Cycles of Hatred and Cycles of Love

Review of the week: 21 – 26 July 2015

Chris Froome TDF2013

Chris Froome was spat at and reportedly had urine thrown at him as he pedalled to his second victory the Tour de France. The British rider defied the small number of hostile spectators and was the King of the Mountains as well, the first rider to win both titles since Eddie Merckx in 1970. There were ten Britons in the race, the largest contingent for sixty years, who won three stages, including a shock triumph for Steve Cummings in the colours of the African-based team MTN-Qhubeka. But Germany finished as the top stage-winning nation for the third consecutive year – four of its six were claimed by the sprinter Andre Greipel. His rival, Peter Sagan of Slovakia, collected the green jersey for the fourth time but, just like last year, he managed to do it without taking a single stage.

It was also a successful Tour for Colombia, for whom Nairo Quintana finished second in the general classification and rode home in the white jersey for best young rider. At the BMX World Championships, his compatriot, Mariana Pajon (below) won the time trial and there were three cycling gold medals for the country at the Pan American Games. A nation’s strength in cycling is often influenced by urban planning policy and a reason for Colombia’s high performance seems to be Ciclovia, a tradition in which many roads are closed to cars every Sunday. Some of the locals take the opportunity to roller skate and Colombia also topped the medal table in roller sports at the Pan American Games.

Mariana Pajón

Usain Bolt brought a period of poor form to a dramatic end with victory in the 100m at the London Diamond League event. A new Jamaican talent, Elaine Thompson, made an impact by setting a meeting record in the 200m. At the Pan American Games, despite both events taking place at the same time, Rasheed Dwyer set a new Games record in the men’s 200m.  There was evidence that, if anything, Jamaica has too much strength in depth, as three of its sprinters changed nationality to compete for Bahrain instead. Jamaica had a good week in football too as it reached its first final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, losing 3-1 to Mexico, which was awarded the trophy for the seventh time.

But neither Colombia nor Jamaica had it all their own way. They were both eclipsed at the Pan American Games by their Canadian hosts. Canada won an unprecedented 78 gold medals in all, including eleven in cycling, to finish as the second best nation overall. Its track star, Andre De Grasse, completed a sprint double, relegating Dwyer to silver. Unlike Chris Froome, its athletes and cyclists received enthusiastic home support and those fans were rewarded with the chance to see their heroes standing on the podium.

Next week: World aquatics (diving, synchronised swimming, water polo) and archery

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Cycling in Eritrea Part 1

The Reluctant East African Distance Runner

Zersenay Tadese

It ought to come as a surprise that Eritrea’s only Olympic medal came in the 10,000m, a bronze won by Zerseny Tadese (above) in 2004. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Eritrea is similar to Ethiopia, the neighbour of which it had reluctantly been a part for more than forty years. However, its sporting history is quite different, having been an Italian colony for much longer, since the late nineteenth century. Influenced by Italy, it has developed a love of cycling, and races in the country (below) attract enthusiastic participation. During the 1960s, as Abebe Bikila was making his breakthrough for East African distance running, Eritreans formed the backbone of the Ethiopian cycling team.

Bicycle Race (8352530986)

Tadese himself dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist and of riding in the Tour de France. He won some local events but this was inadequate preparation for the longer races in Europe and so he accepted an offer to retrain as a runner, making good use of the endurance which he had already built up. He concluded that, coming from Eritrea, cycling was “not a realistic possibility” for him. At the time, the country lacked both the funds needed to buy equipment and coaching expertise. As with Azerbaijani wrestlers, passion and tradition count for little without the adequate resources to back them up.

There are two romantic myths about sport in Africa. One is that athletes emerge from the continent fully formed, with a “natural” talent for which cultivation is superfluous. The second is that poverty is a driver of success, an incentive that gives its competitors an edge. Tadese’s story reveals both of these myths for what they are. To be a cyclist, specialised training was a necessity and it proved impossible to obtain in impecunious Eritrea. One reason why poorer countries often succeed in running and fighting sports, like wrestling, is that they are forced to choose cheaper options in which to specialise. Ironically, specialisation is a good strategy for sports development and it is only in this crude economic sense that a lack of resources can unwittingly become an advantage.

