Champion of Champions

Review of the Year 2015 Part 1

Ashton Eaton Moscow 2013Ledecky Kathleen 2015Novak Djokovic (18886846361)Shiro, Rick, Kohei Uchimura

It’s time to hand out some gongs. The nominees for Olympian of the Year are as follows (clockwise, from bottom left):

Novak Djokovic, who won three Grand Slam titles, including his fifth Australian Open and his third Wimbledon;

Ashton Eaton, who broke his own world decathlon record while winning his third global gold medal;

Katie Ledecky, who won five world swimming gold medals, including an unprecedented sweep of the distance freestyle events;

Kohei Uchimura, who won his sixth world all-around gymnastics title and led Japan to the team title for the first time.

But before I announce the result, here are the award winners from the other categories:

Team of the Year

New Zealand won the Rugby World Cup, Spain won EuroBasket and Great Britain won the Davis Cup. They were all strong contenders. But the prize must go to the Czech Fed Cup team, which dramatically defeated Russia to claim its fourth title in just five years.

Special mention must be made of Petra Kvitova who has consistently turned out to play. This time, she tempted Maria Sharapova to appear for Russia but the Czechs still won.

Young Athlete of the Year

The United States has mined some bright talents which promise future gold. Candace Hill won two world youth gold medals and became the youngest female sprinter to run 100m in 11 seconds. At the World Cycling Championships, Chloe Dygert won the junior double of time trial and road race. But the award goes to Russia’s Yana Kudryavtseva.

Rhythmic gymnast Kudryavtseva won four golds at the European Championships, four at the European Games and five at the World Championships, all before she turned 18.

Paralympian of the Year

Markus Rehm long jumped an astonishing 8.40m, which would have won an Olympic medal. Daniel Dias swam his way to eight golds at the Parapan Games and seven at the world championships. Wheelchair fencer, Beatrice Vio of Italy, was unbeaten all year.

It is difficult to compare the extraordinary world record of Rehm with the multi-medal-winning exploits of the Brazilian, Dias. But, leaving aside all of the arguments about the advantage given by his prosthetic, Rehm’s victory margin speaks for itself – the second placed athlete scored 7.26m. Markus Rehm of Germany is the Paralympian of the Year.

Country of the Year

I couldn’t help noticing that two Americans made the final shortlist for Olympian of the Year and two others, Serena Williams and Simone Biles, narrowly missed out. And the US women’s football team won the World Cup. But with fewer athletics and swimming medals than usual, it has been an average year for Team USA by its own high standards.

Russia did well across several sports but is disqualified from the award due to its doping scandal. Kenya is less contaminated and had a great year but athletics is its only sport.

County of the Year is New Zealand. It took home the Rugby World Cup, five gold medals in rowing, and two apiece in canoeing and cycling. It finished the year with a silver for its women in World League hockey. Its population is 4.5 million people, and a lot of sheep.

Olympian of the Year

And the winner is…Katie Ledecky. Again, it is hard to compare her series of victories with the incredible one-off performance of Ashton Eaton. However, although multiple medals and world records are easier to achieve in swimming, the range of distances that Ledecky covers is unique, and so she wins, by a narrower margin than most of her races.

Djokovic and Uchimara both had an outstanding year, not for the first time, and perhaps are victims of their own success. There is a sense that even they believe they are capable of achieving even more. Katie Ledecky’s year, on the other hand, is simply unimprovable.

Congratulations, Katie Ledecky!

Ledecky Kathleen 2015

Next week: I review the highs and lows of a tumultuous 2015 for the world of sport


Games Without Frontiers

The countries which lead in egg-and-spoon, three-legged and pantomime horse races

Egg-and-Spoon Race (Barratt's Photo Press)

Almost all of the top Jamaican sprinters started their careers at Champs, the Jamaican Schools Championships. To a casual observer, it looks a lot like a school sports day and this is no coincidence. It comes from the same egg-and-spoon and sack racing heritage.

There are no eggs at Champs but they form part of the staple diet at Jamaican primary schools. World Indoor Champion, Juliet Campbell, developed a love for track and field while precariously carrying an egg across the finish line. In Jamaica, the menu is often varied, and so a lime is substituted instead, as the foodstuff to be kept finely balanced.

