THE CURIOUS CASE OF PROFESSIONAL WOMEN’S SPORTS TEAM FANDOM

Unlike the final of the Women’s World Cup in 2015, this weekend’s championship match of the National Women’s Soccer League will draw little attention from sports media. In both the US and Europe, women’s leagues and women fans are marginalized in the broader, male-dominated sports culture. Yet there are examples of women’s professional teams with strong fan followings. What can these teams teach us about future possibilities for women’s sport and a more inclusive model of fandom?

 

(Randy Rasmussen/The Oregonian)

(Randy Rasmussen/The Oregonian)

 

Americans love women’s soccer.

Nearly one half of the 4.8 million female soccer players registered around the world play in the United States and Canada. The 2015 Women’s World Cup final was the highest rated soccer game, male or female, in the history of American television. And our local professional team, the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), draws nearly 17,000 fans per game, more than any women’s professional sports team of any sort anywhere in the world.

Yet, when the NWSL final is played in Houston this Sunday, it will make hardly a blip on the radar of American professional sports culture.

Why?

First, let’s acknowledge that the NWSL is a success in having completed its fourth season of competition. The first incarnation of women’s professional soccer in the US, the WUSA, survived only three seasons (2001-2003), averaging around 7000 fans per game for its eight teams and losing an estimated $100 million dollars. The second incarnation, WPS, also lasted just three seasons (2009-2011), with an average attendance of 4000 fans per game. The financial losses for the WPS were undisclosed but likely represented a significant amount of money. The NWSL, in contrast, has survived with an overall average of around 5500 fans per game, thanks largely to a bare-bones salary structure and subsidies from the US, Canadian, and Mexican national federations.

In looking at the viability of women’s professional leagues such as the NWSL, attention typically focuses on business models and marketing plans. But we think the more interesting questions relate to fandom and sports culture. What accounts for the ongoing marginalization of women’s professional teams and female sports fans?

We’ve been thinking about these questions recently while working on a research project about the relative success of the aforementioned Portland Thorns (some preliminary notes from that research are available here). The first thing that became clear when looking at the academic literature is that, up until recently, there has not been much scholarly attention devoted to female sports fans, and even less to fans of female professional sports. The critical study of sports fandom (i.e., research that goes beyond sports marketing) has been a largely male space – like professional sports culture itself.

Of course, there are some noteworthy exceptions, such as the research that has been done about female fans of male professional sports like the NFL or European club soccer. The crux of this scholarly analysis is that female fans often have to find creative ways to negotiate male expectations. One recent example, a study by Katelyn Esmonde, Cheryl Cooky, and David Andrews published in a 2015 issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal, argues that our cultural archetype of a sports fan (and particularly an NFL fan) is male. As one of their female participants explained: “You see that guy, the big guy that’s always like, face painted, head dress on, just probably drunk, you know, they’ve been there since two tailgating the day before, and they have front row seats to every game, you know?”

Edmond, Cooky, and Andres find that women fans have to confront stereotypes of women sports fans: “women are only interested in sports because of a boyfriend or a husband (or to find a boyfriend or a husband); women are only interested in sports because they find the players to be attractive; and, women are not very knowledgeable, committed, or dedicated as sports fans.” The authors point out, however, that when women confront these stereotypes in mainstream sports fandom, it often means accentuating the conventional and hegemonically masculine norms of fandom. If a female football fan tries to prove herself to be as knowledgeable and intense as a serious male fan, she must accept the sexism embedded in NFL fan culture.

Similarly, in her 2013 analysis of female fans of men’s soccer and rugby in England, Stacey Pope emphasizes the diversity of female fan types but also argues that women often end up engaging in a “gender performance.” She notes:

Two different kinds of gender “performance” helped to connote female fan types: “masculine” femininities and “feminine” femininities. Whereas those fans who explored “masculine” femininities often had experience of playing contact team sport, adopted a “tomboy” persona when younger, continued to identify strongly with men and male fans, and exhibited “hot” styles of support, those performing “feminine” femininities demonstrated the opposite propensities.

In some cases, Pope finds, female fans are able to use sports fandom as a space to blur gender and explore alternative ways of being a fan. In most instances, however, female fans in England, like fans of the NFL, have to negotiate against a male norm.

It is worth noting here that the deeply embedded male norms of fandom in European soccer may help explain why support for women’s professional leagues in Europe is even worse than support in the US. Long-standing women’s soccer leagues in Germany, Sweden, England, and France now offer a top-notch level of play, yet fan support for regular league play is meager. Though some games in the UEFA Women’s Champions League draw well, regular league attendance in the women’s Bundesliga and England’s Women’s Super League hovers around 1000 fans per game while the average in Sweden’s Damallsvenskan is around 900 (it is even difficult to find exact attendance figures for these leagues). Our suspicion is that soccer fandom in Europe is largely marked as a space associated with masculinity, thus marginalizing prospective women’s fans despite broader European social norms promoting gender equality.

Research looking at fans of female sports, rather than female fans of male sports, is even rarer outside of the business-oriented context of sports marketing. There is some interesting critical analysis of WNBA fandom (which is the best-attended women’s professional league, with an average attendance over 7000 fans per game). Most of this work emphasizes the tension between the league’s efforts to promote its players as role models for young girls and the fact that many of its most ardent attendees are LGBTQ fans who find a sense of community at the games. There is also some sports marketing research comparing fan perspectives on women’s professional sports (including the WNBA and the US Women’s National Team for soccer) with fan perspectives on men’s professional sports – much of which supports the idea that casual fans are most interested in women’s professional athletes as role models and women’s professional sports as “family-friendly” (whatever that means). It also doesn’t help when much of the overwhelmingly male sports media focuses on marketing women’s professional athletes as sex-objects rather than as serious athletes.

But the crux of the issue for the viability of women’s professional sports is that it has to move beyond casual fans and cultivate highly invested fans. These committed followers of the sport help create a fan experience that make games an event rather than just a passing entertainment.

This seems to sometimes happen for the WNBA, with games providing a home for both hardcore basketball junkies and fans who don’t feel welcome in other professional sports settings. It also seems to have happened for the Portland Thorns, where a vibrant supporters culture has emphasized inclusion, community, and gender equity. Non-traditional sports fans and serious soccer fans alike enjoy Thorns games as something of a hybrid between passive consumer entertainment and an alternative version of professional sports where fandom is active and values-based. It seems to happen, in other words, when women’s professional sports fandom is not just a derivative experience based on problematic consumer models from men’s professional sports, but offers possibilities for genuine alternatives that allow different (and often better) ways of being a sports fan. At the least, let’s hope there are many future seasons of NWSL finals to learn more about those possibilities.

 

Andrew Guest teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Portland and is the author of numerous articles on sports psychology and youth development in both North America and Africa. He has written for pitchinvasion.net and writes about sport and the social sciences at Sports & IdeasHe is on Twitter at @sportsandideas.

Anne Luijten studies psychology and sociology at the University of Portland. She is a member of the university’s nationally ranked cross-country team. Anne tweets from @anneluijten1994 

 

 

COLIN KAEPERNICK, BLACK LIVES MATTER, AND THE NFL

During the 2016 NFL Preseason, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick caused a stir by refusing to stand for the national anthem in order to protest police violence against African Americans. Kaepernick’s decision – first to sit and then to kneel during the anthem – brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the NFL, a league that wraps its games in the Red, White and Blue. In the following exchange, fans and scholars Andrew Moore and Ross Bullen discuss how Kaepernick’s protest reveals the tension in American football: a game played predominantly by black athletes and watched by a mostly white, conservative fan base.

kaepernick

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the cover of Time magazine.

 

Andrew Moore: It strikes me that Black Lives Matter has been really effective at interrupting the “customary” or “automatic” flow of events. The movement has become very good at creating time and space in which to talk about racism and police violence. Kaepernick’s protest seems to be another example of that. It was a simple gesture, but has proved remarkably effective. It’s gotten tremendous airplay. I’m curious how much traction he’ll be able to get.

Ross Bullen: Kaepernick is a smart, thoughtful guy, and even a quick skim of his Twitter feed will tell you what you need to know about his politics. It’s clear, though, that Kaepernick’s image with fans, players, coaches, GMs, and the media has been altered forever. On the whole, I think people have been supportive of Kaepernick, although a lot of that comes in the form of wishy-washy “well he has a right to do it” or “I agree with the message but not the method” comments (including some typically gnomic ruminations from former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh). But I think a lot of people, myself included, strongly agree with what Kaepernick is doing and saying, and this has led to a real boost in his popularity. He currently has the best-selling jersey in the NFL, which is pretty rare for a backup quarterback.

AM: It is amazing to me that this happened on a team coached by Chip Kelly. Kelly coached the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013-2015, until he was suddenly terminated before the final game of the 2015 season. Throughout his tenure there was a persistent problem with race. Multiple players and former assistant coaches, including LeSean McCoy, Brandon Boykin, and Tra Thomas suggested Kelly was uncomfortable with black players. They often stopped short of calling him racist, but all suggested there was a “culture” problem in the Eagles locker room.

Early in Kelly’s tenure as coach, a white wide receiver named Riley Cooper was caught on video shouting the “n-word” on camera. Cooper was suspended by the team for literally a few days and then he was back. Despite video evidence of racist language, he barely received a slap on the wrist. I think the decision to go easy on Cooper’s racist outburst poisoned the well in Philadelphia. Kelly lost respect in the locker room after that incident.

