Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Yellow for Brad, gold for Cav?

FOR two weeks one wondered increasingly whether Mark Cavendish had taken on too much. Whether the strain of limiting himself to fetching and carrying, to helping his Sky team-mate Bradley Wiggins to Tour de France triumph, would wreck his own chances of Olympic glory.
And then, last Friday, came the last amazing kilometre of the Tour’s 18th stage.
With Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain – one of his chief rivals for Saturday’s Olympic road race crown – and Nicholas Roche way out in front, there seemed no chance of the sprint finish that is Cavendish’s speciality.
This year, in Sky’s colours, he has not had a team dedicated to leading him out for those sprints, as he had in previous Tours with HTC-Highroad. But Sky did have the top two men in the race.
And there, suddenly, were those top two, the magnificent Wiggins and his amazing sidekick Chris Froome, leading Cavendish into a position from which he might – just possibly – win the stage.
Which he duly did with a breathtaking burst of power that left Sanchez and Roche, who had thought they were contesting the finish, a sudden 15 lengths behind.
It was not a normal Cavendish victory. But it was, in a way, one of the most impressive of all his 23 stage wins.
After that, the emphatic nature of his fourth successive last-day victory on the Champs Elysees was no more than we expected. And there again was Wiggins, augmenting his own victory parade, by leading Cavendish out into that final triumphant straight.
Those two rides were proof positive that the Tour has not exhausted Cav but brought him in tip-top form into the Olympic challenge that he has always said was his prime objective this year.
And that – even with nine circuits of a sapping Box Hill circuit to negotiate – the Manxman is rightly the favourite for Saturday’s gold.
He will have Wiggins and Froome on his side again, and this time Britain’s first ever Tour de France winner will be there purely to help Cav’s cause.
The co-operative spirit in the Sky team was one of the great joys of this most joyous of Tours de France.
It is a huge testament to team chief Dave Brailsford that he has brought together such individual talents – the Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen is another who might have been a team captain himself – and got them working so well together.
It is a fabulous thing for British cycling to have a Tour winner, two years ahead of the ambitious five-year schedule Brailsford set when Team Sky was formed in 2010.
To have a British one-two in Wiggins and Froome is almost beyond a dream. Wiggin’s fourth place in 2009 was as good as it had ever been for a British rider before.
This year Wiggins has won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and now the Tour. Brailsford wasn’t joking, or exaggerating, when he called it “probably the highest sustained level of performance by any British athlete”.
It would be no exaggeration, either, to describe Brailsford’s successes – first as performance director of GB Cyling in Athens and Beijing and now with Sky on the roads of France – as the highest sustained achievement of any British coach.
Like most high achievers, Brailsford makes it sound easy.
“It’s all about doing the simple things better than anybody else,” he explains, simply.
Having built the best British teams ever on both the track and the road, Brailsford now wants to make Sky the best cycling team ever.
First there’s the matter of masterminding Olympic gold for Cavendish. Then one for Wiggins in the time-trial. Plus of course a few on the track for Vicky Pendleton, Laura Trott, Chris Hoy and company.


THERE are two ways of looking at the Olympics.
You can look forward eagerly to the greatest concentration of the greatest sporting contests this country has ever seen. And wish it was possible to watch more than the tiniest part of the action.
Or you can deplore the commercialism of what one commentator has called “a £9billion promotion for the world’s worst companies”.
Which of these attitudes is right?
The aggressive protection of the Olympic “brand” and those of its commercial sponsors and partners (no, I don’t understand the difference, either) is even more deplorable than the fiasco over security. (Who ever thought that a private company could be relied on to deliver all that’s required there?)
For some the Olympic motto seems to be not “Faster, higher, stronger” but “Richer, greedier, pushier”.
But none of that is the fault of the athletes who have devoted so much of their lives to being the best they can be at just the right moment.
You may not be able to take the “wrong” food into the Olympic Park, drink the “wrong” beer, withdraw cash with the “wrong” card, or even wear a shirt with the “wrong” logo. All of which is disgraceful and brings both Britain and the Games into disrepute.
But you can relish the sport and cheer the team without signing up to any of that nonsense.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

An acceptable level of asterisk?