Like so many sports, egg-and-spoon races were spread across the world by the British Empire. From England (above), they found their way to Australia, the West Indies and South Asia. And like the egg, the fragile tradition has remained intact because of subtle adaptations to circumstances. In India, a lemon is carried on a spoon held in the mouth.

Four Legs Good, Three Legs Better

Great Britain leads the world in many unorthodox events, such as running a marathon dressed a pantomime horse. And, yes it has held onto the world record, which was set in 2012, when brothers Bill and Tom Casserley cantered along the streets of London.

In the three-legged race, other countries are a step ahead. The women’s 50m record is held by East Germany, which turned even the most fun contest into a brutal expression of state power. At least it completed the race in the usual way, using two sprinters with legs tied together, rather than one with odd side effects from human growth hormone.

The men’s record for the 100 yeards is held by a Olympic champion, Harry Hillman of the United States, with Lawson Robertson. Their time of 11 seconds was set in 1909.

Sally Pearson Daegu 2011-2

A more recent Olympic gold medallist, Sally Pearson (above), sought to get her name into the record books in 2013. The Australian hurdler tried to break the 100m record for the egg-and-spoon race. She took the attempt almost too seriously, insisting that a 50m track be extended so that she would not lose any precious seconds turning round.

The previous best, held by serial record breaker Asrita Furman, was 19.39 seconds but Pearson finished in 16.59 seconds. She didn’t just smash the record – she scrambled it.

Green and Golden Eggs

Great Britain dominates the longer egg-and-spoon races but Australia is mounting a challenge there too. Dale Lyons holds the marathon record but Phil Rorke, the Aussie who holds the mile record, tried to take it from his British rival. He made two attempts in 2014 but dropped the egg twice, and so he failed to claim the egg-and-spoon Ashes.

This is a surprise. Great Britain invented many sports but has been overtaken in most, by Jamaica in sprinting, India in cricket, and Australia in another egg-shaped pursuit.

On the other hand, Great Britain is the land of cheese rolling, bog snorkelling and welly wanging. It remains tough to beat in egg-and-spoon races and pantomime horse racing too. Nobody else, not even those wacky Australians, can quite match it for eccentricity.

Next week: Why tiny Latvia is able to slide so successfully in luge and skeleton events


How Being Sued Can Save You Money

James Medhurst is an employment law expert and a professional cynic

Review of the week: 14 – 20 December 2015

Eva Carneiro1

Special No More: Jose Mourinho Leaves Chelsea

An Employment Tribunal claim falling through the letterbox is a disheartening moment for any business. Chelsea surely felt the same when former team doctor, Eva Carneiro (above left), started her proceedings. But when its lawyers reviewed the situation, their glum faces would have been transformed, as a gleam in the eye grew slowly into a smile.

This was what Homer Simpson described as a “crisitunity“. Far from damaging Chelsea’s season, Dr Carneiro’s lawsuit was something which could revive it, like a magic sponge.

For Chelsea was ailing. It was afflicted, from top to bottom, by a virus and there was an autoimmune failure. The players behaved like white blood cells but failed to distinguish the disease from the tissue around it, being as willing to harm the club as the manager.

There was only one possibility which remained – to cut out the source of the infection.

Net Profit

Sacking Mourinho would be expensive – his annual salary was £7.5 million. This would have worried Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, who didn’t get as rich as he is today without counting the pennies. The patient would need a cheaper method of treatment.

And this is where those sneaky lawyers come in. Gross misconduct is the friend of the cost-conscious employer. If Mourinho had committed a dismissible offence, he could be sacked without a payoff. A common method is to search through an employee’s internet history, in the hope that he has been looking at pornography. Courts usually allow this.

This might not have worked for Mourinho, who probably got his kicks elsewhere, so Dr Carneiro’s allegations were timed with surgical precision. Now nobody had to trudge through thousands of webpages of stifling, yet strangely arousing, defensive tactics.

Mourinho departed and his payoff was almost certainly reduced. The club’s lawyers played a solid game, which is more than can be said for its players. As for Dr Carneiro, she apparently wants her job back – it would be the least that Abramovich could do.

2015 UEFA Super Cup 82

Club World Cup

The Club World Cup takes three years to win. A good place in a domestic league must be followed by a continental title, and this form must be maintained until December of the next season. It is a trophy that a two-season wonder like Mourinho is never likely to get.