I think of that incident almost as a “fable” about white complicity in racism. Kelly didn’t do enough as a coach to address Cooper’s offense. That lack of action made an impression on the people in that locker room. Kelly was trying to defuse the tension, and instead it felt like something was being swept under the rug.

RB: Speaking of complicity by consent, it’s interesting to see how criticisms of Kaepernick are almost exclusively originating from rich white guys who’ve made a lot of money playing football in America. This demonstrates both faulty reasoning and the way that white privilege encourages complicity in a racist society. For example, there is the straw man argument, which has been made by former 49ers lineman Alex Boone and others, that Kaepernick is disrespecting the military, when he has been quite clear that his protest is about police brutality. Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to extend the logic of Kaepernick’s protest to include U.S. military imperialism as well, but that’s not what he’s doing. It’s disingenuous for his critics to claim that he is. In fact, after speaking with former Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick changed his protest from sitting to kneeling during the anthem. Likewise, the argument that Kaepernick shouldn’t be using his place on the NFL stage to talk about this is tantamount to suggesting that he shouldn’t do anything at all. Obviously the fact that he’s famous and on television is the whole reason why his protest is so effective. It will be interesting to see if athletes from other sports leagues will join Kaepernick’s protest (Megan Rapinoe of the National Women’s Soccer League Seattle Reign FC has already done so). This has the potential to become a massive movement in North American sports culture.

It’s also worth pointing out that Kaepernick is engaged in lots of behind-the-scenes activism as well (indeed, his protest went unnoticed for the first two preseason games and Kaepernick didn’t say anything about it). For instance, Kaepernick is donating the first $1 million he makes this year to social justice causes. He’s also donating the extra royalties he’s getting from jersey sales. It’s tough to imagine someone taking a more effective and thoughtful stance, but in the highly conservative world of American professional football, Kaepernick is basically being cast as a wantonly disrespectful ideologue.

AM: Watching all of this unfold, I’ve been reminded of Martin Luther King’s claim in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that direct action is supposed to create “tension” in the community. He speaks directly to white citizens who agree in principle that there is a race problem in America but want things to be resolved peacefully and, I think, comfortably. He exposes how people in privileged positions are fine with change, so long as it doesn’t inconvenience them.

I would say that these demonstrations we’re seeing now create just the kind of tension King was talking about. They disrupt the patriotic spectacle at the start of every game – a deliberate appeal to political unity right before two teams compete against each other – and they expose certain cracks and gaps in the regime.

RB: There has been a range of responses, with some players kneeling during the anthem and others standing with a raised fist. Actions like this preserve the productive tension you mentioned above, which forces white fans who would rather ignore the reality of racial injustice in the U.S. to pay attention, even if only for a few minutes. You mentioned Martin Luther King; I was reminded of Frederick Douglass and his powerful speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass reminded his white audience that patriotic talk about “freedom” and “liberty” was meaningless in a society where African Americans could be bought and sold as chattel. Kaepernick’s protest is different, of course, but it has a similar intent: to highlight the ways that some Americans enjoy considerably greater “freedoms” than others.

Some player responses, though, have been less effective and rightly criticized. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, chose to stand with their arms interlocked as a “demonstration of unity,” which some critics have said was both meaningless and counterproductive. By effectively saying nothing, the Seahawks players actually detracted from Kaepernick’s message by drifting into “All Lives Matter” territory.

AM: I think you’re right. A gesture like that potentially dulls the edge of the protest. To me, that’s the real challenge for Kaepernick and company. For example, the first Sunday of the season fell on September 11 this year. It was a bit surreal to see the former players and coaches who populate the pregame shows affirm the connection over and over again: America is football, and football is America. The talking heads described football’s role in “healing” and “uniting” the country. I don’t even dispute that. I think football is a powerful site of national mythmaking, and that’s why it’s also such an incredibly powerful site of political discourse. But this will also make it challenging to sustain a conversation about racial injustice. As you noted earlier, the NFL is characteristically conservative.

To me, the real challenge for Kaepernick and his fellow protestors will be to continue to command the media’s attention as the season progresses. The NFL is so masterful at creating narratives and every week brings a new slate of games and a huge amount of “raw material” from which to craft those narratives. I think the League probably thinks it can just wait this out, and once Tom Brady comes back from his suspension or a plucky underdog wins four games in a row the country will be ready to move on from Kaepernick.

RB: The great thing about Kaepernick’s gesture is that it’s really not just about him anymore. Now that this is a multi-team, multi-player protest, it can be separated from Kaepernick himself, his role on the 49ers, etc. So when someone like Trent Dilfer says that Kaepernick has created “friction” within the locker room, it feels off-target not just because it’s both untrue and offensive, but also because Kaepernick’s protest is not just about what one player has decided to do. Black Lives Matter activists are very good at keeping their message about police brutality in the spotlight. I strongly suspect that Kaepernick – and the players who have joined him – will do the same with their protests, even if the NFL news cycle tries to move on to other stories.

Sixty-eight percent of players in the NFL are African American. It only makes sense that the wider Black Lives Matter movement is making its presence felt through player protests. Football is the most popular sport in the U.S., and a large number of NFL fans are certainly hostile to suggestions that America is anything less than perfect. Anybody who has seen an NFL game in person can attest that a significant amount of down time (TV timeouts, halftime, etc.) is spent glorifying the U.S. military and celebrating American patriotism. In other words, there is a tension brewing between many of the people who pay to see football and most of the people who play it. The larger significance of Kaepernick’s protest is yet to be seen, but if protests like his continue to apply pressure to the tension between black players and a largely white, largely conservative fan base, something has to give. At the very least, it is impossible to imagine the NFL continuing as if it’s business as usual while, as Kaepernick says, ““there are bodies in the street.”

 

Ross Bullen teaches American literature and cultural studies at OCAD University in Toronto. He’s on Twitter at @BullenRoss.

Andrew Moore teaches literature and political philosophy at St Thomas University in New Brunswick. He tweets from @andrewjmoore

 

 

CANADIAN FOOTBALL ON THE WORLD STAGE

Around the world, fans of gridiron football welcomed the start of the National Football League’s new campaign. Meanwhile, a plucky nine-team professional football league north of the US-Canadian border hit its mid-season mark with practically no global notice. This may soon change, at least if the new commissioner gets his way. The Canadian Football League’s attempt to attract new fans outside the country’s borders raises an important question in the age of global sport: can a small domestic league make it in the big, wide world? 

(Nazmus Syed/Flickr)

(Nazmus Syed/Flickr)

 

The identity and existence of the Canadian Football League rely heavily on a rich, if quirky, history and the particularities of the league’s Canadian context. Compared to the NFL, the CFL has significantly fewer teams, significantly fewer fans, and significantly less money (realities that happen to reflect the way Canadians often understand their cultural and economic situation relative to that of the United States). Indeed, the long history of the CFL has been rife with financial struggles, failed franchises, and an embarrassingly botched international expansion. To outsiders, the league’s survival defies explanation.

The CFL has the adoration of a small but gritty contingent of die-hard fans. The league also appeals to a rather nebulous sense of Canadian nationalism and identity. Canadians have often been hyper-sensitive to cultural and economic encroachment from the United States, and in typical Canadian fashion CFL rosters employ protectionism to ensure Canadian-content rules are observed. Furthermore, the CFL substitutes the overstated glitz of the NFL’s Super Bowl with folksy pageantry that might draw snickers from those unacquainted with its locally-based traditions.

In keeping with its on-field protectionist policies, the CFL was overseen by Canadians for the entirety of its first 102 years. This changed, however, in March 2015 when the Board of Governors broke with tradition and hired an American, Jeffrey Orridge, to be the league’s commissioner. Orridge’s resume includes a number of marketing positions with a definite emphasis on global development and bolstered digital presence. When questioned about his unique position as an American at the helm of a Canadian professional sports league, Orridge quickly identified his global outlook as an advantage.

Orridge has accomplished a great deal during his brief tenure as commissioner.  He promptly extended the league’s existing television contract with the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports, ESPN, and signed a new contract with BT Sports in the United Kingdom. He also announced a social media-friendly logo and ad campaign, and live-streamed the CFL championship game, the Grey Cup, worldwide on YouTube. Reaching fewer than 10,000 views, this attempt to expand the league’s audience was hardly a viral hit, but the fact that the YouTube stream wasn’t available in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom where broadcast deals were in place makes this number more digestible. All these actions have been aimed to increase the league’s global and social media presence, and are indicative of the kind of changes Orridge was likely hired to enact.

Orridge’s ambitions to global relevance are visionary, but also risky. Considering the new commissioner’s perspective and early moves, it is logical to assume the CFL may consider renewing its failed international expansion efforts of decades past. Born out of financial necessity, injured by rushed and questionable business deals, and extinguished by vacant seats and owners’ rising debts, the league’s past attempts to expand outside Canada are important to understanding the CFL’s current global ambitions.

At the brink of bankruptcy during the mid-1990s, when the community-owned Hamilton Tiger-Cats were already $1.6 million dollars in debt (big money in the CFL context), the league hastily made plans to introduce two expansion franchises in the United States, one in San Antonio and the other in Sacramento. Each new team paid a $3 million Canadian expansion fee, and it was believed this revenue boost would ease the pressures of the league’s mounting debts. The proposed San Antonio franchise, however, backed out at the last minute, leaving the league with a single American franchise in 1993 and more than a little egg on its face.

