventh start ever. The mare, with little enough experience, running the furthest she’s even been in a race in her life, beats the boys. And wait for this, she didn’t just beat the boys, she rallied to beat the boys, Simenon who came second, by a neck. She rallied. Simenon came fast and furious at her and she came back at him to win. Now that’s something worth writing about.

The name of this mare is Estimate and she is trained by Sir Michael Stoute. The jockey up was Ryan Moore. Now, I have had my differences with Sir Michael Stoute but after hearing him on the radio this morning, on the Radio 4 Today programme, I was ready to bury the hatchet. He spoke in warm terms of both the horse and owner. I felt myself soften to the man (after about ten years!). Estimate’s win seals it. He has done a good job with her, and more importantly, he will have given a great supporter of the game, an old lady, who happens to be the Queen, an absolutely sterling day out. Life isn’t easy when you’re older, the weak need not apply as the saying goes. I am no great monarchist by any means, but you can’t say the Queen hasn’t worked her socks off over her lifetime. I bet there are a thousand things she’d rather not have done, but got on with them. A win in the Gold Cup at Ascot must be a right tonic for her.

I didn’t have a bet and I am saving the replay for later, but in a world of depressing old news, a picture of a happy horse owner with her victorious mare is also a bright spot in my blogworld. The Racing Post has the best picture on the web at the moment, worth a click through for touching horse and owner moment.

Estimate and her owner after winning the Queen’s Vase last year

Writer’s Block

I don’t think I’ve ever had it, unless you count the years and years and years where I never wrote a thing… Then one night, most unexpectedly, there it was on a notepad in Battersea. Long since lost, thank goodness.

I am aware though, since returning home, of a weight pressing on me; one that numbs the fingers and makes the words shuffle past, all flat-footed and ungainly. I think there are a number of problems. One is, despite it being long enough already, it is too soon. Another is that it is not soon enough. I am caught somewhere in the middle of that tension between extremes. Other reasons: I have been tired, I have not found a voice, I feel uncertain of how to proceed, I am not up to the job.

Still, I have said to myself, none of that can be helped and however you feel about it, or yourself, there is a story demanding to be told and to that end I have begun the slow tap, tap, tap… It feels like I am doing this whilst lying in a sealed lead box with ever-decreasing oxygen supply, but so be it.

That is what this blog post is. The tap, tap, tap from inside the lead box. There is no story, no picture, no insight or uplifting point to be made. There just is. And so on and so on. One hopes.

The Beauty of Balotelli at Sportswriters.org

I am not meant to be blogging this weekend.  I am meant to be somewhere in Oxfordshire, sequestered from the real world and spending time meditating on the purpose, the power and the peace available to the human race.  As it turned out, I got sick and had to postpone until the New Year.  It’s ok, because sometimes you are needed in the real world.

I wrote a piece about Balotelli back in the summer during Euro 2012 and it gained a notable mention and has been published here at  www.sportswriter.org.uk which is nice.

I was pleased to see Balotelli nullified City’s match against Dortmund earlier this week, with the papers remarking on his sangfroid.   That’s  a new and rather pleasing development in his demeanour.  I wonder how long he will keep it up as the season wears on…

Balotelli against Dortmund’s goal keeper

Andy Murray: a word on monkeys & success

I wanted to say something about Andy Murray. About how he has not been generally liked. About how he has grown up in front of us from a callow and moody teen, to something approaching a net monster hulking over his opponent, when he is in the zone.

I wanted to say that he is, by his own admission, still beset with doubt about his ability, and that that, even last night at Flushing Meadow, rears its ugly head often enough to affect his game. But, not as much as before.

And I wondered why that was. Is it to do with his new coach, Ivan Lendl, someone whose disposition on court was not dissimilar to Murray’s. Someone who was not much of a favourite with the crowds, again like Murray over the years. Or is it something to do with Murray’s new maturity, both physically and mentally. There is no doubt that Andy Murray, a survivor of the Dunblane massacre as a primary school boy, has the mental toughness of a mahogany tree, but he is human and it is not inviolable. I like Murray for that, it makes him human.