This year, Barcelona played River Plate of Argentina in the final and Barcelona won 3-0. Lionel Messi scored first to equal the record of 5 goals in the history of the tournament.

Messi had achieved his feat over 5 matches but Luis Suarez (above) hoped to get there quicker, having scored a hat-trick in his first game, in the previous round. He scored two more goals at his second bite of the cherry, to take a huge chunk out of Messi’s record.

Water Polo and Handball

Japan’s men won the Asian Water Polo Championships to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 32 years. In the women’s event, it was China which qualified for Rio.

In women’s handball, the Netherlands were the surprise package, reaching the final of the world championship. Order was restored in the final, where it lost to European and Olympic champions, Norway. The Norwegians will once again be the favourites in Rio.

Next week: I start my review of 2015 and hand out awards to the stars of the the year

The Genetics of Basketball Part 4

Bradner Gardens Park 20

I know what you are thinking. If you have read the last three posts in this series, you may believe that I am some sort of genetic denialist. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, I am confident that genes are extremely important in shaping ability in all sports, especially basketball. They explain much of the variation between individual players in a country. However, genes have much less impact on the differences between countries.

This counter-intuitive conclusion is not just restricted to sport but reflects an academic consensus about a wide range of traits. It is certainly James Flynn’s conclusion about IQ.

How can this paradox be explained?

One reason is that humans are not very genetically diverse in the first place, much less genetically diverse than chimpanzees. What little diversity there is must have mostly arisen when we were all living together in Africa. We only started to spread out about 60,000 years ago and we have been separated for just 1% of our evolutionary history.

And Flynn offers another answer, which he explores in a joint paper with the economist, William Dickens. In explaining a similar pattern in the genetics of IQ, Dickens and Flynn use an analogy which is particularly helpful for our purposes, the analogy of basketball.

Dickens and Flynn have observed the huge increase in American basketball ability over time, which I discussed last week. They attribute this improvement to more television coverage, leading to more pickup games, and a proliferation of basketball hoops (above).

But not everybody is equally enthusiastic. Some players shine in these informal games, usually the taller ones, and become keen to play more. The shorter players often become frustrated and discouraged. Those with a genetic advantage end up practising more and develop a more favourable environment as well. Genes and environment work together.

Chris Paul (2)

The same applies to formal basketball training. The best opportunities to receive high quality coaching and acquire new skills come only if selected by a school or club. Once again, those players who already have an advantage will be able to increase it further.

It is possible for a relatively short player to make it. Chris Paul (above) won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, despite being one of the shortest competitors at both Games, at 6 foot. But Paul was lucky. He made the team as a 4 foot 1 eight-year-old because his coach could see his talent. If he had been overlooked, it would have been harder to learn new tricks, and his skills would have become as short as his stature.

What about countries?

The equivalent for countries would be if taller countries like the Netherlands invested more resources in basketball, because they know they are more likely to succeed, while shorter countries like Spain invested less. But this does not happen, or at least not yet.

Instead, the Spanish are far more interested in basketball than the Dutch, and we have the topsy-turvy situation where Southern European countries perform far better than Northern European ones, despite Northerners having a substantial genetic advantage.

In a world where scientific talent identification is becoming increasingly common, this could change, and a more calculated approach might emerge. But talk of nations taking full advantage of their population’s genetic gifts is, for the moment, rather premature.

Next week: For Christmas, I examine less serious sports, such as the egg and spoon race

The African Takeover of Europe

Review of the week: 7 – 13 December 2015

Sifan Hassan Prague 2015

European Cross Country Championships

It has been a packed year for Sifan Hassan. She has squeezed in 1500m gold at the European Indoor Championships in March (above), bronze in the same event at the Outdoor Worlds in August, and tied it up with a cross country win at the weekend.

In any other year, she would easily have been Dutch Sportswoman of the Year but her achievements were overshadowed by that of world 200m champion, Dafne Schippers.

The men’s race was won by Ali Kaya of Turkey and Alemayehu Bezabeh of Spain was in second place. And there the controversy begins, because Kaya was born in Turkey and Bezebah in Ethiopia. They are part of a growing trend of African athletes representing countries without having a real connection, first in the Middle East and now in Europe.