Pressured by the Sacramento ownership, the CFL introduced three more American teams the following season and another two in 1995. These American franchises saw little success on the field or off, with poor records and abysmal attendance. The sole exception were the Baltimore Stallions, a team which proved to be the model expansion franchise, posting above-average attendance figures, earning a Grey Cup berth in each of its two seasons of operation, and capturing the coveted trophy in 1995. At the conclusion of the 1995 season, however, the mismanaged NFL Cleveland Browns announced their relocation to Baltimore and rendered the Stallions obsolete. The team sought refuge north of the border in Montreal as the reincarnated Alouettes, and have been a successful CFL franchise ever since.

Compared to the state of the league in the mid-1990s, the CFL of today is in excellent financial shape. And it would seem that the league has learned from its hasty expansion failures of the past. The CFL’s latest expansion effort, which revived football in Ottawa, involved a meticulous series of negotiations and a well-budgeted stadium renewal project. The new team, the Ottawa Redblacks, played its first down of football in 2014, four years after the expansion process began. If the CFL sticks to this model, it appears that any future international expansion efforts won’t be carried out as recklessly as they were in the past.

In an increasingly globalized world, expansion beyond the borders of Canada seems logical. But with the painful past still fresh in the minds of Canadian fans – the CFL base – any plans will need to be measured and carefully considered. It is clear, however, that Orridge cannot depend upon the introspective strategy of previous commissioners who stumped Canadiana to a captive audience with limited access to global sports. Technology has cleared the path for Canadians to consume athletic offerings from around the world and has crowded the Canadian sports fan’s calendar. In turn, technology represents an opportunity for the CFL to maximize its global exposure, and – at least for now – the CFL’s approach has been to draw in the eyes of the world rather than to plant new franchises abroad.

In a particularly telling comment, Orridge told the Toronto Star that a sports league “can be intimate and globally recognized at the same time.” Whether such intimacy entails sticking with Canadian franchises or expanding beyond Canada’s borders remains to be seen. But if the CFL’s internationalization efforts prove to be successful, they could become the blueprint for other small leagues who find themselves similarly conflicted between their national roots and the prospect of a global future.

 

Craig Greenham is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Windsor. His research focuses on North American professional sport and his writing appears in such publications as the International Journal of the History of Sport and Sport History Review.

Ben Andrews is a student in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Windsor and is part of the university’s prestigious Outstanding Scholar Program.

 

 

WHEELS OF POWER: POLITICAL LEADERS ON BIKES

What do Gandhi, George W. Bush, and Jeremy Corbyn have in common? All were devoted cyclists. With election season upon us, a scholar of cycling looks at political leaders on their bikes.

 

bush-bike

 

Mahatma Gandhi and Donald Trump are not usually mentioned in the same breath. Yet both share a connection to a common object, that vehicle of personal transportation and transformation – the bicycle.

Of course, the Indian leader in the fight for independence and human rights was a life-long cyclist. The New York City businessman and politician, on the other hand, was a founder of a cycling race. “This is an event that can be tremendous in the future, and it can really, very much rival the Tour de France,” boasted Trump in 1989 at the launch of the race bearing his name, the Tour de Trump.

A bicycle race is not an event that immediately leaps to mind in connection with a politician whose energy plan calls for increased drilling for oil and fewer environmental regulations, someone who denies the existence of global warming and once mocked Secretary of State John Kerry, an avid cyclist, for falling from his bike. Admittedly, Trump did say in 1989 that he himself “will never be in a bicycle race.” Still, he saw cycling races as an investment for the future and put $750,000 into the Tour de Trump.

The event never threatened the popularity of the venerable Tour de France, but the race was an interesting chapter in the career of Trump and in the history of politicians and cycling. The Tour de Trump took place, in ten stages, between Albany, New York, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Among the elite riders of the era who competed for the $250,000 first prize were two Tour de France winners, Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, as well as other well-known racers from the US, Western Europe, and the USSR. After a year Trump withdrew his financial backing and the event was taken over by the DuPont chemical corporation. It was renamed the Tour DuPont.

 

With the US presidential elections just around the corner, I thought it is a good time to examine the connections between bicycles and political leaders, in the United States and abroad. What are their attitudes to this amazing invention? Do they ride bicycles? Where in their platforms do bicycles feature, and is there a connection between a politician who rides a bicycle and his or her views?

My attempts to get answers from the media representatives of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Republican Donald Trump, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein about their candidates’ cycling histories and policy plans did not receive any response – except for Clinton’s campaign asking me repeatedly for a financial contribution. The information I did gather indicates that among the candidates who set their sights on the prize in this election year, Stein and Sanders are the only ones who have mentioned bicycles as a viable tool in the battle to stop rising temperatures and seawaters. Stein’s presidential platform contains no reference to bicycles, but when she ran for the Massachusetts Governorship her platform did. As far as riding, Hillary Clinton has hopped on a bicycle, mostly during vacations.

Among Republican candidates in the primaries, Rick Santorum stated his opposition to federal government funding of bicycle paths. Rand Paul shares Santorum’s hostility to cycling, claiming that bicycle infrastructure is as frivolous as turtle tunnels and squirrel sanctuaries. Such sentiments are common among many of his party’s leaders. For example, the top Republican on the Transportation Committee in the Washington State House, Ed Orcutt, called for a tax on cyclists because, in his opinion, they cause wear and tear to the roads and produce CO2, a greenhouse gas, when they exhale.

These views contrast with those of Democrat Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who sought his party’s nomination. In addition to lobbying for an increase in his state’s gasoline tax, O’Malley – an avid rider – has spoken in favor of “this more environmentally beneficial way of commuting.”

Among US presidents, many have hopped on a bicycle, often joined by their wives. Perhaps not all have subscribed to John F. Kennedy’s exaltation: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” The Nixons, Reagans, and Obamas occasionally rode, usually while vacationing. Until a recent decline in his health, the elderly Jimmy Carter could be seen regularly riding a bicycle in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. (In 2009 bicycles belonging to Carter and his wife Rosalynn were stolen from the Carter Center in Atlanta.)

Cycling enthusiasts aren’t limited to one party. George W. Bush loved riding his mountain bike, both on his Texas ranch and during official trips abroad. His reputation as a cyclist gained him several gifts of bicycles from world leaders. After leaving office Bush continued to pursue his passion. He launched and participated in an annual 100-kilometer, three-day ride called the Warrior 100K, held in honor of military veterans injured in Afghanistan and Iraq. He even took part in the event several months after a stent was inserted into his heart to clear a blocked artery. Bush joked that he might no longer be the fearless daredevil on two wheels that he once was, and he asked the veterans not to leave him in the dust. Other members of the Bush family also ride bicycles, include former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the matriarch of the clan, Barbara.

On the congressional level, there have been many bicycle-friendly politicians. Some argue for bicycle-related projects while limiting their own rides to official parades or events. Others, however, are dedicated cyclists. The late Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, promoted rails-to-trails programs while serving on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, founder and chair of the bi-partisan Congressional Bike Caucus, has been behind many bicycle-friendly measures and uses the bicycle as his main way of transportation. “Over the course of 15 years in Congress, I have burned hundreds of thousands of calories as I run my errands around Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I’ve never been stuck in traffic, I’ve never had to look for a parking space and I’ve saved thousands of dollars. It’s kind of a win-win, burning calories instead of fossil fuels.”

We also find leaders in other lands for whom the bicycle is a means of transportation, exercise and pleasure. As noted above, Mahatma Gandhi was a life-long cyclist. As a young lawyer in South Africa he rode his bicycle to work, covering eight kilometers daily. He also rode during his early political organizing and humanitarian efforts, such as when rushing to the poorer areas of Johannesburg to aid doctors treating people afflicted by cholera. Gandhi wrote and agitated to repeal a bicycle law enacted by the Johannesburg Town Council that required every non-white cyclist to obtain a permit and wear a numbered badge on the left arm.

After his return to India, Gandhi continued cycling, often riding from Gujarat Vidyapith, the university he founded in Ahmedabad, to Sabarmati Ashram, where he lived. Gandhi emphasized the importance of walking and cycling, and he once remarked to a friend about the need to keep his bicycle in good order. “A carpenter will always keep his tools ready for use. A typist will keep his typewriter in good repair and a rider will keep his horse in good stead. Similarly a bicycle should always be kept clean, oiled and ready for use. Otherwise don’t have a bicycle at all.”

Today, several Indian lawmakers follow in Gandhi’s bicycle threads. Arjun Ram Meghwal and Mansukh Mandavia, the ministers of Finance and Agriculture, have continued riding to work even after their appointments to cabinet positions. Meghwa has spoken of his wish that “more MPs would become eco-friendly.”

In Great Britain there are several prominent politicians who are ardent cyclists. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a life-long rider. He was recently accused by Conservative critics of riding a “Mao-styled bicycle,” a reference to his supposedly heavy-style bike and political rigidity. Corbyn responded by pointing out that Chinese bikes were heavy and had few gears while his Raleigh was light and easy to ride. He added that “whoever wrote it was a Chairman Mao bicycle should be sent away for re-education.”

Former London mayor and current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is also among the ranks of cyclists. He often praises bicycles’ contribution to making cities greener, cleaner and more community-based. During his mayoral tenure he oversaw the introduction of over 8,000 public bicycles to London (a project begun by his predecessor, Democratic Socialist Ken Livingstone) resulting in millions of rides, and counting. While some cycling groups have claimed that Johnson’s allegiance is primarily to the automobile, the Tory politician noted, “In 1904, 20 per cent of journeys were made by bicycle in London. I want to see a figure like that again. If you can’t turn the clock back to 1904, what’s the point of being a Conservative?”