I also wondered about Team GB. Did being part of something bigger than himself in the Olympics allow Murray the freedom to play without the incredible pressure that always comes around at Wimbledon. I can only think that it had a positive effect. Once the public monkey was off his back, it being too busy with track medal obsessions, Murray was able to start pushing his own, very stubborn clinging monkey off as well, and that was the breakthrough. It is the breakthrough we all need when we are struggling to get where we want to be. I am glad Murray has had his, finally. I think this is just the start for him.

It’s funny: the combination of his own dour Scottishness, a stony-faced former Czech player, and being part of a team that some Scots might long to be free from, Team GB, all of these things have acted as catalysts for Murray to finally achieve a dream that seems to have taken nearly forever. For the British public it is 76 years since our last Grand Slam winner, for Murray, well, who knows, but most of his 25 years one suspects. I hope he enjoys it. Something hard won is probably worth a little more to the person who suffered long and hard for it. I suspect the British public can identify with that too.

See Murray sharing something of how it has felt here.

No more monkey
Copyright The Guardian

Paralympians ~ passing through

They’ve enriched lives, mine anyway, and I’m going to miss them. Here are two female athletes I spotted at Stratford. The station is now named Stratford International and the place is nearly a world away from when we lived down the road there and used to go to Mothercare in the rundown shopping centre. Now it’s all Olympic Park and Westfield Shopping Centre. When I strayed momentarily into the latter last week, I pretty much shot straight back out again, so glitzy is the shopping set-up. Still, a railway siding is always a railway siding, no matter how much regeneration goes on. I quite like that.

Mexican athlete with guide

17 year old Ellie Simmonds

Olympic Stadium

It was a very hot day on Friday. Our seats for the morning athletics session were up in ‘the Gods’, to borrow a term from the theatre. It’s a terrible cliche to describe the stadium as a theatre of dreams, but providing one bears in mind that there are good and bad dreams, I suppose it will do. I have a few shots of inside which I will post with my experience of the morning later. My own dream was to take some good photos, but I left the house early, emotionally overwrought, and forgot it. As I mentioned yesterday, I thought I was stuck with the Blackberry camera, but found my work Nokia, which saved the day – up to a point. Like I said, dreams come in all shapes and sizes – sometimes in the shape of a small phone from Finland.

Outside balcony overlooking the River Lea

‘Apples and Pineapples’

This was the description Paralympian sprinter Jerome Singleton used to compare the current arrangements for races between single amputees, like himself, and double amputees like Oscar Pistorius and Alan Oliveira, the man who beat Pistorius earlier this week.

Jerome Singleton is not only an elite athlete who competes in the T44 100m final tomorrow night, he is also a NASA scientist, so I tend to think he knows what he is talking about. He is not the only athlete to think that the rules need tightening up.

Whole article can be read here

Several of the runners said Wednesday that while Pistorius’s comments were ill-timed, they supported his point that the IPC needs to re-evaluate and tighten the formula in the interest of fairness.

Singleton, a single leg amputee, even suggested that IPC should perhaps run races for two classes, the T44s like himself, and the T43s like Pistorius, Oliveira and Leeper. Of the 20 athletes that raced the heats, only five were double-leg amputees and three of them qualified for the final.

“The classes need to be split,” said Singleton, who upset Pistorius in the 100 metres at the 2011 world championships. “It’s not apples to apples, it’s like apples to pineapples right now. If they want to keep us together, they need to re-evaluate that formula.”

“We need to have an idea of the exact height for an athlete to run in, and maybe have a variation of like one centimetre, so you know you’re racing the same athlete in all competitions. Single-leg amputees, we don’t have too much maneouvring when it comes to height.”

“As time changes, science changes, so we have to make sure it’s fair to all competitors.”

Single-leg amputee Alister McQueen of Calgary, who ran a disappointing 12.02 and failed to qualify for the final, agreed with Singleton that the formula needs to be changed.

“With the formula they use, they’re just not proportional,” he said. “Every person running here is not breaking any rules, they’re not doing anything wrong. It’s just that the rules leave such a wide vary of what they can do with their prosthetics. If they do tighten it up to where it makes more sense, I don’t think they’ll need to split up the classes.

“It’s one of the most exciting races in the Paralympics and we don’t want to get away from that. We just want to even up the field.”

Leaving the apples and pineapples debate aside, the T44 100m final tomorrow evening is going to be huge. Going into it, the British contender Jonnie Peacock is the faster qualifier; running a time today of 11.08 seconds that equalled the existing Paralympic record. That time is a shade short of his own world record of 10.85, set earlier this summer and this evening he was running into a strong headwind…

Tomorrow’s final has all the right ingredients for an unmissable race. A strong start is going to be key and that may be to Peacock’s advantage. We’ll see.

Unbelievably, I have read there is no mainstream coverage of the event in the USA? Is this really the case? A real missed opportunity if it is and one that should be rectified for the future.

Copyright: The Sun
Between Oscar and Jonnie?
Or will Jerome have something to say about that

Oscar Pistorius #Bladegate

In case you’ve been on Mars for the last 24 hours, #Bladegate refers to the T44 category 200m final at the Paralympics last night, where Pistorius was narrowly beaten into second place by the Brazilian athlete Alan Oliveira.

Pistorius was not expecting to be beaten. Once into the home straight he was in splendid isolation with only the wind for company… until the last 10 metres. Oliveira came roaring up the outside to take the gold medal on the line.

Pistorius then complained during his immediate post-race interview that Oliveira’s blades were too long, giving him an unfair advantage. Then all hell broke loose: #Bladegate.

There are so many layers to unpick in this affair that it is fascinating. Firstly though, I think that it is important to note that Pistorius has had to fight his way in the world to get where he is and when someone is in that mindset any emotional reaction is likely to initially present as anger. This has led to the accusation that Pistorius is a ‘bad loser’. I don’t think that’s entirely fair. In the tv interview he clearly spoke from a heart that had just been more than a little bit broken, and our hearts are not always rational. If a ‘good loser’ constitutes someone who can smile while inside they are dying, plus feeling strongly that something is unfair, I would wonder about the honesty and integrity of that.

Still, Pistorius’s remarks were clearly mistimed and made in the heat of the moment; by this morning his head was in back in charge and he made a more measured statement. He still maintained his concern about the fairness of the blades used by his conqueror in the race in his conclusion, saying:

I do believe that there is an issue here and I welcome the opportunity to discuss with the IPC but I accept that raising these concerns immediately as I stepped off the track was wrong. I am a proud Paralympian and believe in the fairness of sport. I am happy to work with the IPC who obviously share these aims.

The International Paralympic Committee, who govern the Paralympic Games have just issued their own statement saying that they will not only meet with Pistorius, but that the immediate aftermath of the Paralympics is as good a time as any to revisit the rule book…

I have read some absolutely fantastic analysis of both sides of the argument. Here Channel 4 News FactCheck examine the evidence and their verdict is that Pistorious shouldn’t complain. Then I looked at *whispers* *hides face* this Daily Mail piece who point out that Oliveira did decide to change his blades to longer ones in the last 3 weeks, and that while these remain legal under the existing rules, last night he ran under 22 seconds (21.45 sec) for the first time competitively, on these new blades that boost his racing height by 5 cm. Coincidence?

The longer blades do cause athletes to have a slower start, Oliveira was left standing when the gun went off last night and was racing well in arrears, but down the straight the longer blades store more elastic energy allowing the athlete to maintain speed whilst using less energy than someone on shorter ones, like Pistorius. This is basically what we saw last night, but we also saw an optical illusion which someone who watches horse racing regularly will recognise – that of an athlete (or horse), out front, coming back to the field. In high class races, where everyone is performing to their optimum ability, this slight slowing in front is entirely imperceptible, you can only see the others appearing to accelerate. In these instances, only fractional times can tell the whole story. There aren’t many fractional times for a 200m sprint, but it is reported that Pistorius ran a much quicker first 100m than the second 100m. For Oliveira, with the slow start, it was the reverse.