Hassan too, was born in Ethiopia but has legitimate reasons to run for the Netherlands, having moved there as a refugee at the age of 15. Nevertheless, she was old enough that she spent her childhood living at altitude, and would have reaped many of the benefits.

And even more alarming for Bezebah than his defection to Spain is his doping history. In 2010, he was caught carrying a bag of his own blood and was banned for two years. It is another reminder of the challenges facing athletics, as it enters the 2016 Olympic year.

Carla Rebecchi

U23 Africa Cup of Nations Football

Africans also won in Africa. Nigeria followed up its global U17 title by beating Algeria in the final. The tournament served as an Olympic qualifier and both finalists will go to Rio, along with South Africa, which beats hosts Senegal on penalties for the remaining place.

It was a frustrating performance for the Senegal team, which had a penalty saved by the South African goalkeeper in normal time, and then another three during the shootout.

Women’s World League Hockey

Argentina took its first World League title at home in Rosario. It defeated the defending champions, the Netherlands, in the quarter-finals, and thrashed surprise package New Zealand 5-1 in the final. Captain Carla Rebecchi (above) shed tears of pride at the result.

New Zealand’s women have never won an Olympic medal and will hope for a first in Rio.

Bowling and Swimming

At the women’s world championships in ten pin bowling, it was a case of the new versus the old powers . South Korea won the singles title through Jeon Eunhee, and Singapore emerged as a threat to reach the final of the team competition. But the traditional force of the United States remains strong, and it claimed the victory over its latest challenger.

Team USA had an even more convincing result in the Duel in the Pool, where it trounced the European All Stars, which had come so close to winning two years ago. But Europe should be far more worried that it cannot even win its own continental championships.

Next week: The World Women’s Handball Champs and the Club World Cup in football

The Genetics of Basketball Part 3

Exam Slams and Slam Dunks

Joe Fortenberry

Academic papers on genetics rarely cite Vines as evidence, which is a pity because there is one Vine, produced by the Olympic Games, which is very revealing indeed. It shows an extraordinary difference in speed between basketball played in 1936, and that of 2012.

And then there is dunking. Joe Fortenberry (above), a member of the US team of 1936, is sometimes credited as the inventor of the slam dunk. This might not be correct – there are earlier claims – but, even if he was, he used it sparingly, as though it was a trick shot.

But it would get worse for the slam dunk. It would be banned from college basketball for 10 years in the 1960s and 70s. What is now a routine play was once highly controversial.

Rules Changes and Changeable Weather

Scorelines have improved over the years, helped in part by innovations like the 3-point line, but more slowly than might be thought. Players did not originally have the skills to take advantage, and expectations have now been thrown even further by Stephen Curry.

Basketball players have simply got better and better, in every single aspect of the game.

The US won that 1936 Olympic final, by a feeble 19 points to 8. The match took place outside, in pouring rain, which didn’t help. But the enormous increase in scores since then should be credited, more deservedly, to overhead passes than to a roof overhead.

Yao Ming (3048979621)

See also China. Yao Ming (above) undeniably knew how to dunk, but this was not always the case for his compatriots. There too, the manoeuvre had been viewed with suspicion.

Communism probably played a part in the disdain for individual brilliance but it cannot be a complete explanation. China needed to work through the same slam dunk anxiety which had afflicted the United States – it was just decades behind in beating the phobia.

There is little doubt that the China of 2012 would have thrashed the United States of 1936. So, if the spring-loaded shoe had been on the other foot, and China had improved first, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that it would have become a world beater.

Intelligence Testing

IQ tells a surprisingly similar story. Intelligence researcher James Flynn has discovered that, in the West, over the last 115 years, IQ scores have increased by nearly 30 points.

Flynn’s point is that historical forces have a major effect on intelligence, even when the gene pool remains constant. Therefore, where IQ differences exist between groups, in different parts of the world, they will be better understood by history than by genetics.

The same reasoning applies to basketball. China has always lagged behind the United States, and it is tempting to attribute this relative failure to fixed biological factors like height. However, many of the claims about short Chinese players turn out to be myths.