Johnson’s fellow Conservative Party members David Cameron (Prime Minister between 2010-2016) and George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer during those years) also rode. Cameron did so when he was a Member of Parliament, explaining that cycling “gets me going.” Cameron, however, was accused of hypocrisy when it was reveled that a car carrying his briefcase and shoes followed his bicycle.

Cycling has also led to a British politician’s downfall. In September 2012 former Tory Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell was riding his bicycle when a police officer refused to let him leave Downing Street via the main gate. The MP lost his temper and swore at policeman Toby Rowland: “Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government. You’re fucking plebs.” Mitchell resigned in the ensuing furor, which resulted in multiple law suits. Ultimately, the Tory politician was forced to pay £80,000 to the officer, £300,000 to the Police Federation, and legal expenses of £3 million to The Sun newspaper, which he had unsuccessfully sued for libel.

Many world leaders have been photographed riding bicycles, usually when taking part in an official event, aware that to many of their countrymen and women cycling connotes a positive activity. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rode at the launch of a campaign to encourage Egyptians to ride bicycles and thus help the cash-poor country cut its gasoline consumption. Bolivian President Evo Morales joined the Day of the Pedestrian and Cyclist march in September 2015. Sometimes the officials look uncomfortable when astride a bicycle. This might be due to the fact that they have not maintained the habit of riding since their younger days, or in the case of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who recently took some of his first tentative first rides, a result of his family having been too poor to buy him a bike when he was a child.

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is an avid cyclist who in 1998 was one of the founders of the Pollie Pedal, a charity ride from Brisbane to Sydney, a distance of 1,010 kilometers. Abbott rode in the race every year, extolling cycling’s health and fitness benefits as well as the sense of camaraderie fostered. On the morning after he was elected, Abbott rode his bike to work, explaining that “it was great to start the day with a ride with the people I’ve been riding with for years.”

In China after the 1949 Communist seizure of power several leaders rode regularly. While there are no reports of Chairman Mao breaking world cycling records (as claimed about his swim in the Yangtze River), the bicycle was promoted during his years in power as one of the essentials of life, being a means of reliable transportation, and as a symbol of equality. A vibrant bicycle industry developed, with the durable Flying Pigeon brand the pride of the line. Bicycles were also often given to visiting dignitaries, including Fidel Castro and George Bush. These days, however, the market-oriented leaders travel in big limousines or SUVs and no attempt is even made at photo-shoots of leaders astride a bicycle.

Does love of bicycles translate into environmental action? Does being a cyclist lead to progressive views and actions? The answer, sadly, is no. Several leaders who are dedicated cyclists have pursued disastrous environmental policies. These include the Australian Abbott, who has dismissed the science of Global Warming as “crap” and has opposed measures that (in his words) “would impose certain and substantial costs on the economy.” Bolivian leader Morales, a socialist, praises the bicycle’s role in fighting capitalist and industrial civilization, yet his government has supported fossil fuel exploration, mining, and road building in environmentally sensitive areas. And if there was a medal for the most passionate cyclist to ever occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, George W. Bush would easily win. Still, Bush denied that global warming is caused by human activity and opposed the Kyoto Protocol.

On the other hand, there are many leaders for whom daily cycling is way to live their ideals in the present and a means of moving towards a sustainable and just future – a future where bicycles have an essential place. As the passionate cyclist H.G. Wells proclaimed, over one hundred years ago, “Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.”

 

Alon Raab teaches religious studies at UC Davis. He is editor of the bookThe Global Game: Writers on Soccer and Soccer in the Middle Eastand he has written several articles and essays on soccer, cycling, religion, and politics in the Middle East.

 

 

END GAMES

Geographer and journalist Christopher Gaffney lived for years in Rio, researching, writing, and teaching about the effects of sports on the urban landscape. He returned this year for the Olympic Games and found a city that had been effectively turned over to the IOC and its corporate partners. Meanwhile, Brazil’s taxpayers foot the bill and the city’s workers make sure the party goes on, even though they can’t afford to see the events. As the Games get bigger and bigger in order to turn a profit, is it time to call a time-out for the Olympics?     

 

"Rio 2016 – The Exclusion Games" (Photo: Christopher Gaffney)

“Rio 2016 – The Exclusion Games” (Photo: Christopher Gaffney)

 

Rio 2016 is drawing to a close. Behind the headlines of spoiled US athletes doing stupid things and lying about it, familiar narratives have played out in the latest installment of the IOC’s globalizing binge.

For readers of this site, and for those with a critical view of sporting mega-events, it will hopefully need no explaining that the athletic competitions of the Olympic Games are a handy narrative thread that hides a rapacious global business model. The fact that we don’t know the end result of the contests on the track and in the pool gives us some temporary excitement and allows us to marvel at astonishing physical feats, while providing cover for the real agenda of the Games: corporate profit and geopolitical posturing. The Russians were thought to have given the surprise ending away a few too many times through doping, so many of their spoilers were forced to stay home. Yet despite the Russian absence, the imperious entrance of the USA into the Maracanã erased any doubt about which nation-state was going to walk away with the most multi-colored cheese plates hung around their collective necks. The nationalist project of the Games is alive and well: a dangerous tool in perilous times.

Even though a trip to the podium can bring actual wealth for some individuals, the competition for precious Olympic metal is purely symbolic. We don’t really know if someone in the world is faster than Bolt or stronger than Djangabev. It doesn’t really matter, either. All of the record breaking is exciting, but at the end of the day, Olympism is a nationalistic pissing contest. Olympians may be spectacularly fit, but the lives of these athletes are not particularly healthy. Their young bodies and minds are wrenched into unnatural forms to compete against each other based on geographic divisions that reinforce the political and economic status quo.

Behind the curtain of the Olympics are the unseen triumphs of a coalition of commercial interests that brings the Games into being. These players are after real gold, and the Rio Games are their beachhead in a new market. This is the neocolonialist reality behind Rio 2016’s slogan, “A New World.”

Olympic accumulation happens within a number of interconnected circuits and requires innumerable exemptions, exceptions, and suites of special laws that facilitate the process. In Brazil, this has taken the form of the General Law of the World Cup and the Olympic Law, both of which offered billions in tax exemptions for IOC “stakeholders” such as Coke, Samsung, and Dow Chemical, while guaranteeing the transfer of public money to create an adequate stage for the Olympic drama. This is nothing new, but the rapaciousness of accumulation practices in a city and country mired in political, economic, environmental, and social crises has exposed the model as never before.

What I have been witnessing in Rio over the last month has been a city given over in parts to the Olympic bacchanal, with street closures, privatization of public space, and militarization of security. I have been to all of the venues. At every one, I have seen the upper-middle class of Rio enjoying themselves and the international tourist class stuffing their faces. The cariocas are there, working hard to make sure everyone has a good time in the Olympic city. People who usually work cleaning homes in Rio are now serving mini-pizzas that cost more than they make in an hour. The cheapest ticket for the track and field sessions was R$380, almost half of a month’s minimum wage. The R$40 billion public outlay for the Rio Games has consolidated elite privilege at the expense of everyone else.

The Vila Autódromo favela with the Olympic Park in the background.

Rio’s Vila Autódromo favela with the Olympic Park in the background. Graffiti on the enclosing wall reads “Ethnic Exclusion and Cleaning Game.” (Photo: Christopher Gaffney)

 

So while the Games will inevitably be considered a success, this is merely a repetition of the hackneyed script handed to the corporate media by the organizing coalition. To be sure, questions of legacy and value for money are being asked as never before. The principal benefit of having a place as structurally unjust as Brazil host the parasitic, rent-seeking Olympic Games is that the conversation about the business model of sporting mega-events is more widespread than ever. However, no amount of commitment to a “new sustainability” in the Games will be able to retroactively justify what has happened in Rio over the last seven years. Agenda 2020 is the IOC’s latest attempt to negotiate itself out of a crisis of legitimacy, but there are no signatories to the document, and no guarantees that Rio will not repeat itself in Los Angeles or Paris.

Perhaps the clearest argument for stopping the Games is that we appear doomed to repeat the same questions and answers again and again and again. The media companies and their editors and journalists have no interest in questioning the model because their jobs, suite of privileges, and readership/viewership depend on it. Thus, giants like NBC are keen to neuter debate about the political economy of the event once the torch is lit. What we inevitably get from journalists are questions about cost overruns, white elephants, and preparedness – all questions that ignore the real issues at the root of the event itself. The outcomes are always the same: gentrification, militarization, privatization, useless infrastructure, elite benefit for public cost. This is no accident. It is the business of the Games.

For me, the question of continuing to reproduce the Olympics – and the World Cup – is self-evident, though I know I am in the minority. The current business model is so intertwined with global corporate interests that it can only result in extractive economies of scale that leave spatial and social tragedies in its wake.

The Olympic high priests will always to point to exceptions as the rule and will highlight their self-appointed mission as protectors of a globalized, sporting humanism. For this year’s Games, the IOC – an institution with billions of Swiss Francs at its disposal – contributed to bring ten refugees to compete in Rio. Yet the organization contributes nothing to develop sporting facilities or physical education in refugee camps. Nor will the IOC finance the Paralympic Games out of its more than four billion dollars of profit realized over the last three years, again forcing the bill onto the Brazilians, per terms of the host city contract. The IOC is an institution without political, moral, or sporting credibility (note their handling of the Russian doping scandal), whose civilizing mission has adopted all of the tropes of 19th-century colonialism, while maintaining its members on $900 per diems in Rio. The ticket scandal of Patrick Hickey, head of the European Olympic Committee, is just one example in a litany of villainous acts that have eroded the sand temple of Olympia.