“THIS bloke came up to me and he said, ‘You…’ ”

No, I’d better leave it there – I’m going to need all the asterisks I can get a little later on. I don’t want to use them all up straight away reminiscing about Derek And Clive.

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore brought out the first and best of their three ‘Derek And Clive’ albums in 1976. It was possibly the funniest and certainly the filthiest thing the pair came up with in all their years of comedy fame.

And it seems that in all the years since, not much has really moved on. Except that swaps of all but meaningless expletives like those that had us splitting our sides in the mid-1970s seem to have moved off the comedy stage and into the courtroom. Via the football field.

No comedy act – even one as talented as Pete and Dud – could have bettered some of the exchanges repeated po-faced in Westminster Magistrates’ Court during the three days of the John Terry “racism” case.

On the field of play, most of it seems, to be honest, pretty normal stuff – though laced with the kind of language everyone knows and very few newspapers care to print.

Transferred to the starched, pompous surroundings of court they take on a more surreal, altogether more amusing quality.

So imagine m’ learned friend quizzing Terry – one man in a suit addressing another in the most serious manner: “How many times did he call you a ****?”

Or the same deeply dignified prosecutor telling the court: “The words he uttered included “**** off, **** off ... ****ing black ****, ****ing ********’ ”

I’m sorry about those asterisks. I’d go on, but frankly you’d have to imagine most of the best bits.

I’ve written before about the absurdity of the newspaper convention that makes us “cover up” rude words in this curiously coy yet suggestive manner.

What is really daft is that the one truly offensive word – the one that caused the whole silly spat to come to court and into the papers – is the one neither I nor any of the press chose to censor. The word “black”.

It’s the racist intent – or, as the court decided, the lack of racist intent – in the use of that word that made a playground exchange of insults into something for lawyers to pick apart at great length, great expense and under great public scrutiny.

Had Terry called Rio Ferdinand – as he might well – “You ******* over-paid ****” no one might ever have known.

Or had Ferdinand called Terry  “******* ugly ****”, a “******* English ****” – or even a “******* white ****” – the matter would have gone no further.

If Ferdinand really did goad Terry with the remarks about his private life, and his mother’s, that were claimed in court, I can understand the former England captain getting a bit cross.

But sticks and stones and all that. Which should apply equally to Terry’s mum and Ferdinand’s complexion.

There was nothing in the whole affair that warranted the weight of the law being brought to bear.

A simple check on who his friends are should make it immediately clear that Terry – whatever his other faults may be, and however uncouth his use of English – is no racist.

In fact, the real racism is in the reaction to what was said – the shock, or mock shock at the reference to another person’s skin-tone.

If this was a genuinely non-racist, “colour-blind” society, that reference would have no more capacity to offend than remarking on someone’s blue eyes or brown hair.

Terry and Ferdinand may do a great Derek And Clive act, but it wasn’t really funny. Not until re-staged for the magistrates.

Whether the act was worth all the public money that was spent on it is another matter.


I KNOW I’m not the first to remark on it, but let me just say: What a fabulous summer of sport.

The European football championships were just the aperitif; Wimbledon, Andy Murray and all, just the starter.

And the Olympics? They are merely the dessert – though a rich, heavy and highly anticipated one, to be sure. (Let’s just hope they don’t leave us feeling overstuffed and a bit sick.)

The real main course – the meat of the matter – is the Tour de France.

I’ve been a fan of the world’s greatest bike race since long, long before it was fashionable in this country to take an interest.

Meeting the great Belgian Eddy Merckx back in the mid-1980s, just a few years after his cycling heyday, was a career highlight for me.

Every year the Tour is one of the must-watch spectacles. Every day’s action is a race in itself, a compelling chapter in a story that develops over three weeks with its own plot twists, its own characters.

And while I’m no nationalist, it hasn’t exactly lessened the enjoyment this year to have a British rider – the immensely likeable Bradley Wiggins – cast in the leading role. Or to have the strong and gutsy Chris Froome making an impressive bid for best-supporting-actor status.

Pity, perhaps, for Mark Cavendish to be relegated this time to a lesser part. But maybe he’s just been saving his best for the Olympics.