Students have learned to study more, under cultural pressure, and have benefited from technical changes, such as the development of computers. Equally, basketball players have been training harder and have been learning new tricks. China has now overtaken the United States when it comes to IQ, and it might one day do the same in basketball.

Next week: Flynn’s explanation of the IQ rise, and the amazing parallels with basketball

Into the Warm

Review of the week: 30 November – 6 December 2015

Sarah Sjöström 2013-10-22 001

Winter has truly begun, in the more northerly parts of the world at least, and many sports have started their seasonal break. But the action continues in sunnier climes.

European Short Course Swimming Championships

In Israel, Sarah Sjoestroem of Sweden (above) won three gold medals, to add to her two at the World Championships earlier in the year, and to cap a week in which she won the Bragdguldet, a prestigious award for the year’s most significant sporting achievement.

Hungary topped the medal table by a huge margin. Katinka Hosszu won 6 of its 11 golds and Laszlo Cseh won 3. Finland’s Jenna Laukannen won 2 surprising breaststroke golds.

Men’s World League Hockey

In India, the host nation had a hot streak to finish with a bronze medal. A first Olympic medal since 1980 remains unlikely for the 8-times champions but it could still happen.

Overall victory went to Australia, which recovered from a defeat by Great Britain in the pool matches to beat Belgium in the final. Belgium has waited even longer than India for an Olympic hockey medal. If it manages to claim one in Rio, it will be the first since 1920.

Xx1111 - Daniel Fitzgibbon sailing - 3b - 2011 ISAF Sailing World Cup action photo

Para World Sailing Championships

The sun also shone on the Australians on home water in Melbourne, and they had the wind behind them too. Daniel Fitzgibbon (above) won the mixed SKUD19 class with Liesl Tesch, with one day to spare. In the Sonar event, Australia lost to Great Britain by  a single point, after unsuccessfully appealing a jury decision from earlier in the week.

Wheelchair Tennis Masters

The Masters venue had also hosted wheelchair tennis at the London 2012 Paralympics, but fortunately it was now indoors instead of outdoors, as Storm Desmond hit the city.

Jiske Griffioen won the women’s event to maintain the almost perfect Dutch record, and Joachim Gerard of Belgium surprised triple champion Shingo Kuneida of Japan, to steal the men’s title. David Wagner of the United States claimed an 8th victory in quad tennis.

Pan American Surfing Games

Back in the snug cosiness of the Southern Hemisphere, surfers hit the beaches of Peru.

Contrary to the claims of Polynesians, especially in Hawaii, many Peruvians argue that surfing was invented in their country, and that it then spread westwards Kon-Tiki style.

If these Games are considered to be a kind of State of Origin contest, we might have to start believing the claims. Peru finished first in 10 of the 12 events and two Peruvians, Alonso Correa and Anali Gomez, won the prestigious men’s and women’s open titles.

Next week: Women’s hockey, bowling, European cross country and the Duel in the Pool

The Genetics of Basketball Part 2

The Rabbit and the Elephant

Paul Gasol high five with Stryde at the end of the Chicago Bulls game (cropped)

Speculation, speculation, speculation: This is what characterises most genetic theories about group differences in sport. Such theories are typically speculative in three ways.

Firstly, they assume that any observed physical difference must have a genetic origin. For example, just because Kenyan runners have thinner ankles, it does not follow that genes for thin ankles are more common among Kenyans. It might be that they eat less.

Secondly, they assume that the differences matter. The best evidence that thin ankles help distance runners is that Kenyans run well, but this is a circular argument. Dutch speed skaters wear orange but the colour of the body suits is not why they are so fast.

The third and final assumption is that economic factors are of little or no significance, if they are acknowledged at all. A few extra millimetres of ankle fat, on an athlete, is often given just as much weight as the gluttonous expansion of the Rift Valley running camps.

North v South

The easiest way to rise above such speculations is to enlist the help of some basketball players. There is overwhelming evidence that being tall is an advantage in the sport, and so the second of the assumptions disintegrates, as though dropped from a great height.

The first assumption also falls away because Dutch people are, on average,  three inches taller than Italians. The height differences between Northern and Southern Europeans are, to a large extent, down to genes, as recent research has convincingly demonstrated.

Therefore, Northern European nations should be better at basketball, and NBA star Pau Gasol of Spain (above), should be an exception, unless culture trumps the role of genes.