A sensible step would be to pause these destructive spectacles. If the Olympics disappeared for a few years, all of the Olympic sports would continue to have their world championships and the business of professional sport would go on. But cessation of the Olympics would allow space and time for a conversation about how to restructure, reform, and reimagine the Games so that they would benefit and not destroy the places in which they are held.

 

Christopher Gaffney is senior research fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Zurich. He is author of Temples of the Earthbound Gods: Stadiums in the Cultural Landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos AiresChris is on Twitter @geostadia.

 

 

BOOK EXCERPT: TRANSFORMATION GAMES

Former international athlete turned political scientist, Jules Boykoff has researched the political and economic issues surrounding the Olympics for his previous books on the Vancouver and London Games. His new book looks at the political history of the supposedly apolitical Olympic movement, from the original vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin to the 2016 Rio Summer Games – and beyond. In this excerpt, he shares his findings from months of field research in Rio last year, showing how residents of the Marvelous City are getting transformation, but not the kind that was promised.

Olim(piada)

Graffiti on a fence separating Rio’s Vila Autódromo favela from Olympic construction. The word for “joke” (piada) is embedded in “Olimpíada.” (Jules Boykoff)

 

Momentary pangs of doubt aside, Mayor Eduardo Paes has been an enthusiastic ambassador for Rio 2016. He often refers to them as the “transformation Games,” and has even argued they’ll make a larger positive impact on the city than the 1992 Games did for Barcelona, becoming the “benchmark” for the Olympic legacy. “I want to do better than Barcelona did,” he said, “and I think the city is moving that way because of the Olympics.” He claimed that Olympic organizers had actually delivered more infrastructure projects than pledged in the bid.

Perhaps “transformation” was the title of an Olympic memo of the day with the instructions “just add a dash of hyperbole and stir.” Carlos Nuzman, president of the Rio Organizing Committee and a participant in volleyball at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, said Rio would bring the “greatest transformation” in the history of the Games. Nawal El Moutawakel, the IOC member leading the coordination commission in Rio, proclaimed, “I think Rio and Brazil will experience a full transformation of the city.” However, in a poll of O Dia readers taken a year before the Olympics opened, 69 percent believed the Games would not leave a legacy for everyday cariocas. Mayor Paes inadvertently encouraged such skepticism when he said that despite promises to clean up Rio’s polluted waterways, the environmental goal was not likely to be met. “It is indeed a wasted opportunity,” he noted. “As a Rio resident, I think it’s a shame.” Overall, though, Rio boosters raised sky-high expectations, claims that boomeranged back to bedevil them.

Staging a so-called “transformation Games” would, of course, require money. Thanks to recent high-priced Games in Beijing and Sochi, The Economist could write without irony that “compared with other recent Olympic games, Rio’s look cheap. Brazil reckons it will cost 37.7 billion reais ($12.5 billion).” Notwithstanding the fact that $12.5 billion was a low-end estimate, optimism for a “low-cost” Games was soured by a capitalist downturn that sent Brazil plunging toward its worst recession in a quarter century. In September 2015, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Brazil’s debt to “junk” status. Still, boosters pointed to articles trumpeting the idea that taxpayer money comprised only 43 percent of overall Games costs.

The idea that the public was on the fiscal hook for less than half of overall Games costs is extremely misleading. It fails to tally tax exemptions, financing with markedly reduced interest rates, and the brazen transfer of real estate assets, sometimes through violent displacement. One study by Brazilian tax officials found that tax exemptions for the Olympics would be around four times higher than the World Cup, where tax breaks amounted to about $250 million. Rio 2016 organizers and their allies in government enticed the participation of private developers with sweetheart deals backed by government funds. Once again, when it came to Olympic funding, the state was a fiscal backstop, assuming risk while teeing up windfalls for private players. Orlando Santos Junior summed up the fiscal sleight of hand as an “alchemy” concocted by the mayor’s office that is “distorted because of the absence of key information.”

Beyond this, the Rio Olympics rely on an army of volunteer labor. The 70,000 unpaid volunteers at the Games will save some $100 million, and that’s if volunteers were merely paid minimum wage. Moreover, volunteers get free meals and transportation only on days they work. They must pay their own way to Rio and find their own accommodations in the Cidade Maravilhosa, which is also marvelously expensive. When pressed about the issue, Christophe Dubi, the Olympic Games executive director, replied, “It is about the spirit of volunteerism.”

This sort of fiscal hoodwinkery has led Gaffney to argue, “The flaccid Olympic mantras, superstar pedestal climbers, stadiums, and legacy promises are mere distractions from the realpolitik of urban development.” The Olympics are all about real estate. As Stephen Wade of the Associated Press asked: “Why would anyone spend billions if the Games were simply a sports event? In Rio, why would Mayor Eduardo Paes be so intimately involved—be seen by the IOC as the most important person on the ground in Brazil—if this is only a sports championship?”

Rio’s brand of fiscal chicanery crystallized in the construction of the Olympic Village, a brazen transfer of public wealth into private pockets. At the center of the heist sat Carlos Carvalho, the Brazilian real estate baron whose firm Carvalho Hosken took responsibility for building the Olympic Village, alongside Odebrecht, the scandal-wracked contractor embroiled in the Petrobras bribery imbroglio. Rio’s Olympic bid innocuously posits: “Carvalho Hosken, acting as land owner and developer, will assume responsibility for the construction of the Olympic and Paralympic Village. Carvalho Hosken has already entered into a cooperative and collaborative development relationship with Rio 2016.” The plan was to have Rio 2016 rent the Olympic Village—thirty-one high-rise buildings—from Carvalho at a capped cost of around $19 million.

But the bid fails to note that Carvalho stands to make astronomical profits from the Games by converting the Olympic Village into more than 3,600 unapologetically high-priced condos called Ilha Pura (Pure Island). All this was done on the back of a 2.3 billion real loan from the Brazilian bank Caixa. Meanwhile, Carvalho and another developer in Barra da Tijuca donated more than a million reais to Eduardo Paes’s election campaign. Geophysically speaking, Ilha Pura isn’t even an actual island. Rather, it’s a social island where class is the password. Sounding like Montgomery Burns of Simpsons fame, Carvalho claimed he wanted to create “a city of the elite, of good taste … For this reason, it needed to be noble housing, not housing for the poor.” But in a way, “the poor” had a role to play. A year before the Games, Brazilian news media revealed that construction workers at the Olympic Village were laboring under slave-like conditions, inhabiting living quarters teeming with rats and cockroaches. Carvalho’s role in building the Olympic Village and Olympic Stadium helped make him the thirteenth richest person in Brazil, with a net worth of $4.2 billion.

Riffing off the proverb “God is Brazilian,” the Rio-based writer Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza notes of the Cidade Maravilhosa, “If the world had been created by God, he had used his best material and all his inspiration to create that landscape.” Television broadcasters salivated over Rio’s idyllic landscapes, with beaches as backdrop and the iconic Cristo Redentor hovering above. Plus, Rio sits only one time zone ahead of the US East Coast, bestowing on NBC the first live, prime-time Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games. “Prime time is still the mothership for us,” an executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage said. He described the Rio Games as “an embarrassment of riches” for the network. Another NBC sports exec said, “We expect the games in Rio to be the biggest ever.” Much was at stake for NBC. After forking over $4.4 billion to cover the 2014 through the 2020 Olympics, the network paid a whopping $7.65 billion for the Games stretching from 2022 through 2032. A select group of IOC and NBC bigwigs christened the deal at an exclusive dinner with veal, wild mushrooms, and self-congratulatory backslapping at the Lausanne Palace luxury hotel.

Not everyone in Brazil was feeling quite so giddy. At antigovernment protests across the country in August 2015, some right-wing demonstrators connected corruption under President Dilma Rousseff, the onetime revolutionary and daughter of a Bulgarian communist, to misspending on the Olympics. One demonstrator said: “I am against the Olympic Games. We must take [care] of ourselves, the economy, and everyday life. Everything is wrong with this government.” Protests were igniting on all sides of the political spectrum. The United Movement of Street Vendors rallied against the repression of camelôs, or street vendors, who were being cleared from the streets by the Municipal Guard. Bearing banners with the slogan Olimpíadas Para Quem? (Olympics for Whom?), they protested to challenge the suppression of the informal sector, an unmistakable trend in mega-event hosting.

Groups that were active in the 2013 Confederations Cup protests were also girding for an anti-Olympics fight. The Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas (Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics) organized chapters in the twelve cities hosting World Cup soccer matches. In a way, the Comitê branch in Rio de Janeiro was political progeny of the Comitê Social do Pan, a group that rose up to challenge the injustices magnified by the 2007 Pan American Games. The Comitê in Rio brought together political organizers with academics, neighborhood associations with NGOs. They engaged in consensus-based organizing around the negative effects of sports mega-events, writing research-driven dossiers, hosting public debates, and taking to the streets. The Comitês Populares were instrumental in stoking protest around the World Cup and recalibrated their sights on the Rio Olympics.

