Tag Archives: sport

Sporting matters

It’s a gloriously sunny day in the English countryside. Sheep bleat with content, birds sing and trill with burning goodwill, and butterflies flit between exquisitely colourful efflorescence. Magnificently natural, the secluded ‘peacefulness’ of the meadows, fields and riverbanks are throbbing. Throbbing with the sound of 18 break horsepower. This is the British Lawn Mower Racing Championship.

Initiated in 1973, this humble form of motorsport surely epitomises the track on which the engine of British sport should be headed. Devoid of monetary impetus, its rustic and simple allure has drawn famous and successful racers, like Stirling Moss, to compete ferociously for the kudos of ‘best in field’. Its motto, translated as “Through the grass to the stars”, is not only humourous and illustrative of the modest layout of the sport, but is inspirational, like the RAF motto it parodies. It shows an aim; a desire; a goal. Through 400m of liquidated lawn, competitive spirit, sportsmanship and co-operation cut through the apparent triviality of the sport.

Lawn-mower racing is hardly a major world sport. One doesn’t win a prize. It’s not televised. Outsiders hardly consider it Olympic material – it doesn’t matter. But that’s the point. Because, looming and zooming above those blades of grass, is the essence of true sport.

The detritus feeder of commercialism has decayed the purity of sport, before it’s dead. With such astronomical amounts of money being thrown liberally at football players (the average annual pay for a Barcelona player is £5.2m excluding endorsements), Formula One drivers (the average yearly wage of a Ferrari driver is £16m) and Olympic athletes (Usain Bolt earns almost £13m), it seems like the founding and purest aspects of sport are being thrown to the lions of avarice, materialism and rapacity.

The real impetus for the pursuit of sporting excellence should not be global acclaim, a bank balance that could afford 3m mosquito nets for impoverished Africans or scores of endorsement deals. It should be for the pursuit of health, social mobility and leisure. It should be adorned not with the logos of countless companies, but with the banners of health, fun and fair play.

Sportsmanship, the ideal of sport undistorted by greed or selfish ambition, was begun by the Victorians when they revolutionised football, rugby, cricket and other such popular sports. What started as commonly played games increasingly spread throughout the British Empire and their allies, covering the world in a matter of decades. Sportsmanship rode on that great Britannic wave. The idea of sport as something totally opposite to intellectual study, healthy for the body and mind, started with the Ancient Greeks; but the evils of commercialisation are a relatively new strain of plague.

The first sponsorship deal in Formula One was in 1968, when a company responsible for thousands of worldwide cancers, respiratory diseases and circulation problems, Gold Leaf Cigarettes, lit up the commercial racing scene. There’s no smoke without a fire; by 1972, every single car was covered with commercial symbolism.

Through the ashes of monetary addiction is a lesson for all forms of sport. 44 years on, corporate hands are stained yellow with the shame of eradicating the originally exemplary ethics of racing, the boundaries between fairness and balancing the books at the end of the financial year being smudged incomprehensibly, leading to fixed race results by team hierarchies, inter-team spying and drivers often being chosen over the amount of sponsors they bring, rather than their proven skill. This is all down to fiscal short-sightedness, megalomania and moronity.

While smoking is a detriment to the healthy image sport likes to emanate, the cancers of commercialism and materialism are far more terminal and treacherous to the cells making up pure and unalloyed sport, than any caused by cigarette smoke.

It’s not the money injected into sport that is its moral downfall – deprivation of all funding will let cricket grounds turn brown, pools become contaminated and ski pistes to become abandoned and unsafe. But the accentuated and markedly unsporting state of monetary affairs has destroyed all that our ancestors worked up to.

Although the intentions may have started off well, the dragons of financial gluttony have mauled world sport and have devastated its purity.

Whilst football pitches are surrounded by hoardings, leagues swamped by title sponsors and kits steeped in advertisements, the grassy knolls of the Sussex countryside are airy. A season in lawn-mower racing would cost £796.35 on average, including a new race-prepared mower, slightly less costly than Manchester City’s £392m wages bill alone. All the kit you need is a helmet, outdoor jacket and a pair of trustworthy boots, and there’s not much commercial interest in inscribing an old walking jacket.

And so, in a world chastened by oxymorons, contradictions and unfairness, it is to the lowly garden sheds and garages that we must turn to find modern sport in its prime. Flick the switch and raise the blades – the grass is greener on the lawn-mower racing side.

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Pink-shirted potency

With the F1 circus still becoming accustomed to the life-threatening coma of Michael Schumacher and the imprisonment of Eddie Irvine, it seems unusual that the most telling of news items concerning the sport this winter is the sad passing away yesterday of John Button.

International news, trending hashtag, dedicated pages. The father of the 2009 champion and McLaren No.1 Jenson Button has, in passing, brought to light an aspect of public life rarely discussed.

There’s an old Newsround video featuring a young Jenson karting. His father John, encouraging from the sidelines, was neither arrogant nor overly ambitious when interviewed – “They all say they want to go to Formula One, but…as long as he’s enjoying himself, that’s the main thing”.

Throughout Jenson’s career, John has been instrumental. It was John we have to thank for Jenson’s proficiency in changing conditions, having restricted his son’s tyre usage as typical British weather prevailed over the karting circuit. From his first win at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix for Honda to his 2009 world championship to Brawn to his glorious 2011 masterpiece at the Canadian Grand Prix, Jenson has had his father spurring him on, manifesting his delight.

Denis Thatcher was an equally crucial influence upon his wife. Since inciting her to indulge her political ambitions, he never floundered in his unwavering public support for his wife, being an incalculably dependable rock for Margaret during times of strife. “All I could produce, small as it may be, was love and loyalty”, insisted Denis, when interviewed about his role.