But Spain, France and Italy are consistently the top Western European countries. Even Greece, with two thirds of the population of the Netherlands, has won the EuroBasket twice. Although 7-footers like Gasol are rarer, there are still plenty of them, boosted by their passion for the sport. Their rivals in less enthusiastic countries have less success.

Germany has performed moderately well, although less well than Greece, while Dutch basketball has never really taken off. The Scandinavian countries are the most hopeless of all. Despite their best efforts (above right), no Danish player has ever appeared in the NBA. One Norwegian has done so but Norway is yet to even qualify for the EuroBasket.

Never Forget the Elephant

Genetic speculators enjoy asking what would happen if historical and economic factors were removed. Would small genetic differences result in different patterns of success?

The speculators are right. They would. If genes are symbolised by a fast-breeding rabbit, pushing a basketball around a court, the rabbit would be large enough to make it move.

But the elephant in the room is culture and should not be ignored. Once it has lumbered onto the court, it can knock the ball in whatever direction takes its fancy, and the rabbit along with it. However quickly it breeds, the rabbit will never have the size to push back.

Eliminating the first two assumptions makes it possible to seriously examine the third. Even with the certainty that the rabbit is not, like Harvey, a figment of the imagination, it must then be tested against the elephantine power of history, economics and culture.

Next week: Basketball and IQ – the surprising ways that they have changed over time

Britain Breezes and China Chimes

Review of the week: 23 – 29 November 2015

Eve Muirhead 2013

Davis Cup Final

Great Britain last won the Davis Cup in 1936 and Belgium last reached the final in 1904 so it was a historic weekend for both teams. Andy Murray won both his singles matches to complete a 100% record for the year, and he won the doubles with his brother Jamie.

But reports of a one or two man team are greatly exaggerated. Kyle Edmund came close to a huge shock when he took a two set lead against Belgium’s David Goffin. And James Ward’s victory against John Isner of the United States was crucial in reaching the final.

Curling and Sailing

While the Scottish brothers were winning their doubles match, their compatriots in Scotland’s curling team were playing in a European championship final against Russia. The rink led by Eve Muirhead (above) was defeated but still finished with a creditable silver medal. The men’s competition went to Sweden, beating Switzerland in the final.

Despite his name, Giles Scott is not Scottish, but he added to a remarkable weekend of British sport with victory in the Finn Gold Cup, the world championship for the oldest Olympic sailing class. He looks set to continue Sir Ben Ainslie’s legacy next year in Rio.

Professional Boxing

But expectations were dealt their most dramatic blow by Tyson Fury’s vanquishing of Wladimir Klitscho for the world heavyweight title, ending a decade of domination for the Ukrainian and his brother, Vitali. Fury is an impressive champion but he may not be  a popular one – he has some unpleasant views, and has been accused of homophobia.

Another British boxer, James DeGale, retained his IBF world super middleweight title, with victory over Lucian Bute. DeGale is an Olympic gold medallist, having won in 2008.

Lin Dan

Badminton and Trampoline

There were test events this week in canoe slalom, hockey and badminton, many with weak fields. China swept the badminton events and its double Olympic champion, Lin Dan, above, won the men’s singles. He will find it tougher at the Games themselves.

Removing a letter from Lin Dan produces Li Dan and she won the world championship in trampoline. Gao Li was victorious in the men’s competition, making a Chinese double.

Olympic champion, Rosie MacLennan of Canada finished out of the medals, in fourth. In Rio, she will hope to continue Canada’s record of consistently medalling in this event.

World Weightlifting Championships

China did not have a problem in Houston, where it topped the medal table. Two of its female lifters, Deng Wei and Xiang Yanmei, won three golds apiece. As with Scotland’s curlers, the main challenger was Russia, with six golds in the heavyweight categories.

North Korea was relatively disappointing with just four gold medals, but featured in the most emotional moment, as Rim Jong-sim took triple silver by competing with a serious injury, against medical advice. Her bravery is undeniable but there is a real question as to whether she had made her own choice or whether her coach had put pressure on her.

Last week, I discussed the North Korean regime, with hard work and doping as possible reasons for its success. This incident shows that even hard work can have a sinister side.

Next week: World League hockey, Pan American surfing, para sailing and swimming