2012 in review: The New Statesman . . . on sport

From the Olympics to facing Shane Warne, the best NS reporting on all things sportive.

Welcome to the second instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up of foreign reporting, is here.)

Today we're looking back at incredible year for sport, dominated by the highs of the London Olympics - but also host to the low of Lance Armstrong's disgrace. Here are a selection of the best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

What it's like to face Shane Warne

This year, cricketer-turned-author Ed Smith joined the NS as a columnist, writing the weekly "Left Field" page at the back of the magazine. Ed brought a unique perspective to top-level sport, having played for England himself. Here, he writes about what it is like to play against Shane Warne:

Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket. Sport was the medium but the substance was drama. He turned cricket into a show and appointed himself the leading man. It went deeper: he projected an aura of certainty that he was also writing the scripts. He united three forms of psychological dominance: one part circus master, one part chess wizard, one part Hollywood star. That left you, the batsman, to choose between being a clown, a pawn or a walk-on part. Many – most – acquiesced.

The Olympics changed what it means to be a winner

As the Olympic afterglow receded, as many wondered if the Olympics had given us a new way of looking at Britishness, Ed Smith argued that they had also given us a new template for being a winner:

These Games have shown how the image of “a sporting champion” has changed. Twenty-five years ago, in line with the worst strands of Thatcherism, the image of being a winner was aggressive individualism. It was assumed that John McEnroe-style outbursts would become the norm, because “nice guys finish last”. Not so long ago, a leading sportswriter chastised Colin Jackson for congratulating his friend and rival Mark McCoy for winning a gold medal.

That is absurd. These Games have proved that sportsmen do not gain any competitive advantage by losing their dignity or forgetting their friendships. Usain Bolt talks about Yohan Blake, his fellow Jamaican who won a silver medal behind Bolt in the 100 metres, like a younger brother, thanking him for pushing him hard. Farah was thrilled that his training partner, the American Galen Rupp, won silver. As we have learned from the rivalry of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the greatest rivalries are underpinned by respect.

Plus, Ralph Steadman drew us this cartoon of Danny Boyle:

Roger Federer: Why must our sporting idols be nice?

Not everyone was on board with the new collaborative spirit. In a piece which angered a thousands fanboys, Cameron Sharpe asked whether putting Federer on a pedestal was constraining him.

Closer to home, the freedom afforded football figures like Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez after being written off as morally bankrupt at various stages of their careers, has actually been beneficial. After all, it is hard enough being a world class sportsman without having to be everyone’s favourite personality too.

Lance Armstrong's fall from grace

After many years of denials, Lance Armstrong this year gave up trying to contest doping charges against him. The Secret Race, by Tyler Hamilton (reviewed here by Gary Imlach) may have helped changed his mind. As Imlach writes, the fellow cyclist recounts:

... a cloak-and-dagger, syringe-and-cellphone existence. Coded text messages lead to hotel room appointments for blood transfusions. Drugs are handed out to favoured riders on the US Postal Service team in paper lunch bags. Soy milk cartons in the fridge hide blood bags. Armstrong’s handyman allegedly follows the Tour de France by motorbike, delivering the blood-booster erythropoietin (EPO) on demand.

Hunter Davies: My TV is possessed by silly possession stats

Davies writes "The Fan", a backpages column devoted to the joys and tribulations of following football. In one of his funniest columns of the year, he fixes his telly - only to find he can now see the possession statistics - the most useless of all sporting numbers.

England 90 per cent possession, San Marino 10 per cent – yet the half time score is 0-0. How can that be, if England have dominated? Because they are useless bastards. Our tortoise could lead the line better. (I have just made that stat up. As I write, that game hasn’t happened, but I bet it will be roughly that.)

Football's dark side

First mention here must go to Simon Kuper, the FT's sportswriter, who reviewed Raymond Domenech's memoir. He found the former French manager unusually indiscreet:

His bizarre new memoir, Tout seul (“all alone”), is his attempt to explain how things got so bad. It’s unlike any other football memoir, often unintentionally hilarious and filled with character assassinations of almost every major French player of his era, from Anelka to Zinedine Zidane.

Domenech claims he could only have written it with two years’ distance; one hardly dares imagine what he would have written in the heat of the moment. It’s a story of modern France and modern football. Above all, it works as a business book in reverse: a study in how not to manage people.

Here on the website, NS blogger Juliet Jacques looked at another largely unspoken issue in football: depression. Her interview with Darren Eadie was insightful and poignant:

“I’m not looking for sympathy, but there’s this media-led perception that footballers are all egotistical meatheads,” says Eadie. “There are some bad eggs, but we’re mostly down to earth people who care about our families.” He hopes that the retreat, which will allow people to keep “one foot in football, and one outside” will help loved ones to cope as much as the players themselves – and that it can be the start of a significant cultural change.

Finally, here is football approached from two other unusual angles: a contemplation of the impact Jewish players have had on the game and a blog on the rise and fall of the great British football comic

The Olympics. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide