Wednesday, 30 May 2012

If Jessica's 'fat', what about everyone else?

JESSICA ENNIS always knew that being the poster girl of British athletics in the year of the London Olympics would also make her the target of some less flattering headlines. But if the European heptathlon champion – Europe’s best all-round athlete – is “fat”, what does that make the rest of us?
The first and most obvious thing to be said about that bizarre claim, which appeared on the eve of her major pre-Olympic meeting with her chief world rivals, is that it’s nonsense.
Such obvious nonsense, indeed, that Ennis can easily brush it off as “not an issue” and get on with the serious business of training and competing.
One might also point out that if such blatant piffle is the worst thing they can dig up to throw at her, she must lead a remarkably clean and blameless life.
There is, of course, a nasty undertone of sexism implicit in the original story. Sexism of the same strain that runs through so much of our rather seamy, celebrity-obsessed media culture.
That culture which fixates on spotting movie stars, “reality TV” performers, singers, and people famous for nothing other than being famous, going about their daily lives in casual dress, normally unkempt, or showing a bit of un-retouched flesh.
That culture which looks for signs of weight gain, or loss, among the supposedly beautiful people and treats it as a more important issue than nuclear power, famine in Yemen or economic meltdown in Europe.
Weight is, of course, an issue for athletes – and not just for the boxers and jockeys who can make themselves ill by starving and sweating down for an official weigh-in.
If your whole livelihood depends on being able to run a split-second faster, or jump a centimetre or two further, than your rivals, you don’t want to be carrying an ounce more than necessary. And I think we can take it from the consistently world-class level of Ennis’s performances across her seven athletic disciplines that she’s about as fit as it’s healthy for a person to be.
One possible source of confusion – and I’m not saying this applies to Ennis, whose balance of diet and exercise is more strictly regulated than most of us could cope with or understand – is the body mass index (BMI).
This rather clumsy tool has been used for years to try to identify who needs to lose (or gain) weight, who is at heightened risk of diabetes, heart disease and so on.
It’s clumsy because it’s based purely on body-weight and height. And since muscle is heavier than fat, it’s apt to bracket athletes, builders and forestry workers along with the couch-potatoes.
A more useful guide to avoiding the dangers associated with fat is now being suggested.
It, too, may be a little rough-and-ready, but it’s handily simple – and it’s said to be a more reliable indicator of risk than BMI.
If your waist measurement is more than half your height, you’re in the “at risk” category.
If it’s less than that, you and your doctor shouldn’t need to worry.
On that basis, I’m OK. Just. Nudge up one more trouser size and it would be time to take action.
I don’t think anyone looking at me would immediately think I was fat. Not in this society, at this time, anyway.
But then, our standards of what is “normal” have crept inexorably upwards, even in my lifetime.
I know I’d feel better if I were a little fitter, my middle-age spread a little trimmed.
If I’m normal – and in this time and place I’m probably slightly fitter than most my age – then “normal” has edged dangerously close to “overweight”.
When my mother was a girl, poor people in this country tended to be thin. Only the wealthy were fat. It had been that way for many generations, and in many parts of the world it continues to be true.
Here, today, and in “the West” generally, it’s often the less well-off who are fat.
It has been said – I’ve said it myself – that being fat is a sign of taking more than your fair share of the food. To some extent that’s true. But it’s more complicated than that.
A lot of it’s not just about how much you eat, but what you eat.
Bulking up on cheap foods bulks you up unhealthily. And, because they contain more fat, sugar and salt than healthier foods, they make you crave more.
It’s an addiction that the manufacturers and fast-food outlets create and encourage.
Smaller quantities of better food might make you leaner, fitter, healthier – and not really cost more in total either.
But it’s easier said than done, I know. Especially with all that advertising, and all those other bad-food addicts all around us, setting an unhealthy standard of “normal”.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Data roaming, the unexpected cost of Euro 2012

SO now we know which footballers will be going to represent England at Euro 2012, attention turns to the sort of experience supporters can expect from the trip.
If I were going to Ukraine (and I’d like to) I’d rather do it when the place wasn’t filling up with visiting football fans. But we’ll pass on that.