Had Tadese been born ten years later, it might have been very different. There are now several professional cyclists from Eritrea, all born in the 1990s, and two of them have been competing in this year’s Tour de France. In order to properly understand what has changed, we have to explore the phenomenon that is the cycling team, MTN-Qhubeka.

Next week: How cycling administrators and a charity helped to transform African sport

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Review of the week: 13 – 20 July 2015

Zach Johnson

There was excitement when amateur golfer, Paul Dunne, shared the lead in the Open after the third round. Had he won, he would have received no prize money, in the year in which the reward for first place exceeded one million pounds for the first time. But there was no fairytale as he fell away on the final day and the Claret Jug went instead to Zach Johnson (above), who collected a second major following a three-way playoff.

The Pacific Games came to an end in Port Moresby, with the hosts, Papua New Guinea, heading the medal table. Its top performer was swimmer, Ryan Pini, who struck gold seven times, and the Games were so successful that a PNG bid for the Commonwealth Games is being seriously considered. In the week after Micronesia made worldwide headlines for its thumping defeats, there was better news for football in the region as Tahiti reached the final of the Beach Soccer World Cup, where it lost 5-3 to Portgual.

Daniel Dias and Dilma Rousseff

At the IPC World Swimming Championships, Daniel Dias of Brazil (above left) finished up with seven gold medals and is almost certain to be one of the home stars of the Rio Paralympics. The race to top the medal table was a poignant one between Russia and Ukraine. The training centre which has produced so many Ukrainian swimmers is in the Crimea, currently under Russian control, and Russian athletes have been demanding to use the facilities. This may have been a factor in Ukraine finishing behind its neighbour, but it refused to be defeated and was not far behind. Russia also dominated the World Fencing Championships in Moscow, although Italy parried back to claim second place.

At the Pan American Games in Toronto, there was no surprise in the diving competition where Mexico reigned supreme. Paola Espinosa cemented her position as the greatest ever Mexican at the Games by taking her total medals to thirteen, eight of them gold. She still has some way to go to catch the Brazilian swimmer, Thiago Pereira, who made history by reaching a staggering tally of 23, a record, having won his first back in 2003.

The most improved nation by a huge margin has been Canada which, like Papua New Guinea, has made the most of home advantage. Currently second in the medal table, it has performed well across all sports. Its only London 2012 gold was Rosie MacLennan in trampoline and she was also the champion in Toronto, as was her male counterpart, Keegan Soehn. Artistic gymnast Ellie Black won the most gold medals, three in all. The partisan crowd had a role to play in these triumphs but Canada is well aware that it is not enough on its own, having finished a lowly 27th place in the medal table at its home Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976. The other necessity is money and the country’s Own the Podium programme has given more than $11 million just to gymnastics in the last ten years. Unlike golfers, most Olympians are never likely to become millionaires – they don’t do it for that reason – so they need funding in order to achieve their dreams.

Next week: The conclusion of the Tour de France, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and BMX

Why is Micronesia So Bad at Football?

Sorry but We Prefer Baseball

Micronesia regions map

When the Micronesia football team was trounced 30-0 by Tahiti, then drubbed 38-0 by Fiji, and finally pummelled 46-0 by Vanuatu, its players would surely have been asking themselves why. To properly address that question, it is first necessary to distinguish the Federated States of Micronesia, the country which suffered that fate at the recent Pacific Games, from the wider Micronesia region (above), which incorporates a number of other nations, such as Palau, Nauru and Kiribati, and US territories, including Guam.

One obvious answer is that FS Micronesia is small but, at the Pacific Games, size is not much of an excuse. Tahiti and Vanuatu both have populations about two and half times as large but this is not enough to account for such huge winning margins. It is true that the team was inexperienced – many players had not been on an 11-a-side pitch before – but this is an explanation which begs a further explanation. Why are Micronesians less interested in developing their football skills than the people of Vanuatu (below)?