Martin Luther King, too, was moulded by his father’s personality. Taking his fear of God, courage, defiance, belief in equality and embryonic societal awareness from his pater, King coupled this key childhood shaping with university experiences to forge the most memorable US social leader of all time.  Anthony Hamilton was his son Lewis’ long-term coach and familial engine for ambition. William III valued the mutual support and respect of his wife and co-sovereign Mary II so greatly that her untimely 1694 death broke him and inflicted chronic wounds on his viability as a strong and popularly visible monarch. And from primary school, from the one area of the curriculum not so easily indoctrinated by the left-wing, we all know the meaning of Albert’s constant consortship to Victoria.

People are not sole moulds. Circumstances leave lasting impressions on us all. My late grandfather’s diligency, benevolence, sincerity and logic will never ever leave my consciousness. We all have major human influences on our lives, and they, together with major events, make us who we are. And for those ‘im Brennpunkt’, as the Germans say, these people are even more important yet oft’ neglected.

Rest in peace, John Button.

Making a mark

So there we have it. 4 years, 4 championships. Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel, congratulations.

Amidst the joyous mêlée after the Indian Grand Prix, someone has slipped under the usual media radar. At this point in the season, with two races left, the careers of the retiring drivers will be the focus of many articles, videos and discussions.

With 9 wins, 34 podiums and 197 races (like Sir Jackie Stewart, he too will end tantalisingly on (1)99 races), Mark Webber’s is a career not to forget. But for an injury gained in a cycling incident in the latter quartile of 2010, we could now be hailing him as a world champion.

But there’s more to this. We could say, “Yes, a skilled driver”, and mourn the lost chances. Yet, had Webber have been a more skillful politician, we could be reviewing the career of a multiple world champion.

When David Coulthard retired in 2008, the gap left by him at Red Bull Racing could so easily have been manipulated by Webber to his advantage. Young team-mate Sebastian Vettel was not then fully capable in English, new to the team and to Formula One. Had Webber taken a more dominant position, utilising these short-term weaknesses of Vettel, he could have assumed the number one driver position which would be so crucial in the seasons to come.

As it was, he did not, leaving Vettel to sweep everything over into his garage. Doubtless, a healthy friendship with F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone did nothing to harm Vettel; an alliance Webber, if more politically astute, perhaps should have made, along with closer inter-team friendships.

By 2010, Vettel had secured himself the number one position; after winning the race at Silverstone that year, Webber famously radioed back to his team principal, “Not bad for a number 2 driver.” Vettel had been given Webber’s spare front wing after his had broken, which would have caused an issue to say the least, had Webber been involved in an incident in the race. Despite Webber taking several victories that season, and not just due to his team-mate’s various misfortunes, it was Vettel who crossed the line first in Abu Dhabi to take his inaugural championship.

Vettel and Webber have never got on well, nor are they likely to. Webber’s annoyance at the ostensible confidence and momentarily dubious tactics of his German team-mate are clear; in Turkey 2010, Vettel smashed into Webber for apparently little reason. Once team orders were legalised in 2011, Webber was frequently given lesser set-up options and tyre strategies, the guinea pig for the meister. This year in Malaysia, both drivers were ordered to conserve fuel, Webber being ahead, but Vettel squandered his low fuel in order to put one over on his team-mate.

“You might not think that’s cricket, and it’s not, it’s motor racing”, quipped legendary commentator Murray Walker. He’s right. It isn’t. Motor racing, ever since the days of the FISA/FOCA war of the 1980s, has been highly politicised. It takes a skilled politician to come out on top of the inter-team rivalries and injustices, supplier crises and race incidents.

Political aptitude. What Vettel has in swathes. What Webber lacks considerably. And the one with the quadruple consecutive championships, 37 wins and 60 podiums?

Diplomatic Mini-Golf

There you are, standing at the painted white spot, judging your swing so as to look skilled yet amateurish, hoping that this shot goes in, when yet again it bounces off the stone chicanes and you become even more over-par.

Approaching the hole, your mind immediately and almost subconsciously analyses the course your ball will (or should) traverse; the ramps, tunnels, chicanes and so on. The first few strikes of the club are perhaps a little tentative, certainly at the first few holes, and the hole-in-one you claim is impossible but secretly crave never comes on the easiest hole.

The Syria crisis currently enveloping practically all the world’s news rooms has been fairly similarly approached by the Western powers.

Repeated attempts by Western governments to justify military intervention resemble the amount of strikes taken on a particularly difficult hole. EU conventions, UN discussions, parliamentary debates in representative houses; all have ultimately proved to be chicanes in the way of the ‘golfers’. All benefits, risks and detriments must be fully comprehended before governments can commit militia and thereby seriously endanger lives, equipment and civilians, just as the mini-golfer must take his/her score and position into consideration before putting or chipping.

With the conclusions by Western security services that chemical weapons have been used, it only remains for each country to weigh up now seriously the possibility of the advent of foreign militia above (or possibly in) Syria. Just as, perhaps, the determination of the mini-golfer changes when s/he realises their opponents are several shots up on them.

And, like adverse wind speed, the constituent, media and political critics slow down the eagerness of some leaders to aid the rebels and inhibit the deployment of the chemical weapons. That’s democracy. Or nature.

Whether military intervention is right or not, whether the angle you try to strike the ball is the most efficient, it’s inevitable that a hole-in-one isn’t going to happen every time. It’s not easy. Despite the ostensible fun of the 18 holes, or the power of leadership, it’s a very serious game.