Overall, I expect the tournament to be quite entertaining, throw up a few surprises, and for England to do moderately well but not win it. That’s all par for the course.
There are some distinctly new worries, though, about the travelling fans. And for once it isn’t tedious old clichés about “English hooligans” that are filling the airwaves and the column inches.
The expressed concerns seem roughly to break down into three categories: travel and accommodation, social problems, and technology.
Anyone planning on going to the games really ought to have sorted out the first category by now.
The biggest problem may lie in the fact that many fans are expected to base themselves, like the England team, in Poland. Which is rather a long way from the eastern Ukraine, where two of the three England fixtures so far confirmed will be played.
In fact, Krakow is the same distance from Donetsk (820 miles) as it is from Ipswich – not a journey to be undertaken unprepared or too often.
Most supporters won’t have the team’s advantage of a private plane at their disposal.
That’s why the Ukrainian authorities are thoughtfully setting up campsites for weary fans, which might be a lot of fun, and then again…
Once there, the social worry can be summed up in one word: racism.
Or in one faintly surreal headline (which, as it happens, I wrote myself): “Donetsk the ‘least racist’ of Euro 2012 host cities”.
Which is perhaps good news (relatively) for England’s black fans (and players). Though it does occur to me that all the stories about “racist east Europeans” have themselves got more than a smack of racism about them.
And technology? This is where it gets seriously surreal.
I’ve just been listening to a long, involved discussion of what one might have thought was the worst trouble lying in store for those England followers heading off into the Slavic wilds. Their mobile phone bills could be huge.
This, apparently, is all to do with Ukraine being outside the European Union, and therefore not covered by EU-based tariffs.
One sober piece of advice was this: Turn off data searching.
Which sort of makes sense to someone (me) who still accesses the internet through a computer and uses his phone for making phone calls.
Basically, don’t let your phone connect to the net automatically without your permission. Because if it decides to go online from not-very-racist Donetsk, your phone company will sting you.
Another piece of advice, which was offered seriously and will no doubt be widely ignored, was: Don’t upload lots of video to YouTube and Facebook.
I might add to that the word “ever”. Because almost all of it is very, very boring, possibly the greatest waste of time, technology and server-space yet devised.
Whatever japes you get up to in that campsite, or the local bars, might be fun at the time, but will make tedious viewing.
And for action footage from the stadium, you won’t be able to compete with the BBC. The people in their armchairs back home will see every detail of the game much more clearly than you do.
In fact, my advice to travelling fans about their phones would be this: take it for emergency use, by all means, but use it in emergencies only.
After all, humankind has managed for nearly all of its existence without mobile phones. Right up to about Euro 2000 for most of us.
As for data searching, apps and Twitter, I don’t recall them being an issue at Euro 2008.
And talking of things that won’t be needed at Euro 2012 – Robert Green, anyone? Andy Carroll? Ashley Young?
Or those things you’ll wish you’d taken. Most obviously, Peter Crouch. And a proper right-back –  Graham Taylor forgot to take one with him to Euro 92, and look where that got him.
And then there’s the manager. Unless England surpass expectations (which for once seem modest) under Roy Hodgson, this will forever be the tournament we’ll look back on and think: I wonder what it would have been like with Harry in charge?


THE future never turns out to be quite what you expect.
Who would have thought a few years ago that a teenage girl would cause a national sensation in 2012 by winning a talent contest with her performing dog?
One of the joys of science fiction written, or filmed, a few years ago is spotting what they got right, and what they got delightfully wrong.
The other day I saw, for the first time, The Running Man, an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from 1987.
Its 2017 setting still looked, in some ways, weirdly futuristic – though a future in which clothing and hair styles still seemed oddly stuck in the 1980s.
But its theme of a “reality” TV gameshow, with a powerful and sinister host whipping up an uncritical audience into dangerous hysteria, was horribly prescient.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Why it will be good for football if Chelsea lose the Champions League final

IT’S all about money. Money attracts money. The rich – the phenomenally rich – get richer and richer while the poor go to the wall.