Beach Football (Imagicity 54)

There are three ways for sports to spread around the world. The first is imperialism – organised sport grew rapidly during the Age of Empire – which explains why cricket is popular in Australia, India and the West Indies, but not in Indonesia or Brazil. They can also move from one neighbour to another. The development of rugby union in France was aided by the proximity of British clubs to play against. Thirdly, immigration is often important factor, as when a returning migrant coached Lithuania to play basketball.

FS Micronesia did not set a new world record with their defeats. These were under-23 matches in an Olympic qualifying event and the biggest scoreline in a full international remains American Samoa’s 31-0 thrashing at the hands of Australia. But therein lies a clue to the significance of colonial history for them both. Like American Samoa is now, most countries in the Micronesia region were once administered by the United States. Many of them had earlier been in Japanese control and the two baseball-loving nations have shaped their sporting culture. US soldiers introduced baseball to Guam and Japan did the same for Palau. Baseball at the Pacific Games has been dominated by the teams from the Micronesia region and by American Samoa. Even tiny Palau, with a population of 18,000, has won a gold medal while FS Micronesia has picked up a couple of bronzes.

So it’s not that Micronesia is incapable of getting a team together and training it up to a sufficient calibre. It is just that it would rather do so in baseball than in football. Further confirmation is provided by what appears to be an exception. Nauru was administered by Australia instead of the US and it now has a decent side at Australian Rules Football.

But Micronesia has another problem which American Samoa does not have. It is (even more) geographically isolated which makes finding opponents difficult. Of the seven members of the United Nations which are not also represented in FIFA, five are in the Micronesia region and, once again, it is the exception which proves the rule. Guam has joined FIFA but chooses to play in the Asian qualifying competition for the World Cup because it is far closer to Japan than it is to New Zealand. And unlike the United States, which is warming to football partly because of immigration from Latin America, people are leaving Micronesia for larger countries. This might seem surprising to us. There is a certain appeal to an island idyll which even the grubby tentacles of FIFA cannot reach.

Next week: Why Eritrea wants to be a cycling nation even though it is better at running

Serena Gets a Slam and Micronesia Gets Slammed

Review of the week: 6 – 12 July 2015

Serena Williams winning Wimbledon Ladies' Singles 2012

Serena Williams slammed the door on her rivals as she took a sixth Wimbledon singles title and completed a second “Serena Slam” of four majors in a row. If she gets the same result at the US Open, she will achieve a Grand Slam by winning all four in a calendar year. Novak Djokovic became the men’s champion for the third time. While Serena will be expected to add to her four Olympic gold medals in 2016, Djokovic will be looking for a first, having just a solitary bronze to his name so far. In the girls’ singles, there was an all-Russian final, raising the possibility of a new generation of Russian female stars.

There was a dramatic finale to the US Women’s Open golf as Amy Yang of South Korea missed a straightforward putt on the last hole to gift the trophy to her compatriot, In Gee Chun. Six of the last eight Opens have now been won by South Koreans, who filled three of the top four places this year. But there will be more chance of medals for other countries at the Olympic Games in Rio, as the rules restrict each nation to four golfers.

An African cycling team, MTN-Qhubeka, made its Tour de France debut. It includes two Eritrean riders, one of whom, Daniel Teklehaimanot, wore the polka dot jersey after he took an early lead in the King of the Mountains classification. Switzerland showed its usual form at the Triathlon European Championships in Geneva, with a silver medal for Sven Riederer in the men’s event, mixed relay silver, and a fifth gold for Nicola Spirig in the women’s event. More of a surprise was the performance of France, for whom David Hauss was crowned men’s champion and played a key role in victory in the mixed relay.