This is probably because the longer blades do give you an advantage in the straight, but this offset by running more slowly at the start and whilst runnning the bend. It’s down to the athlete which tactics they want to employ. Oliveira and his team, by switching to the longer blades only three weeks ago, took a gamble. It paid off, just. Pistorius’s gamble was running a very fast half of the race, he then paid for attacking the first 100m by having to slow down a bit in the closing stages. His gamble did not pay off, but again, it was so close. This would have only made it worse from his point of view.

Pistorius raced on the blades he ran on in the Olympics. Under the rule book he too could go for longer blades – his maximum permitted height on racing blades, as things stand, would take him to 193 cm tall. His current blades means he stands 184 cm. He could add an extra 9 cm to his height and this would mean if Oliveira stuck with his current prostheses at 181 cm, Pistorius could gain a 12 cm height advantage over his rival. Of course, it is not standing taller that necessarily gives the advantage, it is the longer blade being used, and that advantage has to be traded off against the slower start.

I can’t help wondering, in the battle of the double-bladed runners like Pistorius, Oliveira and Richard Whitehead, where this leaves those athletes with one of their own legs and one blade. Is the leg the limiting factor to their performance? Still, I can see where Pistorius was coming from. Basically, his rival gained 5cm more of blade runner and considerably improved his performance. This might have happened anyway. I think it is fair enough for him to request that a cause and effect scenario be ruled out.

The current rules also seem to allow for a huge differential in blade lengths – after all Pistorius could legally add up to 9 cm to his racing blades. He might regret not switching to longer blades in the Paralympics now, but as an athlete who has battled so hard to prove that his blades do not give him a mechanical advantage over a non-Paralympic athlete you can see why he stuck with his Olympic-approved ones.

I suppose what will happen now is that we will thankfully continue to be astounded by the performances of all the Paralympians and this controversy will die down. The IPC will then meet behind closed doors and I’d take a short price about them severely reducing the range of centimetres you can add to your blades prior to a competition. I’m not a physicist, but it is probably possible to work out a set of equations for the energy stored in each millimetre of blade, depending on the materials used in its manufacture and the allowances for weight and speed etc. The trouble is that the science on the ‘blade runners’ so far is ‘inconclusive’ and for these athletes, who train to their physical limits and spend years preparing for events like this, that simply won’t do.

copyright Metro



I constantly spelled Oscar Pistorius as ‘Pistorious’ in the drafts. I hope I’ve got rid of all the misspelling, apologies if not. I think it is because, in my mind, it should follow the -ious suffix rule e.g. imperious, notorious…

Paralympics: True Diversity

Foreground: National Maritime Museum
Background: The Cutty Sark, The Shard & the City

I went to the morning session at Greenwich Park today to see the Equestrian competitors. The competitors were Grade II, the second most severely disabled riders and although they all rode the same dressage test, there any similarities ended.

Each rider was announced into the ring not just by name and horse, but by age and career, with a brief precis of how they had come into Paralympic sports. The ages ranged from something like 17 to 56, the previous and current professions varying from anaesthetist to film stunt rider to surgeon. Most riders had a sporting philosophy which were also shared with us, my favourites being:

Don’t start tomorrow what you can do today

Look at the doughnut, not the hole

The routes into Paralympic sport were many and varied; one of the athletes had previously been an Paralympic swimmer. Some had been born with disability, some athletes had met with accidents, the majority of which were on horses… One woman had contracted a disability after being poisoned by a pesticide.