In late September 2015 I attended the Comitê’s launch of a dossier documenting the harmful impacts of Rio 2016 within a larger social-justice framework around the right to the city. The event took place at the Union of Professional Journalists in front of a packed house. After watching a few short, snappy videos on a range of issues—from the displacement of local fishermen to the struggle of local activist groups to fend off aggressive privatization—we heard a range of speakers, including activists, community leaders, and academics. Solange Chagas, a leader from the Maracanã neighborhood, site of the Games’ opening ceremony, described the ironic demolition of a local athletic arena—the Estádio de Atletismo Célio de Barros—to make way for sports mega-events. The destruction of the facility left the community bereft of a place to exercise. “Rio will host the Olympics and we have no place to train,” she said. “For me, the Olympics was the worst thing that has happened. We are punished.” After the presentations, numerous attendees took to the microphone to deliver passionate testimonies against all the money being spent on a lavish party for the rich while many residents of Rio lacked basic services.

Demian Castro, a longtime member of the Comitê, was another speaker at the launch. When I asked him a few days before the event why he opposed the Olympics, he offered a nuanced critique reminiscent of other activists from previous host cities. “I am not opposed directly to the Olympic Games, because I love sports,” he said. “The criticism of the Games is their commercial logic and especially how they strengthen neoliberal urbanism in the host city.” In Rio, he said, “the Olympics strengthens a business model favoring mainly property developers, landowners, and construction. The result is a more exclusive city, marked by violent removal processes and evictions, increased segregation, displacement of the poorest people to outlying areas, and an exponential spike in the cost of living.” At the dossier launch he added, “The social legacy of the Olympics could be a social apartheid.”

 

Boykoff

From Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, copyright 2016 by Jules Boykoff. Used with permission of Verso Books.

Jules Boykoff is chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University. He is author of the books Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London and Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Gamesand he has published essays on sport, politics, and economics in The Guardian and The New York Times. Jules tweets from @JulesBoykoff.

 

 

ONE-TRACK MINDS: SEMENYA, CHAND, AND THE VIOLENCE OF PUBLIC SCRUTINY

Middle-distance runner Caster Semenya and sprinter Dutee Chand will race in the Rio Games after withstanding challenges from athletics authorities that they could not compete against other women. Yet even though they have faced down obstacles from governing federations, they are still subjected to questions about their gender identity from the media and other competitors. It’s time to change the narrative about these women runners.

 

caster

 

Caster Semenya is a woman. One might think this is in doubt, however, judging from a barrage of comments swirling around the internet in response to the South African runner’s blistering win in the 800 meters on July 16 in Monaco. “Gender Dispute Rumbles as Semenya Goes for Gold,” one headline blasted, appearing everywhere from Times Live in South Africa to France 24 and Yahoo Sports.

In fact, there is no gender dispute. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) cleared Semenya to compete in 2010. Yet people refuse to decouple this athlete from the period in which, in her words, she was

subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being… [that] infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights including my rights to dignity and privacy.

Even now, six years on, as she prepares for Rio, nearly every report on Semenya’s race times doggedly refers to this investigation and the questions about her gender that sprang from it.

Stories like these are harmful. They continue the cruel and humiliating media speculation she has endured and reignite the fires of speculation and gossip. They need to stop.

Sprinter Dutee Chand, who will be the first female Olympian from India in 36 years to compete in the 100 meters at the Rio Games, faces similar public appraisal. She is also a woman. But readers might have assumed otherwise upon seeing her on the cover of the New York Times Magazine earlier this monthStamped over her image, in giant, 351-point Pepto-Bismol pink font, are the letters “XX” and “XY” — representing what many understand to be female and male “sex” chromosomes.

Although the magazine’s article is a searing critique of the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism regulations and expresses Chand’s humiliation at being misgendered, the cover art calls into question Chand’s sex, gender, and gender identity. In doing so, it perpetuates the very harm the article intends to critique.

In 2014, Chand was investigated and banned under IAAF policies that establish a ceiling for women’s testosterone levels based on presumptions of unfair advantage. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has since ruled in favor of Chand’s appeal and suspended the policies. Today, women compete without being required to submit to unnecessary interventions to lower their T levels.

Chand and Semenya have won the right to compete in Rio on the track, after years of dedication and hard work, like everyone else. They have the support of the highest court in world sport. They’ve overcome prejudice with courage and determination. And they deserve our admiration and respect. Not only for their courage, but also for their exceptional athletic talent.

Instead, this dehumanizing speculation, commentary, and depiction is intensifying in the lead-up to Rio where both will compete.

The relentless comments include the media’s and public’s willingness to scrutinize their bodies, question their identity, and invade their privacy with impunity. Such representations invite unwelcome speculation about the configuration of these athletes’ genitals, whether they have ovaries or testes, and whether their chromosomes are XX or XY. Too many have made assumptions about their hormone levels based on how they look and how they perform, questioning whether they should be allowed to compete, or even be considered women at all. One journalist disturbingly called women subject to investigation “uncategorised” — a declaration indicative of the kind of privilege that comes from having a body or gender presentation that escapes such scrutiny.

The violation of privacy has taken place in ways horrifying and yet predictable. Karla Holloway, the James B. Duke Professor of English & Professor of Law at Duke University, has noted that privacy is implicitly reserved for socially-privileged groups: male, white, heterosexual. Living outside these interlocking privileges means inhabiting a body that is always, to some extent, treated as public and open to scrutiny, probing, and coercion in ways invisible to the institutions and individuals doing the looking. It is thus not surprising the vast majority of the women investigated under the IAAF policies have been brown or black women from the Global South.

The specific treatment Chand and Semenya received during official investigation and after has been horrifyingly resonant with the medicalized, racist use of black women’s bodies as “infotainment.” This kind of inspection — examining female athletes as if they are specimens — reeks eerily of longstanding histories of scientific fascination with imagined sexual peculiarities of women of color. These include the display of Sartje Baartman as the “Hottentot Venus” in the early nineteenth century and the public gynecological exams and surgeries performed on enslaved African-American women by J. Marion Sims.

These representations in story and image are connected to and conducive of discrimination and physical forms of gender-regulating violence that are shockingly common around the world. Only two days after Chand appeared on the cover of the Times magazine, the newspaper reported an “epidemic of anti-gay violence” in Rio.

Too many in the Global North have not appreciated the ramifications of being investigated and scrutinized for the livelihood of the individuals in question, their relationships, their freedom of movement, and their safety. The resulting stigma can lead to social ostracization, threatening career loss and decreased wages, the ability to marry, and one’s deeply felt sense of self.

What will their experience be in Rio, and later, throughout their lifetime, as they navigate a media and sports world that seems to steadfastly label them as they wish, disregarding science and, yes, their feelings?

These comments and images matter. Calling into question an athlete’s sense of self, their very identity, after they have said, explicitly, as both did, “This hurts and harms me,” is violence. For instance, in late July of this year, British marathoner Paula Radcliffe made deeply ignorant and racist comments on a BBC program on this issue. The BBC only excerpted those comments as a highlight from an otherwise supportive discussion. But news media around the world picked up on the story, amplifying the offensive comments.

Someone has started a petition to stop the bullying of Semenya, calling on Radcliffe’s corporate sponsors to press the British runner to apologize. We all have an obligation to fulfill when we speak and write about Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand. Those in the position to tell the stories of these women, and others who comment on them in the public sphere, have an ethical responsibility to refrain from assaulting their spirits, bodies, and autonomy.

Katrina Karkazis is senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University. An anthropologist and bioethicist, she is author of Fixing Sex: Intersex, Medical Authority, and Lived Experience. She also served in Dutee Chand’s successful appeal against the IAAF at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Katrina is on Twitter at @Karkazis 

OUT OF THE RANKS OF THE UNFORGIVEN

Six years ago, Mohammad Amir was an immensely talented bowler who stunned the cricket world after being caught in a spot fixing scandal. After serving a five-year ban, he returned to the cricketing fold earlier this year and just competed in a test match at Lord’s, the same ground where the scandal came to light. Amir is unusual as a cheater who was allowed to return. Usually, when our athletes are revealed as gamblers or dopers, we are reluctant to grant them forgiveness. 

amir

 

The Lord’s Cricket Ground is a place where players are presumably in awe. Labelled the Home of Cricket, it elicits somewhat of a near-religious feeling among players who set foot inside its premises, like a Catholic looking up at the Sistine Chapel, or a Muslim who visits Mecca, or a Hindu who takes a dip in the holy Ganga.

It was on that very ground in August 2010 that a young Mohammad Amir bowled a no-ball that shook the cricketing world.

No-balls in cricket are not uncommon. But Mohammad Amir had overstepped the crease by some two feet, and the replays drew sharp criticism from the commentators. During the break, Michael Holding, David Lloyd and Nasser Hussain sat down to discuss the delivery. “It is just so sad,” Holding said, “an 18 year old with that sort of talent to be getting involved in this.” Then he almost broke down, causing the channel to take a break until he could gather himself.

Holding recognized right away that Amir’s no-ball was no accident. Investigations later revealed that three Pakistani players on that tour, Mohammad Amir being one of them, had accepted money to under-perform in specific passages of play.

While the other two players, one being the Pakistani test captain for the series, were handed life bans, Amir was given a five-year ban. The ICC took into consideration his background, age, and the immense talent that he possessed. All of 18, Amir was seen as a naive youngster who was lured into the sordid mess by his more experienced team mates. On seeing him after his comeback, we can only wonder the heights he could have reached had he not traded five years of his career for a few thousand rupees. During his exile, he missed a limited-overs World Cup, two t20 World Cups, and a host of other marquee events.