One of the stars of the Pacific Games was swimmer, Lara Grangeon, of New Caledonia, who amassed an extraordinary 11 gold medals. Her tally still fell short of the 16 which she collected in 2011, including wins in every stroke. She now has 36 golds altogether. There are similarities between Grangeon and Pal Joensen of the Faroe Islands, who was discussed last week. Like Joensen, she has participated in the Olympics, not for her native islands but for France, of which New Caledonia is officially a part. Her swimming club in New Caledonia has often been ranked as being one of the top ten on French soil.

Fiji sevens team March 2014

Events at the Pacific Games do not always have world class fields but one sport where it certainly does is in rugby sevens, in which Fiji won double gold. Fiji has yet to win an Olympic medal but its men’s team (above) look like a good prospect to kick that record into touch when sevens joins the programme in Rio. It will be harder for its women who defeated a weakened Australia side. The Pearls can be expected to come back stronger next year and New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain will be tough opposition. There were also rugby scores in the football, unfortunately for Micronesia, who lost 30-0, 38-0 and 46-0 for a goal difference of minus 114 – a slam but not of the Serena kind.

Next week: Open golf, the Pan American Games, fencing and Paralympic swimming.

Wrestling in Azerbaijan Part 2

Both Azerbaijan and Armenia Refuse to Submit

Ilham Alijew and Donald Rumsfeld Aug 2004

When the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev (left), met US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (right), in 2004, it is likely that they talked about wrestling. Rumsfeld was an amateur wrestler as a student and, when wrestling was briefly dropped from the Olympic programme, he wrote a scathing article demanding that it be reinstated. This led to a curious alliance in which Rumsfeld joined forces with Vladimir Putin and even with Iran in order to further his campaign. It was a remarkable demonstration of the power of sporting diplomacy to change implacable enemies into, well, frenemies.

Unfortunately, the wheels of diplomacy became jammed during the recent European Games in Baku. The tensions between Azerbaijan and its neighbour Armenia have been simmering since 1994, when they fought over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region. There has been no formal peace treaty so the countries are technically still at war, and observance of the ceasefire has been far from perfect. The situation has now become so serious that, while drawing the qualifying rounds of the European Football Championships, UEFA has agreed to keep the two sides apart. Despite all this, there was an early success when Armenia was persuaded to send a team to the Games, an improvement on its absence from the Eurovision Song Contest, held in Baku in 2012.

Then the problems began. Many Armenian athletes chose not to join the delegation, including its two wrestling medallists from London 2012, Arsen Julfalakyan and Artur Aleksanyan, a decision which one source described as a boycott. The Azeri crowds showed little gratitude to those who did attend, booing the team during its march at the Opening Ceremony. It even whistled when a Ukrainian athlete, who is ethnically Armenian, received a silver medal from Ilham Aliyev. To be fair to Aliyev, however, he raised his hand to silence the jeers. The President is more diplomatic than his people.

Rovshan Bayramov AZE

The nationalist fervour of hosting a major event is not the most conducive atmosphere for political discussions. The Armenian wrestler Roman Amoyan was also loudly booed in a bronze medal match with Elman Mukhtarov of Azerbaijan. Negotiations are much more successful when they take place between leaders behind the scenes, as shown by a bout of Amoyan seven years earlier. When he fought with Rovshan Bayramov (above) of Azerbaijan at the semi-finals of the 2008 Olympics, the presidents of both countries were there in Beijing to watch them. Bayramov was the victor but both wrestlers won medals and, after the match, Aliyev shook hands with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan. Maybe there should be more sporting contests between the two after all.

Next week: The reasons why the Micronesian football team concedes so many goals.

Artificial Turf, Hot Sand and Icy Water

Review of the week: 29 June – 5 July 2015

Carli Lloyd USA vs Can Sep17

Carli Lloyd (above) is smiling because she has captained the United States to its third Women’s World Cup and has scored a hat-trick in the final. After a blistering goal fest, Japan was defeated 5-2, despite artificial turf which had previously been the subject of a petition. The Americans have won four gold medals at the Olympic Games and would be expected to add to that tally but, curiously, no nation has ever won Olympic gold the year after winning the World Cup, so there could yet be an opportunity for Germany or Japan. In Santiago, Argentina reached the final of Copa America for the 27th time in 44 tournaments but were beaten by Chile on penalties. The host country won the trophy for the first time, having lost four previous finals in 99 years of competing for it. Lionel Messi suffered his second loss and will be hoping that he does not have to wait as long.