It’s also about brand (which attracts money). The bigger the brand, the bigger the global reach, the richer the brand-owners.
And, of course, the richer the owners, the further they can promote the brand. For them, it’s a virtuous circle. For the rest of us, it’s a vicious one.
I’m talking about football. And since sport – especially the world’s favourite sport – is a microcosm and mirror of the world at large, I’m talking about the world at large. Or at least the capitalist world, which just for now is pretty much the whole globe.
For which reason, we all ought to take at least a passing interest, even those who don’t know their offside from their midfield diamond, their wing-back from their sweeper.
For those of us who do know – and care – who’s just won the Premier League title, and who finished 15th in the Championship, it should also matter who wins the Champions League final on Saturday.
The Sky Sports coverage will take the usual nationalistic approach, assuming all British viewers will want Chelsea to win.
As if, after spending all season rooting for Ipswich, Liverpool, Yeovil or Crewe, we will suddenly switch allegiance to a club owned by a Russian oligarch, managed (for now) by an Italian and with a team made up of players from Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Ghana, Nigeria, France, Ivory Coast, Belgium and the Czech Republic, simply because they happen to be based in west London.
For those whose attention to the game is peripheral and occasional, it may well be that Chelsea on Saturday will be a kind of stand-in for England. For the rest of us, the truth is otherwise.
In May 1999 I watched the European Cup final – that match with the most famous sting in the tail – with a German friend. He was cheering for Manchester United, for the simple reason that they were not Bayern Munich; while I, on the same principle, was backing Bayern because they weren’t United.
This time around, there are stronger and deeper reasons for hoping the German club triumphs.
Conventional wisdom says that football fashions, footballing habits, are set by the teams that win the big trophies.
Alf Ramsey’s 1966 wingless wonders signalled a switch from the old 2-3-5 formation to 4-3-3 pretty much everywhere. After Franz Beckenbauer, every team everywhere found it needed a sweeper. The “diamond” and “Christmas tree” formations both spread outwards from Milan.
Should Munich win on Saturday, it will be a fillip for marauding wingers everywhere, even if few can live up to the pace and skill of Ribery and Robben.
But there’s more involved than mere formations, on-field strategy or tactics.
Chelsea may have been surpassed by Manchester City, but they remain the archetype of a club bought and sustained by the obscene wealth of one man. A man who has bought into both the game and the country.
It has become the model for English football.
Of the 20 clubs which competed in the Premier League season just ended, exactly half are in foreign ownership. Eight of those ten – Aston Villa, Blackburn, Chelsea, Fulham, Liverpool, both Manchester clubs and Sunderland – are each owned by one man, family or firm.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, as both Bayern and the Europa League finalists Athletic Bilbao show.
Bilbao, who conquered Manchester United on their way to Bucharest, are an anomaly in modern football. Not only are they jointly owned by their club members – as are Real Madrid and Barcelona – but they retain a policy of only employing players with roots in their region.
It’s hard to imagine Chelsea only fielding Londoners, or an Ipswich team comprising only lads from Suffolk. It would be impossible to enforce as a rule, but as a matter of choice it hasn’t worked too badly for Athletic.
Bayern have players from Brazil, Belgium, Croatia, Ukraine and Japan; Robben is Dutch and Ribery French. But even if it imports almost as many of its stars as the Premier League, there are many ways in which German football scores over ours.
Gates last season in the Bundesliga averaged 42,700 – more than 7,000 above the Premier League average and getting on for twice the average in Italy, France and Spain.
Four of the 20 best-supported teams in Europe are English (Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle and Liverpool); eight of them are German.
This must be partly because the average cost of watching a top-flight game in Germany is £17, which would barely get you into Accrington v Crawley. The cheapest seat available at the weekend to watch Chelsea in a meaningless end-of-season fixture against Blackburn was £95.
German fans can stand on safe terracing, are trusted to drink beer in view of the pitch and get free rail travel to away games.
Maybe best of all is a rule that German clubs must be at least 51 per cent owned by their members. Which means no Roman Abramovich (or Marcus Evans).