Six years have passed since the incident that transformed Mohammad Amir from an upstart to a pariah. He is now just 24 and again playing for Pakistan. This past February, he appeared against India in a low-scoring encounter in the Asia Cup. Pakistan had managed all of 83 runs. It should have been a walk in the park for India. But Amir shook the Indian batting line-up, taking three wickets in a span of twelve deliveries in a beautiful exhibition of pace and swing bowling. India regained their sanity and went on to win the match. In that surreal passage of play, though, Amir hopefully made Michael Holding cry again –tears of joy. He had come back from exile, back to a future where hope had replaced implacable darkness.

All eyes were on Amir this summer as he returned to Lord’s, the ground where he fell from grace. He is fortunate to count himself among the forgiven.

Sport is unforgiving when it comes to athletes who cross the sacred line of trust. The legendary Pete Rose is still outlawed by Major League Baseball for his involvement in betting. Lance Armstrong’s punishment didn’t end with his suspension alone. The Union Cycliste International (UCI) declared all results of the Tour De France from 1999-2005 null and void as they couldn’t segregate the dopers from the non-dopers. A revoking of his life ban is a distant dream at best. And remember Ben Johnson, whose crash landing seemed even faster than his short-lived world record in the 1988 Seoul Olympics? The odds of his redemption are slim after he tested for banned substances twice after 1988.

We are taught from a young age that sport is something that holds itself to a higher moral standard. A politician who is caught in a sex scandal or shown to have sent a nation to war without adequate proof isn’t censured. Bankers who caused pensioners to lose their savings and sent the financial world into a tailspin with their complicated algorithms walk away free with fat bonuses. But the sportsperson who cheats sport seldom finds refuge. Why?

Whenever a cheating scandal in unearthed in sport, there is a fear that that it will open a Pandora’s box, that it will reveal how compromised the principle of fair play really is. Cricket’s Pandora’s box was opened with the match fixing scandal that came to light in 2000. The Delhi police had tapped the phone lines of a known gangster and were stunned to hear the voice of Hansie Cronje, the captain of the South African team and one of the most respected men in cricket. His fall from grace was swift and the investigation unearthed other players involved in the racket, many of whom weren’t prosecuted and got away. Another player involved in the mess was Mohammmad Azharuddin, India’s captain and one of the game’s most stylish batsmen. He was handed a life ban and went from national icon to national shame. He spent the next few years in isolation, ignored by former team mates and the cricket board. His come back to public life not through sport but politics, getting himself elected as to Parliament in 2009. So much for probity in public life.

The photo of Hansie Cronje sobbing as he left the courthouse where he was being questioned as a part of the King Commission investigating match fixing is one of the most enduring images of cheating in sport. Cronje would die in 2002 in a mysterious plane crash. He had been the face of South African cricket when they came out of cricketing exile after the apartheid years. No one imagined he would be the face of cricket’s darkest hour at the turn of the century.

The Indian Premier League opened another can of worms in 2013 when three players were caught for spot fixing. India still doesn’t have a law for match fixing, and the players were charged under a draconian law known as the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime (MCOCA) which is used to prosecute hardened criminals. While the players were found to be not guilty under the law, the cricket board wants nothing to do with them and handed them life bans.

Another reason for our strong response to cheating is that we, as fans, then tend to view events that follow a scandal with scepticism. Any match that India lost after the match fixing scandal was dismissed as being fixed. Our scepticism also extends back to events before the cheating came to light. We wonder now how many of Maria Sharapova’s victories were boosted by doping.

Perhaps we still hold sport to a different standard because so many of our other institutions have failed us. Politics and religion have ceased to be the bastions of truth and hope that they once were. In a beautiful piece titled “The Last Flowering of Amateurism,” sports writer Paul Hayward writes of how he wishes for a time when sport was devoid of its commercialisation and tales of doping. Referring to Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, he writes:

For my generation, who came to a life in sport when business had already completed its conquest, there is the nagging wish to have seen athletics, boxing, cricket or football before the mass commercialisation of games. The wish is to stand not in a vast Olympic stadium wondering who is and who is not on drugs, but at Iffley Road with a pipe and a duffel coat. Just once.

Our usual view of sport’s cheaters makes the return of Mohammad Amir to Lord’s all the more remarkable. English fans aren’t the kindest. Many a player has incurred the wrath of the Balmy Army without even being accused of heinous crimes. But when Amir returned to the same ground where he lost his innocence, the reactions were subdued. There were no untoward incidents or fans breaking into a song about his misdemeanours. There were a few boos and jeers that were quickly quelled when he faced his first delivery. When he came on to bowl, he must have used every nerve and sinew of his to ensure that he didn’t bowl a no-ball. While there were a few voices who opined that he shouldn’t have been given a second chance, they were just that – voices.

The redemption story concluded with Pakistan beating England for a historic victory. And who took the final wicket of the match? Mohammad Amir.

The biggest fear for me when playing cricket as a kid wasn’t losing. It was breaking the glass in someone’s window pane. Breaking the glass of someone’s house meant that play would be stalled indefinitely, sometimes for weeks. When tempers died down, we could resume playing. We knew that eventually we would be forgiven. It was just a piece of glass that was broken. But when trust gets broken forgiveness is hard to come by.

 

Pawan Mahalingam lives in Bangalore. He writes about cricket and other sports on his blog Pages of Sport, and he tweets at @coffeebytwo.

 

 

FOOTY DREAMS CAN COME TRUE – FOR GIRLS AND BOYS

Women have been playing Australian rules football for more than a century. In 2017 the sport’s best players will finally get their chance to play professionally, when a new league opens play with eight teams organized by AFL clubs. Women’s footy still faces obstacles, particularly from those who think the rough sport is only for men. But the new, elite-level league promises to keep building the fastest-growing sport in Australia.   

 

Footballer Tayla Harris (Imgur)

Footballer Tayla Harris (Imgur)

 

2017 will mark a historic first in Australian sport: the launch of a national women’s Australian rules football competition, allied with the elite men’s Australian Football League (AFL) clubs. The eight inaugural teams will play six home-and-away matches, with the top four teams playing off in two semi-finals, culminating in a Grand Final, which could be played as a curtain-raiser to the AFL season opener. As the main football code in all but the northern states, and the most popular spectator sport in the country, the creation of a women’s Australian rules league is a potential game changer – not only for top athletes, but for fans of all genders.

Women and girls have played Aussie rules football since at least 1915, but only as amateurs, on suburban grounds far from the cameras, crowds and celebrity status that the professional men’s competition enjoys. There wasn’t even a regular, organised competition until the Victorian Women’s Football League was formed in 1981, comprising just four teams. Women’s football has consistently been under-resourced and under-supported – like other community women’s sport in Australia. Until three young footballers won a historic court case in 2003, girls older than 12 years had no option but to play against adults in the open women’s competition. Thanks to Penny Cula-Reid, Helen Taylor and Emily Stanyer, they can now play in mixed teams up until the age of 14 (although the league encourages 12-14 year olds to play in girls-only competitions). There are also now youth competitions. But there was never any hope of playing professionally. According to Brisbane Lions player Tayla Harris, who is seen as one of the rising stars of the new women’s league, the sacrifices girls and women made to play footy “seemed to matter just that little bit less” than those of the boys who had the chance to be drafted to the AFL.

The number of women playing club football tripled between 2010 and 2015, and women now represent 25% of all Australian players. The big breaks for women’s football came in August 2015, when an exhibition match between women representing Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs was the first women’s game to be televised live. That same week the AFL announced the creation of the national league. The timing was right. The television coverage drew an average audience of 175,000 in Melbourne alone (301,000 nationally) – significantly more than the 114,000 who watched the men’s game the previous day. Finally, it was clear that not only could women play the sport, but also that there was a significant audience interested in watching them.

Interest in running the new competition was strong: 13 of the 18 AFL men’s clubs put in a bid for the eight available licenses in the inaugural women’s competition. The remaining five were granted provisional licenses with a view to joining an expanded league in 2018. The advantages to pairing with the men’s teams are many: the women’s sides will have access to state-of-the-art training facilities; the clubs have established supporter bases to draw from; and the wealthy men’s teams have incentive to put time and money into development – as a means of boosting their overall brands as well as investing in the women’s team in its own right. Already in November 2015 the league launched the AFL Victoria Women’s Academy (AFLVWA), to train female players for the national competition.

The new league has implications far beyond providing opportunities for players: it has the potential to transform the way women and girls engage with the sport as spectators and as amateur players. It may also ultimately change the way we view Aussie rules football, and what women are capable of.

Having sporting heroes who are “like you” is critically important. Growing up with Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, and Jennifer Capriati on TV and in the sports pages every Grand Slam tournament was significant. There was never a sense that I couldn’t play pro tennis because I was a girl – it was just because I wasn’t any good.

Football was another matter. Even as a fan, I got the message that I didn’t really fit. As I wrote in another Allrounder essay, I grew up a Hawthorn supporter. When I went to the store to my own Hawthorn guernsey (jumper), with the number 19 worn by my favourite player Jason Dunstall screen-printed on the back, the guy wasn’t really interested in what I wanted. He offered me puffy fabric numbers to be stitched on the back. But when my brother went a few weeks later, he got his screen-printed. His looked like the real deal, not a fan’s jumper.