Brazil has won more Olympic medals in beach volleyball than any other country, but disappointingly few of them have been gold, something which it hopes to put right next year on the familiar sands of Copacabana. It looks likely after a dominant performance at the World Championships in the Netherlands, where its women filled the podium and only silver from a Dutch pair prevented a similar clean sweep in the men’s event. A loser in his final in London, Alison Cerutti must be the favourite in Rio after taking the spoils with his new partner, Bruno Schmidt. In modern pentathlon, Lena Schoneborn, the 2008 Olympic champion, added a world title with victory in her home city of Berlin.

And finally, I could not resist discussing the Island Games, which took place in Jersey this week. The hosts finished first in the medal table but the Isle of Man was the top isle in cycling, despite Mark Cavendish and Peter Kennaugh preferring to ride in the Tour de France. In the swimming pool, the Faroe Islands proved to be the best archipelago with ten gold medals. Five of them were won by Pal Joensen, to add to his 22 golds in previous Games. He is a European silver medallist who has competed for Denmark at the Olympics and even has his own Tumblr page. No wonder he is also smiling (below).

Pál Joensen 2014

I don’t think that Joensen is a one off. There were other Faroese swimming medallists in Jersey and swimmers from the Faroe Islands have won thirteen Paralympic medals, an impressive total for a place with a population of less than 50,000. An explanation is perhaps provided by this tourist website, which reveals a passion for swimming all year round in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic. Brrr! On the other hand, having been in London, where Wimbledon had its hottest ever day, I am starting to see the appeal.

Next week: Wimbledon, US Women’s Open golf, the Tour, and the Pacific Games.

Wrestling in Azerbaijan Part 1

From Rock Art to Hard Cash

Salı Suleyman

The gentleman with the fetching moustache (above) is a key figure in Azerbaijan’s great wrestling tradition, which was summarised by its media during the recent European Games. His name was Sali Suleyman, he travelled the world during the early twentieth century, and he could reportedly tie iron rods into knots. The history of Azeri wrestling goes back at least 6,000 years – there is rock art which depicts the sport at the World Heritage site of Gobustan (below). The country is right to be proud of its achievements.

800px-Qobustan

Wrestling in Azerbaijan even owes something to its religious history. Like its neighbour Iran, the country’s history has been shaped by the idea of the Zoorkhaneh, or “house of strength”, a place where moral discipline is gained through physical training and taking part in athletic contests. The concept seems to have roots both in Shia Islam and in the ancient forms of worship which preceded it. In Azerbaijan, it is known as Zorkhana and dates back to the sixteenth century when the country was part of the Safavid Empire centred on Persia, the old name for Iran. Modern Iran still has a large Azeri population, including the weightlifter, and winner of two Olympic gold medals, Hossein Rezazadeh.

However, let’s not get too carried away the past. When Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, congratulated his country’s wrestling team back in March, he did not use the words “tradition” or “Zorkhana” but rather the words “efficient organisation” and “infrastructure”. History is worth nothing unless it is combined with modern methods. Indeed, Azerbaijan had a long period in which its wrestlers performed much less well than they do now. As Aliyev himself put it, “But if to recall the Soviet times, one can note that we did not have any major accomplishments in sports. Only in the period of independence, Azerbaijan has been able to achieve high results in the world arena”.

Even this assessment is overgenerous to his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev. The wrestling venue at the European Games is named after him, but only because he had a cult of personality and liked to have things named after him, not because he was particularly interested in sport. It is only under his son, and president of the National Olympic Committee, that successes such as seven wrestling medals at London 2012 have been achieved. And like the spectacle in Baku itself, they were made possible by spending money. Tradition is not the enemy of progress but only if they work together.

Next week: Grappling between Azerbaijan and Armenia, on and off the wrestling mat.