Which could make the last course – or at least the first bite of it – jolly tasty too.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Palace of capitalism that towers over the capital

IT used to be said in Warsaw that the best view in Poland was to be had from the top of the Palace of Culture and Science. It was the only place from which you couldn’t see the Palace of Culture and Science.
Sixty years after building began, the “palace” – actually an exhibition centre and office block – still dominates the skyline of Warsaw. I rather like it, in its overstated grand Soviet manner. But I can understand why the Poles were not so keen.
The building was an unwanted “gift” to them from “the people of the Soviet Union” – most of whom undoubtedly knew nothing about it.
As such, it was a colossal symbol of Poland’s domination by its powerful neighbour. In the beginning, it even bore the name of Joseph Stalin, almost as if the great dictator himself were squatting massively in the Poles’ midst, looking down on their every move.
If I were a Londoner, especially one from the poorer south side of the river, I’d feel much the same way about the latest excrescence to blot the city’s skyline.
After the grand official opening of the Shard last week, mayor Boris Johnson was enthusing about the view from its 1,000ft summit.
I suspect his claim that you could see France from up there was a slight exaggeration, in typical Boris style. But I’m sure the view from the top is magnificent.
Apart from anything else, it’s one place in London from which you can’t see the Shard.
Now, I’m not an architecture snob of the Prince Charles variety. I like London’s previously most notable modern building, the Gherkin, and I seem to be one of few who rather admires Norman Foster’s City Hall, leaning asymmetrically towards Tower Bridge. I’m quite fond of Paris’s eccentric Pompidou Centre, which seemed so way-out in the 1970s when it was built by, among others, the Italian Renzo Piano.
But there is something aggressive about the Shard. An offensive “up yours” quality not only to its pointy appearance but to its very existence on its particular site.
Piano was called in to give celebrity-architect status to the plan for a monster skyscraper rising from the downtrodden streets of Southwark.
None of the locals wanted it there. The local authorities and heritage organisations all opposed it. John Prescott, then deputy prime minister, over-ruled their objections on the grounds of Piano’s “exceptional design”.
So there it now is, western Europe’s tallest building, nearly twice the height of the Gherkin, towering imperiously over the city.
The Shard doesn’t look like a London building at all. It looks like a bit of aggressively modern Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha dumped by the Thames. As incongruous there as its lookalikes are in the Arabian desert.
And that, indeed, is exactly what it is. Not an English building but a Qatari one – 95 per cent owned by the tiny but oil-rich emirate.
Qatar – the little country that bought football in the shape of the 2022 World Cup – has bought itself a London pad. From which it can look down, literally and figuratively, on the whole self-important, self-satisfied City.
The get-rich-quick dominated by the get-richer-quicker.
Perhaps significantly, the Shard isn’t in the City. Its big feet are planted in relatively poor soil on the other side of the river. But – just like its close relatives in the Gulf – it won’t be much inhabited by the poorer people in whose midst it has been set.
The only working-class Londoners ever likely to enter its 72 habitable floors will be those who clean its floors, empty its bins and fix its lifts. They may serve in its five-star hotel and starred restaurant, but not eat or sleep there.
The view from its £50million penthouse flats stretches to the sea to both south and east. All of London will be visible, but the people down there scarcely at all.
I wouldn’t mind having a look out from the Shard’s observation deck, 800ft up (below the posh flats), but at £25 a go it’s a bit steep for me.
That ticket price is either (a) a way of keeping the plebs out, (b) a way of moving money from poor pockets to rich ones, or (c) both.
A perfect example of capitalism, in fact.
The foreign-backed capitalism that now looms over London in just the way foreign-backed Communism loomed over Soviet-era Poland. And about as welcome.