Worst of all, the player-style guernesys were only available in a men’s cut. If I wanted something that would fit me properly, I had to get a special ladies’ t-shirt that had blue cap sleeves and looked nothing like what the players wore. I opted for the player guernsey, but had to buy it three sizes too big so that it fitted over my hips. It was another reminder that I could never be like the players on the field – even in fantasy.

Sport often entrenches assumptions about masculinity and femininity. As former professional basketballer Mariah Burton Nelson puts it, even though most men could never play professional contact sports themselves, they can still take “vicarious comfort” in the knowledge that women are excluded. Whether consciously or not, they use the fact that girls can’t play pro football to justify male superiority. In turn, studies show that many girls worry about “crossing gender boundaries” when playing sports that are seen as masculine, like football. Many girls drop out of sport entirely at around age 14.

Having female players, in proper team outfits, playing real games of footy in a national competition should go a long way towards changing all that. While it won’t be a magic fix, being able to watch talented players like Daisy Pearce and Tayla Harris racking up possessions on the TV and being featured in the sports pages gives girls role models in the national sport. A national women’s competition with a strong profile can reassure girls that football is a sport they can play, and be celebrated for playing.

There is still a way to go for women to be fully accepted as AFL players worthy of recognition in their own right. After the August 2015 Bulldogs-Demons exhibition match, former player and coach Graham Cornes wrote a patronising article that focused on their appearance, sneering that “It just didn’t look right!” The outfits were unflattering and few players “really looked like footballers.” Instead, most “looked like girls playing football. Boobs and all.” While Cornes conceded that there was “much to like” about the game, he ultimately pooh-poohed the viability of a national league, attributing the exhibition match’s popularity to “novelty.”

Although Cornes’ comments attracted wide criticism (from, as Crikey put it, “most people with even a passing interest in gender equality”), it was another reminder that some in the football world would prefer if women just sat in the stands and clapped politely (AFL does not have dancing female cheerleaders – mixed-gender squads wave giant pompoms and flags and lead cheers from the stands). These men would rather not see women getting involved in the game as coaches, commentators, umpires or players. But the women’s teams’ status with the men’s clubs should give incentive for those clubs and the AFL itself to clamp down on those attitudes and focus on celebrating women’s achievements, if for no other reason than to protect their own brands.

Another potential problem is the current depth of ability – the exhibition matches have featured the country’s best players, several of whom are also professional athletes in other sports. The majority have not had the years of specialist coaching and strength, conditioning and fitness training expected for elite athletes. As head coach of the AFL Victoria Women’s Academy admitted, the exhibition matches show the gap between the best women in the sport and the majority of players. “It’s taken off at a million miles an hour,” Graham Burgen remarked. Coaching at the local level needs to develop to catch up with the rapid growth of girls and women playing football.

The extent of media coverage for the new league is also yet to be determined. Given that coverage of all women’s sport in Australia is marginal – only 7-9% of television sports programming – it remains to be seen what role media will play, and how sponsorship deals will function. This will influence how wide an impact the league can have.

Despite the obstacles, it is an exciting time for female players and fans – and indeed for sports fans generally. Given the extremely rapid development of women in the sport in recent years, it is likely that the standard of competition will improve exponentially as the gap between the “elite” and the “next best” lessens through high-level training. Having a short first season allows for supporter excitement to be maintained, while allowing time and space for general skills and athletic development.

It’s particularly exciting for the next generation of players. As Tayla Harris said after becoming the first woman ever to sign with the AFL’s Brisbane Lions, “It’s going to be really cool to be able to say to both little boys and little girls that you can play for the Lions one day.”

 

Deb Waterhouse-Watson is author of Athletes, Sexual Assault, and “Trials by Media.” She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, investigating the process of court reporting on sexual assault trials involving Australian footballers. Deb is on Twitter at @DebWaterhouseW.

 

 

BREXIT AND BRITISH SPORT

This past spring, Nicholas Walton wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay on how the performances of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland at EURO 2016 might influence the Brexit vote. But one thing the former Europe editor for BBC World Service never expected was that the leave votes would carry the referendum. In the wake of the historic vote (and England’s ignominious exit from the tournament), Nicholas takes a more serious look at how leaving the EU might affect British sport.   

(Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

(Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

 

Well that escalated quickly!

No sooner had the United Kingdom voted in favour of leaving the European Union than the England team acknowledged their own obligations and duly surrendered to plucky little Iceland in the knockout rounds of the current European Championships. So far, so tidy.

There will likely be other implications of Brexit for British sport. Before speculating about these, I will first make an admission. I did not expect this result, and – like many – I was profoundly shocked at it (I’m talking about the referendum, although the Iceland result had a similar impact). Nobody quite seems to know what happens next, although the initial collapse in the value of the pound suggests that the worst warnings about the impact of Brexit may be true. The country is deeply divided, involving strongly held feelings of identity (not to mention real implications for the economy). Remarkably, there are many who still believe the result is reversible, which makes any article about its impact rather hard to write. But here goes…

Let’s start with the country’s ability to attract footballing talent. Before the vote, studies and blog posts were published (by those wishing to remain in the EU) noting just how many of the English Premiership’s foreign soccer stars might have to leave their clubs if Britain leaves the EU. Looking at last year’s twenty EPL teams, we find 117 who could be affected. The worst scenario would see clubs stripped of many of their better players. The excellent Untypical Boro blog, covering my own team, newly promoted Middlesbrough, said that without the EU’s freedom of movement, seventeen of our players would have to apply for work permits. Worse, under current rules, only Uruguay’s Cristhian Stuani would succeed.

These issues matter. The Premiership has become a global sporting juggernaut on the back of great clubs, exciting football, and star names. Arguably, the EPL is England’s most effective source of soft power in the world (especially if the nation’s football team continues to find new ways to be humiliated). This would be sorely undermined if there is a mass cull of talented foreigners. Think of Sergio Agüero, Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial, and Willian all taking their talents – and their bank accounts – elsewhere.

Even more of a threat to those talented foreigners than the loss of freedom of movement is the economic health of a post-Brexit Britain. The pound crashed on currency markets straight after the referendum, and some experts predict further falls as a recession starts to bite (and not just at home – the UK is the world’s fifth biggest economy, so this will mess up other economies too). On a simple level there may be less money coming in from crowd receipts and sponsorship deals. Most notably, as the pound falls so does the purchasing power of clubs compared to international rivals. These could be lean times for the Premiership, while the other big leagues in Europe (and beyond, if Chinese clubs continue to chuck money around) will find their own wages far more competitive.

And what of the England’s national team? With rose-tinted spectacles I might imagine that a greater concentration of domestic players in the Premiership could help bring through more talented Englishmen for the national side. Then again, England had plenty of players to choose from in the 1970s and 80s and that led precisely nowhere. Iceland might be a post-Brexit nadir, but England’s football team is so adept at miserable failure it’s hard to see how this will change.

Before the vote I wrote an article suggesting that the fortunes of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland at the Euros may impact the vote. Scotland did not qualify for the tournament, and duly delivered an expected vote to stay in the EU. Northern Ireland also voted to stay, which is in keeping with its close ties to the Republic of Ireland. The surprising vote was in Wales, which overall voted to leave. Possibly, in keeping with the tone of my article, voters in Wales were emboldened by their team’s surprisingly good results on the pitch. Likewise, perhaps the false promise of the Three Lions’ group games encouraged some drunken English voters to believe in some unproven superiority. Maybe not.

In sporting terms, the British Isles are already one of the most idiosyncratic hodgepodges out there. In rugby there are England, Scotland, and Wales, and then a single, united Ireland team. In football each nation has its own team, although Northern Ireland and the Republic are able to pick each other’s players (Wales also has a fair share of players with English accents). Some clubs operate over borders – think Swansea in the EPL, for instance, or Berwick Rangers in the Scottish league system. England’s cricket team includes players from the other home nations, whose own national teams operate at a much lower representative level. At the Olympics there is the Great Britain team (although that is geographically just the name of the largest island) and then the Republic of Ireland team. For decades the football associations of Scotland and the other smaller nations prevented Great Britain from entering a team in the soccer competition at the Olympics, fearing it would compromise the historic case for their own, non-English national teams. Fans of such confusion can look forward to more complications as this whole Brexit saga plays out. As several commentators have noted, a split between the nations of the United Kingdom may be just over the horizon. Scotland’s ruling Scottish Nationalist Party is already demanding another referendum on independence so that it can remain in the EU. Few would bet against its independence coming within the decade.

The rest, I’m afraid, fits in with that journalistic cliché of being too soon to tell. The historical confusion over representative national teams speaks to Britain’s leading role in shaping the world of sport. Those championing Brexit no doubt feel that, once free of the EU, their country will regain the dynamism and inventiveness that allowed it to shape modern sport. Maybe instead it will be closer to the England football team that finally deigned to take part in a World Cup in 1950, and then woke up in a cold sweat after encountering the shock of the real world (in the shape of a 1-0 defeat to the US in Belo Horizonte). Before the 2-1 humiliation against Iceland that result was considered England’s footballing nadir. In 2016 the history books are being rewritten.

 

Nicholas Walton is a writer and journalist. He is the author of  Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower, and was the BBC’s correspondent in Sarajevo and Warsaw. Nicholas tweets at @npw99.

 

 

SPORTOLOGICALLY SPEAKING
When Thomas Hicks asked for water at the 10-mile mark of the 1904 Olympic marathon, he was denied a drink. Three miles later, he asked again and received sulphate of strychnine and an egg white. A mile later, as his face turned ashen white, he received more strychnine, two more eggs, and a sip of brandy. He went on to win the race.
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