And then there were the horses and the weather. We had rain, we had sun, we had wind and we had clouds, we had brief spells of warmth and some teeth-chattering cold; not once or even twice but enough to remind us that the only thing we can be certain of in life is that change is always happening somewhere. The horses were a delight. Lining up against the more traditional stamp of warm-blooded dressage-type horse with floating paces and extravagant gaits were smaller pony types described variously as pedigree unknown, not listed or this piebald one below, with the most marvellous feather, announced as a ‘native cob’.

Barbara Minneci, Belgium with Barilla

This competitor rode side-saddle, but we had paraplegic riders using two schooling whips as aids, riders who had to have their legs strapped down, and one competitor Angelika Trabert from Germany who was born without legs and with only three fingers on her right hand. She rode a beautiful test on Arriva-Avant to finish 9th. Her life philosophy is, ‘It’s ability, not disability, that counts!’

The diversity of horses and riders is fascinating. Clearly, the horses are selected based not just on ability, but the ability of their rider to form a successful partnership with them. The flashy power of a Grand Prix dressage horse is not for every Paralympian rider to contain and yet without that I still found the quiet spectacle of these riders and horses both mesmerising and deeply affecting. Somebody said on the television the other day that Paralympians did not want people to feel sorry for them. I was shocked; I can honestly say that the thought had never crossed my mind. Why would a sports person performing at the top of their game evoke sympathy in me, or you? Still, there is something extra to watching Paralympian sport. I think, for me, it is something to do with the showcasing of the essential human spirit, the ability to get on with taking the steps needed to achieve goals and realise dreams.

The differences between the horses and the competitors extend to how the crowd is to show their appreciation. Some horses and riders can be applauded in the usual way, some only when the horse has left the immediate test arena and the coach has a hand firmly on the bridle. Some horses prefer to ‘ponied’ into the arena by the ‘friendly horse’ and there were two horses that we could not applaud at all. One of these partnerships was Lauren Barwick with her horse Off to Paris, representing Canada. They entered in silence apart from the music that is played continuously throughout the tests. As the test started a new song began, I don’t even know what it was, but it fitted the mood. The test this pair went on to produce together was thing of beauty. There are no words I can use to describe it adequately, you had to be there. It was not marked the highest by the judges (they came 3rd), but the energy and connection between the rider and her horse was palpable. When it ended, the crowd had to remain silent. I was overwhelmed and could only release the high emotion generated by the horse and rider through shedding a few quick tears, and by hand-waving, as we had been told by the commentator was the alternative way to show support and appreciation. Thousands of us waving in silence.

I have seen competition dressage before, I have ridden the odd test of my own 20 years ago. This is not a paean to dressage per se. What it is, is a witness statement to riders who find new ways to work with their horses to achieve something that looks so simple, but is fiendishly tricky, even with the use of all your limbs. The morning’s highest score belonged to the GB Para Dressage rider Natasha Baker, who has developed a system of voice commands to ride the tests on her horse Cabral. Curiously, although I enjoyed her test immensely and clapped hard and the kids waved the Union Jacks, the partisan nature of supporting Great Britain was muted. With the Paralympics, it is not so much sitting there to support one’s own small dot of a country, it feels much more like you are sitting there to support and will on the human race.

So many times I have felt that the title of my blog ‘On wishes and horses’ might seem vacuous and misleading, appearing to lack any real intent or motivation. The truth is I took it from the rhyme, ‘If wishes were horses then beggars would ride…’ which of course means that wishes are useless. I am keeping the blog title, at it continues to remind me that the type of intent on show today is everything.

To clarify, courtesy of delightmakers.com (whose website is down as I write)

Intent is not a thought, or an object, or a wish. Intent is what can make a man succeed when his thoughts tell him that he is defeated…

In this case I would amend the saying slightly, ‘Intent is what can make any human being or horse succeed when their thoughts might tell them they are defeated’. That is the essence of what I think I saw today, and it was simply one of the most amazing and renewing days of my life.

Updated 3 September: This post has proved popular. For more on the Paralympics, my take on Oscar Pistorius and Bladegate is here