So that’s why it’s called a court

WELL done, Andy Murray. Even if he couldn’t quite finish the job against arguably the best player the world has seen, he did enough to prove that the country that invented tennis and still hosts its premier tournament isn’t always and inevitably useless at it.
But if you ever wanted to know why Britain lags behind at the sport it loves so obsessively for a fortnight every year, a look up at the toffs’ box during Murray’s semi-final would have provided a clue.
Enjoying the best seats in the house, and the deference of those around them, were one prince, one princess, a duke, two duchesses, a viscount, a viscountess, three ladies, a lord, three knights and an excellency. And you thought this was a democracy.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Shocked, shocked to find greed among bankers

A WONDERFUL moment in that great movie Casablanca is when the police chief, played by Claude Rains, is ordered to close down Rick’s café. The chief walks into Rick’s, where he is a regular punter, and declares himself “shocked, shocked to find gambling in this establishment”.
It must be in much the same way that chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England chief Mervyn King have been shocked by the “culture” of bankers who manipulate interest rates for their own advantage.
There is, this time, some justice in the government’s repeated refrain that the previous government is to blame. It is at least partly the fault of Gordon Brown, when he was chancellor, that the big "casino” banks were freed from proper regulation. Though I didn’t notice the Tories hurrying to put that
right when they came to power in 2010.
And the “culture” dates back at least to the nasty, greed-is-good, loadsamoney Thatcherite 1980s.
There is a delicious irony too in a prime minister born into a rich family of stockbrokers accusing Brown of being too soft on bankers. Conservatives, to all intents and purposes, accusing an allegedly
Labour government of not being socialist enough.
I shall leave it to others better qualified than I am to try to explain exactly what Barclays, and probably others, have been up to. How exactly they have been ripping all the rest of us off.
The fact that it’s hard to understand, that it is made deliberately complicated, is part of how they’ve managed to get away with it for so long. Whatever “it” is exactly.
I’m not qualified to know whether “it” is actually illegal, though it seems pretty clear that it should have been. And if not actually illegal, then it was surely immoral, coercing millions of ordinary folk into funding the traders’ champagne lifestyles.
But setting aside the obscurities and complexities of the present issue, there are a couple of wider points worth making about banking.
The first is that the very word “banker” has become a dirty word.Which is rough on those who run high-street branches and have done nothing to bring their business into disrepute.
The nice people at my local Britannia branch have no more in common with Bob Diamond or Fred Goodwin than I have with Rupert Murdoch.
The second point I want to make is about those obscene “bonuses” we keep hearing about.
I wouldn’t mind graciously waiving a “bonus” payment this year if I’d trousered £28.5million last year – on top of a salary already several times what the entire staff of a busy corner branch takes home.
If the top brass didn’t get their fabulous riches, we’re told, they’d leave the firm, and the country, and take their precious talents elsewhere.
It sounds a bit like blackmail.
It also sounds like a claim – or threat – to which there ought to be a simple response. One word should be enough.


SO Spain really are a class above the rest, then. Among the next best, the differences aren’t really that huge.
Going out in the quarter-finals by the slenderest of margins in the lottery of a spot-kick shoot-out is exactly par for England at major tournaments. Those they qualify for at all.
To do it with a goalless draw against the eventual finalists isn’t that bad really, is it?
Before Euro 2012 kicked off, and for most of its course, the orthodox opinion was that it was really between Spain and Germany.
In the event Italy, having struggled to a stalemate with England, put Germany to the sword. Until they were awarded a penalty too late to make a difference, the Germans came no closer to breaching the Italian defence than England had – perhaps not as close.
With a fully fired-up striker on board, England might have beaten Italy at what used to be their own counter-attacking game.
It has been traditional, however, for England to take two useless things to the big competitions. Excessive expectation and Wayne Rooney.
This time at least the expectation was dropped. Except that, weirdly, the very lack of expectation was built up as grounds for over-optimism.
Under Fabio Capello England suffered a toxic combination of indiscipline, inter-necine strife and apparent unconcern. In a short time, Roy Hodgson turned all that to sound organisation, togetherness
and commitment.
If he made a mistake it was in trusting too much to Rooney.
We all know Rooney, at his best, is an irresistible talent. Unfortunately, his last good game for England was in 2004. Statistically, they are better without him. He is no Cristiano Ronaldo or Andrea Pirlo.
But if Rooney’s inclusion was a mistake, it was one almost everyone in football would have made.
With what he had available – and by my count, nine players who would have made his squad were absent hurt – Hodgson did well enough. Certainly if your starting point is the abject embarrassment of the last World Cup.
If he could have cured the old psychological complex that afflicts English players in the shoot-out – one win in seven attempts is the worst record in world football – we might even have had some cause to celebrate. Until we met Spain, anyway.