And no fiasco like those at Portsmouth and Rangers, once-proud clubs which have gone in short order from rich owners to the threat of extinction.
Whoever wins on Saturday, how much better it would be if we could all play by German rules.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Once it had an empire, now Britain is a colony

WHEN I was growing up, learning about the world, there were certain facts that just had to be accepted. The sky is blue, grass is green; you shouldn’t put earthworms in your mouth, and it’s better not to use the best silver spoons to dig them up with.
Later, when I got to study A-level economics, came slightly more advanced stuff. China and India were full of very poor people; Brazil had terrible inflation. Some things – water and electricity were the classic examples – were so essential they could only ever be supplied by the state, not by private companies.
My textbooks were quite explicit. The necessities of life could not be trusted to the vagaries of free enterprise. Providing them was what the state was for.
If I had suggested in my 1975 A-level paper that within 15 years the British water and electricity industries would have been privatised, I would undoubtedly have failed the exam.
But if privatisation was unthinkable, how would our 1970s selves have viewed the situation we’re in today?
Water and electricity haven’t been re-nationalised. Those of us who think they should be are probably in a very small minority. But power has been taken back into state hands. It just isn’t the British state that owns it.
The largest generator of electric power in Britain is EDF Energy. It has two coal-fired and two gas power-stations, two wind farms, and eight nuclear power-stations (including Sizewell), with four more planned. It employs more than 20,000 people and handles 5.7million customer accounts, selling gas as well as electricity. It is, to all intents and purposes, the largest and most successful of Britain’s private power companies.
Except that it isn’t private. And it isn’t British.
It is wholly owned by Électricité de France, which, as its name implies (unlike, for example, British Telecom or British Gas, whose names are now in this sense misleading), is state-owned. By the state of France.
Ultimately, Margaret Thatcher and her Union Flag-waving followers have done what Napoleon Bonaparte tried and failed to do – put British power in French hands.
British water – the rain that falls from our sky – is sold to us by mostly foreign businesses. Several of the privatised British water companies have also been French-owned, though trading on the international markets has moved most of them on.
Essex and Suffolk Water, for example, is now owned by Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, a private company based in Hong Kong. In 2010 Cheung Kong also took over three UK electricity networks. From EDF.
The old Ipswich Water is now part of the French company Veolia. Wessex Water is owned by a Malaysian company.
Britain’s biggest water-supplier, Thames Water, is ultimately owned by an Australian firm. Last month, though, part of it went back into state ownership. Chinese state ownership.
The China Investment Corporation, controlled by the finance ministry in Beijing, bought an 8.7 per cent stake in Thames’s parent company, Kemble Water, for an estimated £600million or so.
Small stuff for now, perhaps. But it means the bills paid by 14m British households will help pay for the continuing rapid growth of the Chinese economy, just as ours is in such trouble.
Many, perhaps most, of China’s people are still poor – though not generally at the mass starvation level of the years when I was growing up. Your iPhone – famously and controversially sweatshop-built – and probably many other things you own, from your shoes to your telly, may have been made by Chinese workers toiling in dismal conditions for little money. As a country, though, China these days is anything but poor.
Who do all the indebted western economies – Greece, Italy, Ireland, the US and ourselves – owe all that money to? China mostly. And India, and Brazil.
Countries still with a lot of poor people, but also a rapidly increasing number of rich ones, and a fast-growing middle class.
China has always been a land of eye-watering statistics. A third of the world’s population; more than 20m peasants starved to death from 1958-61.
Today the stats of the world’s oldest paper-based economy are of a different sort.
China has £2trillion in the bank, and foreign currency reserves 20 times those of the USA. More than 400 British businesses, including Superdrug, MG Rover and Canary Wharf, are owned, or part-owned, by the Chinese.
If the proposed high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham or the controversial Thames estuary airport are built, it will be with Chinese money.
Symbolically, China is the biggest market for Rolls-Royce cars.
Maybe the argument over Britain’s place in the world – in Europe, or in a ‘special relationship’ with the US – is outdated. Perhaps, like 17th-century India being taken over by a British company, Britain is becoming a colony in a new Chinese empire.